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.
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
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