Electoral systems

What are the different electoral systems and what are the effects of each or the reasons for choosing them?  

Here’s the theory. We the people need to make decisions about how our society is run. As it’s not practical to ask every person about every decision, we choose representatives to become the experts and make the decisions for us. Every so often we get a chance to change our collective minds and be represented by a different person who would make different decisions.

In our current system the representatives (or potential representatives) group together in parties, finding others with whom they generally agree and who they can therefore rely on to help them form policies about upcoming decisions and overarching approaches to political change.

How do we choose our representative?

It is important that everyone broadly feels that the process has been fair. That means that the person chosen should accurately represent the views of the group as a whole – the MP should be the person which most people want to represent them in Parliament. It also means that the average person should be able to understand how to cast their vote and how the MP was elected. Unfortunately it tends to be that the more accurate an election process is the harder it is to understand.

A fair process needs to balance accuracy and clarity.

What are the different ways of choosing a representative?

There are about as many different electoral systems as there are types of apple. Just like apples, there are some favourites. It’s helpful to divide voting systems into two main types. (It’s more complicated than that, but let’s start here.)

  1. Proportional representation. These voting systems aim to divide parliamentary seats up between the political parties as closely as possible to the proportion of the popular vote.
  2. Majority or plurality. In these systems the winner takes the seat and the loser or losers get nothing – even if the winner only won by one vote. (A majority is when one candidate gets more than half the vote, while a plurality is when one candidate gets more than other candidates but less than half the votes.)

Broadly speaking, proportional representation prioritises accuracy over clarity, while majority/plurality systems prioritise clarity over accuracy.

In order to work, majority/plurality systems (almost always) have single-member constituencies (ie, one MP represents one area of 100,000 people) and proportional systems have multi-member constituencies (ie, ten MPs represent one area of one million people).

Majority/plurality systems ask the voter to chose a candidate, while proportional systems often have a list of candidates. Proportional representation tends to give power to political parties, while majority/plurality systems give power to individual representatives.

Majority/plurality systems have a clear link to a constituency, whereas this can be stretched or non-existent with proportional representation.

Examples of voting systems

A number of different systems are used in the UK.

  • For general elections (to the UK Parliament in Westminster) we use First Past The Post. Its a majority/plurality system based on single-member constituencies where each voter has one vote, the votes are added up and the candidate with the most wins the seat. FPTP is very easy to understand. It can often elect a candidate who is supported by a small number of people but opposed by a majority.
  • The Mayor of London is elected under the Supplementary Vote system. This is often called Instant Runoff, because it is one. Each voter gets two votes, a first preference and a second preference. The first preference votes are all counted, and if one candidate does not have a majority (more than 50% of the vote) then the ballot papers of every candidate apart from the top two candidates are taken away and the second preference vote on those papers is used. The Supplementary Vote system is a contingent voting system, and it’s closer to the simple majority/plurality systems than to proportional representation.
  • In England, Scotland and Wales a closed party list form of proportional representation is used to elect Members of the European Parliament. The political parties choose candidates and put them in a ranked list, with their lead candidate as number one. Voters get to chose one of these lists, but they can’t vote for individuals in the list. (Hence why it’s “closed” party list.) It is much harder for the average not-particularly-engaged person to understand how their representatives got elected. Different areas are different sizes and so return different numbers of MEPs – South East England has 10 MEPs while Wales has four MEPs.
  • In Northern Ireland the Members of the European Parliament are elected by Single Transferable Vote. Voters rank the candidates, so rather than putting a single cross you write 1 next to your first preference, 2 next to your second preference, and so on. Unlike in a closed list system, voters are choosing individuals rather than parties. The counting takes a little longer than FPTP, but STV is relatively easy to understand. It requires relatively large constituencies to be deemed properly proportional.
  • The Scottish Parliament is elected on a system of Mixed Member Proportionality (also called the Additional Member System) which has two different types of vote in one election. Some are elected from single-member constituencies and some are elected using a top-up system. In the case of the Scottish Parliament 73 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) are elected as constituency members on FPTP and 56 are elected from closed party lists. This makes the overall system more proportional while also keeping a constituency link. lock

There are many other variations on electoral systems – again, just like apples. As touched on above, there are a number of considerations for the various types of electoral system.

Further consideration: how proportional is it?

People often speak about “proportional representation” as if it was a binary issue, as if a system either was or wasn’t proportional. Actually, there are many grey areas.

No system is ever going to be 100% proportional, because that would mean it would have to exactly match the votes of the electorate, and in the real world with millions of electors that sort of perfect match simply doesn’t happen. So we’re talking about how proportional it can be.

Further consideration: power to parties and power to individuals

Who are you actually voting for? There are different answers to this question. Under a majority/plurality system then the voter is casting a vote for an individual candidate who is part of a political party. Often the personality of the candidate will have a big impact on the decision of people to vote for them – people will say “oh, I wouldn’t usually vote for that party but so-and-so is really good”.

Under some proportional systems the voter is voting for the political party. If it’s a closed list system then the parties decide on the list of candidates and the voters choose between different party lists. Under a closed party list system there is no option for voters to say “in this party I like this person but not that person” – the list is taken as a whole.

Closed lists in proportional systems gives power to parties rather than individual candidates. The thing which is being measured here is how many votes a particular party has got, and then how many candidates that party has elected.

The focus is therefore on the party, not the individual. There’s little scope for a maverick individual. Representatives are elected on the basis of the party policies not their own abilities or character, and that puts greater emphasis on the manifesto promises and the leader and the party. It assumes that all candidates are merely delegates of their political party and that there are little or no differences between individuals. You vote for the party because of their policies and how the different individuals on the party list might implement those policies is left undiscussed.

Further consideration: link to a constituency.

MPs in the UK Parliament are each elected from a single-member constituency – one MP per constituency of about 75,000 electors (which is probably more than 100,000 people). This gives the MP a link with that specific area and gives every person in the UK a named MP to contact.

Supporting the constituency is currently a large part of an MP’s job. They help individuals with specific problems. They help and support schools and businesses and projects in their constituency. A lot of what the MP does is chasing up other organisations and using their influence to speed decisions along. Without that constituency link, a lot of people would have no one to help them.

Further consideration: delegate or representative?

You might have heard the 1774 Edmund Burke quote “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” His view was clearly that MPs were elected to use their our judgment in making decisions for the good of the nation as a whole, rather than simply putting forward views of their constituency alone.

It’s tempting for constituents to complain that their MP is not acting as a delegate for the views of their constituency. There is a sense that modern politics asks MPs to be delegates for their constituents – is this because of the electoral system? ‪(One obvious problem with people complaining their MP doesn’t agree with them is that a constituency generally contains more than 100,000 people who will have a wide range of views on any given issue, and so it is impossible for one MP to agree with them all.)

Further consideration: a hybrid chamber

Are all the members of the elected body being elected in the same way, or are there constituency members and proportional members? Some people feel this is a compromise which satisfies no one, or that it creates a two-tier system where one type of representative is privileged above another.

A final thought

The main message is that electoral systems are complicated. Although proportional representation is often mentioned as the answer to all electoral problems, it’s important to remember it is not one voting system, but a whole category of electoral systems. There are different types of proportional representation and they don’t all have the same results.

‪A good electoral system must balance clarity and accuracy. It is important both that the person elected really does represent the people and that the people understand how that person was elected.