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  • Electoral Reform: Fact or Fiction?

    New Zealand and Italy's Experience with New Electoral Systems

    A Paper Presented for Workshop on Linking Institutions April 17th-18th

    Jeffrey S. Hamill.


  • Introduction

    There is a growing body of literature in comparative politics that advocates

    different electoral systems or the reform of electoral systems. The purpose of these

    studies is to help create stable democracies in new countries or to reinvigorate older,

    established democracies that are beset with problems credited to the electoral institutions.

    Scholars generally fall into one of two camps. There are those that favor the clear,

    efficient majoritarian system. Others favor a more inclusive, ideologically diverse,

    consensual or proportional system. As democracy has spread all over the globe, so have

    the calls for reform and arguments for one system or another. Some areas include the

    United States, Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe, as well as distant countries

    like New Zealand.

    These reformers or advocates base their arguments on earlier work that suggested

    that the impact of electoral institutions could be effectively measured and determined.

    Some would say that electoral systems functionally operate with an almost "law-like"

    regularity (Sartori, 1994). Reformers and advocates have used earlier studies to suggest

    that a range of issues are affected by electoral systems including voter and elite behavior

    as well as party systems. The trouble with these claims is that electoral systems produce

    different results in different settings.

    Some of these different results include majoritarian systems that produce multi-

    party systems and proportional systems that produce two party systems. Also, efforts at

    tinkering electoral systems or producing wholesale changes in electoral laws have

    produced mixed-results at best. This study will review the literature that debates the


  • merits of majoritarian versus proportional systems as well as the reformers' claims that

    reform in places like New Zealand, Italy, the United States, and Latin America would

    produce positive results. It is my contention that the reformers have overstated the

    improvements that would result from one system or another. This is due to the fact that

    any institution placed into a new context often lead to unexpected consequences that

    scholars have yet to explain. Evidence from New Zealand, Italy, and Eastern Europe, and

    Canada supports the claim that electoral systems can produce different outcomes in

    different settings. Efforts at reform, while well intentioned, overstate the impact electoral

    systems can have on a range of variables.

    Early Electoral System Work

    Before discussing the majoritarian/proportional advocates, it is important to

    understand the influence of early electoral systems work. Much of the work on the

    impact of electoral systems was inspired by the work of Duverger (1954). He identified

    two types of effects, mechanical and psychological. Mechanical effects refer to the

    impact of electoral systems on party systems, while psychological effects are the impact

    on voters, policy-makers, or party leaders1. Duverger's mechanical effects led to the

    identification of a law. This law stated, "the majority [plurality] single ballot majority

    system tends to party dualism" and "proportional representation tend to multipartism"2

    (Duverger, 1954). Electoral systems, therefore, have reductive effect on the number of

    1 These definitions would be challenged by later works (Rae, 1971). Rae suggested that there were "proximal" (or immediate) effects of electoral systems, which were limited to variables like proportionality and "distal" (or indirect) effects, which impacted the party system.


  • parties. Scholars have supported these conclusions with limited variation (Riker, 1982;

    Lijphart, 1984; Taagapera and Shugart, 1989; Sartori, 1994).

    Electoral Systems also have a "psychological" impact on voters, which then has

    an impact on the number of political parties. As Taagapera and Shugart (1989) point out

    the psychological effects of electoral systems on voters also have a reductive effect on the

    number of political parties. The literature suggests that a plurality or majoritarian system

    cause voters to vote "strategically". Strategic voting is when a voter consciously votes

    for a party or candidate that is not their first choice (Cox, 1997: pp. 12). A type of

    strategic voting is the "wasted vote". This type of vote is the psychological belief by a

    voter that a vote for a third party under most circumstances would be wasted. Voters

    may view the third party's chances of gaining seats as slim, or because of a general

    understanding of the disadvantages that third parties face against unfavorable electoral

    rules (Duverger, 1954; Rae, 1971; Cain, 1978; Downs, 1954; Cox, 1997). A classic, oft-

    cited example of this is Americans' collective understanding of their political system.

    Americans generally understand that a vote for a third party is wasted, because of the

    dominance of the two major political parties. This psychological effect is thought to e

    lessened under proportional systems. These theories would be used to extrapolate other

    benefits or deficiencies of proportional and majoritarian systems that the resulting

    advocates would use to argue their case.

    Majoritarian and Proportional Advocates

    2 To be fair, Duverger didn't label his propositions "laws", but propositions. Riker (1982) should be credited for calling it a "law". Since the propositions have been consistently referred to as "Duverger's


  • Two systems of democracy have been consistently recognized by political

    scientists, majoritarian and consensual style democracies (Lijphart, 1984. 1994). These

    two systems differ over the question, who governs (Lijphart, 1984)? While the simple

    answer to this question is the people, each system has their own conceptualization of

    what "the people" meant. Majoritarian systems favor a majority of the people (Lijphart,

    1984). For example a majority or plural vote (SMD) determines elections, and the

    majority party dominates legislatures. Any system that has a form of minority veto, or is

    subject to minority opinion is equal to minority rule according to majority advocates3.

    Under consensual systems, the answer is different, instead of a majority of the

    people; these systems seek to include as many different groups before constructing

    policies. For those who favor these systems, the more diverse opinions involved in the

    decision-making process the better (Lijphart, 1984)4.

    These two different electoral rules have a relationship with other electoral

    variables. This relationship can be summarized,

    "Electoral rules can be said to have two kinds of consequences: (1) the delineate the probabilities that particular political parties will gain representation in Parliament. (2) They influence the electoral strategies of both voters and political parties. Hence, they also constrain the both the representative and policy-making processes in a country and affect how citizens evaluate the performance of the democracy they live in This assumes a chain of causality running from institutions, party performance, and party system performance." (Anderson, 1998: pp. 573-5)

    Law" it is the term I will use in this paper. 3 The relation to Duverger's law here is apparent. Single member districts are supposed to systematically under-represent third parties, thereby manufacturing two party systems and one party majorities. 4 It should be noted that these systems of government represent "ideal types" and that rarely does a system fit neatly into one category or another. For example, Lijphart categorizes systems that are plural, majority-plural, and alternative vote systems as majoritarian. Systems that are list proportional or have a single transferable vote, are considered consensual systems. Lijphart also identifies the types of institutions and


  • The constraints described above influence the work of the advocates that will be

    explained below.

    Scholars make more precise arguments for or against majoritarian or consensual

    systems than just the normative conceptions of "the people" described earlier. They also

    make arguments for what each system is supposed to promote and provide for. Those

    that favor majoritarian systems, favor government accountability (Duverger, 1983.

    Lijphart, 1994. Powell, 2000). The argument follows that consolidated power in the

    hands isn't necessarily something to be feared. They hold that it is in fact desirable. The

    idea is that the electorate gets to choose between two different groups of officials through

    elections. From these elections, the winning group has a clear mandate from the people

    to act in their name. If the winning group doesn't fulfill these obligations, th