Systems of Voting

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6324.htm)

The operation of a representative democracy, in its ability to reflect the will of the people, is affected by the voting system.  There are two main options: ‘first-past-the-post’ and proportional representation.

Electing a representative by the ‘first-past-the-post’ system (electing the candidate who gets the most votes in a constituency) gives local accountability – people have someone to take up issues on their behalf – but it doesn’t give balanced representation:

  • Voters in marginal constituencies or ‘swing states’ wield disproportionate power. For example, as reported by Quartz, Just 93 votes stopped Theresa May winning a majority in the British election.  These were in 8 marginal constituencies – but Jeremy Corbyn might have become Prime Minister if Labour had received 2,800 more votes in 8 other constituencies.
  • National policies might be tilted on a tactical basis specifically to influence marginal constituencies, or politicians might resort to ‘pork-barrel politics’ ( to win specific seats.
  • Other constituencies may be dominated by supporters of one party. A large majority in a constituency can effectively disenfranchise those whose preferences are different.
  • Constituency boundaries can be gerrymandered: manipulated to protect a party’s majority. For example Associated Press, in an article on 22 January 2018 entitled Pennsylvania court rules congressional map unconstitutional, noted that boundaries had been gerrymandered to give the Republican Party “13 of 18 seats in a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 5 to 4”.
  • Parties can be elected with workable majorities even though they have received much fewer than half of the total votes cast. For example, the BBC’s Full national scoreboard on 24 June 2005, reported that the Labour Party won 55% of the seats in the 2005 British election having received only 35.3% of the votes cast.  The voter turnout was 61.2%, so Labour’s votes only represented only 21.6% of the electorate – yet it had a comfortable overall majority in Parliament.
  • This relative ease of winning a large majority can result in stable and decisive governments which don’t have to concede anything to the opposition – but a government with a smaller majority is more likely to be defeated by members of its own party on contentious topics, as in an example reported in The Guardian on 14 December 2017: Tory Brexit rebels inflict major defeat on Theresa May.
  • It is difficult for new political parties to emerge. For example, the BBC report on the 2015 UK general election result showed that UKIP received 12.6% of the popular vote but gained only one seat in Parliament.

Proportional representation (voting for a party, each of which has a regional list of candidates) can lead to the emergence of numerous parties and a need to form coalitions.  The overall representation is superficially balanced in terms of votes cast, but not in terms of the distribution of power – so voters don’t get what they voted for:

  • Partners in coalition governments have to negotiate between themselves, so the resulting government policies will not align with any single party manifesto.
  • The voters don’t participate in coalition negotiations, which may be seen either as an additional refinement to widen a government’s acceptability or as a dilution of the authenticity of its mandate. Nobody is disenfranchised but nor does anyone get exactly what they voted for.
  • Coalitions tend to be unstable. An Economist article on Israel for example, The dysfunctional Jewish state, described how “all governments are unstable multi-party coalitions subject to perverse incentives that have more to do with politicians’ careers than with the wishes of the electorate at large”.
  • Small parties may wield disproportionate power. “Israel’s settlers in the West Bank have woven such tight alliances with various parties that they have made themselves effectively untouchable, even though they are only a tiny proportion of Israeli society”, for example.
  • On the other hand, new parties are able to emerge in a system of proportional representation – as in the case of Germany’s Green Parliamentary Group which held 63 seats in the 2016 German Bundestag, amounting to 10% of the total; it has participated in government.
  • Proportional representation within States or regions prevents gerrymandering, and allows the emergence of new political parties, without sacrificing people’s sense of their geographical area being represented within national government.
  • It also enables different points of view to be adopted on a more finally graduated basis. First-past-the-post tends to lead to polarisation and exaggerated swinging between opposites as one government undoes much of what its predecessor had achieved.

Modifications can be made to these options:

  • The number of parties in proportional representation can be reduced by having a minimum threshold for support. This gives less accurate representation but reduces the risk of unbalanced negotiations.
  • The ‘first-past-the-post’ system can be modified by introducing the ‘Alternative Vote’ or the ‘Single Transferable Vote’, which have the effect of making a coalition more likely to be needed in a system with three or more parties – as described in a BBC Q&A on 11 May 2010: Electoral reform and proportional representation.

No system of voting, however, can ensure that the aggregation of people’s choices is directly and accurately reflected in elections.

It is also possible to combine the options, in a system which has two levels of Parliament: if the lower house were elected on the basis of first-past-the-post, the upper house could be elected by proportional representation – a so-called secondary mandate.