Free «Electoral Systems» Essay Sample

What are elections?

An election is a formal process of selecting a person for public office or accepting or rejecting a political proposition by voting. Hawkesworth & Kogan (2004) thus says that elections provide a legitimate means of making political choices and therefore for an election to be effective voters should have a free and genuine choice between at least alternatives. An election is considered to be formal in most of the world’s political systems but studies show that only a third of these elections do more or less competitive contests (Hawkesworth & Kogan, 2004). This means that only a few of these elections are considered legitimate. Lack of competitive contests results from practices such as deliberate gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, voter intimidation and manipulation of vote counts. Research also shows that less competitive elections may result from restricted to one party election.

The use of elections in the modern world originated from the gradual emergence of representative government in Europe and North America in the 17th century. Hawkesworth & Kogan indicated “that there are several types of elections which are considered as political means of recruitment because they facilitate the legitimate selection of public office holders” (2004 p. 399). Elections act as a means of granting officials the authority to make public policy decisions and on top of that they legitimize those decisions. Hawkesworth & Kogan (2004) thus say that “any electoral mandate resulting from such a process does not entail the implementation of the abstract preferences of the majority of citizens but rather the introduction of the policy of those leaders who come to power” (p. 399).

It should be noted that most officeholder elections are interpretable only in terms of the role of political parties in the political process. Hawkesworth & Kogan (2004) found out that since elections seek to fix individual responsibility and accountability for the actions of modern governments, political parties, rather than individual representatives have become the vehicles of democratic accountability. Hawkesworth & Kogan (2004) also indicated that elections found throughout the democratic world include referenda and initiatives, which are considered to be elections in which the preferences of the community regarding particular issues are assessed. Referenda are instigated by those in government while initiatives are initiated by groups of electors.

Hawkesworth & Kogan (2004) says that “referenda usually concern the raising and spending f public money although they are occasionally used to decide major constitutional issues which are deemed to require the express consent of the people, or moral issues in which the elected bodies are deemed to posses no competence” (p. 400). Elections carried out in form of referenda may be legislatively binding or merely consultative. On the other hand consultative referenda are likely to have the force of legislative mandates. Elections of the form of referenda and initiatives are most heavily used at national level in Italy and Switzerland and in other areas in a variety of countries at sub-national level, such as USA and Germany (Hawkesworth & Kogan, 2004).   

Around the world electoral systems can be classified into three broad categories which include majoritarian (plurality), proportional and semi-proportional. Hawkesworth & Kogan (2004) says that plurality is the simplest system for counting and converting votes into representative office. During the elections in plurality a candidate needs only more poll votes than any other single opponent. Hawkesworth & Kogan (2004) says that under the majority rule the party or candidate gaining more that fifty per cent of the vote in a constituency wins. They also said that neither the majority nor the plurality formulas distribute legislative seats in proportion to the share of the popular vote won by the competing parties during the elections. This also implies that these elections systems reward the strongest party disproportionately compared to the weaker parties (Hawkesworth & Kogan, 2004).

Medvic (2009) in his studies indicated that elections serve at least four functions in a democracy choosing public officials, ensuring accountability, influencing the direction of policy and granting legitimacy to the government. Firstly Medvic says that elections are a mechanism of determining who will hold public office (2009). This means that those who will represent the citizenry are chosen directly by voters. Medvic (2009) says that it also implies “that votes are cast for candidates contending for an office and the winner or winners in multimember districts are chosen based on a predetermined formula” (p. 12).

Elections are used to allow voters to choose the candidates who will run for various offices. According to Medvic (2009) party nominees in general elections are often chosen in primary elections, or primaries, which vary significantly in terms of who may participate but offer some level of input into party business by rank and file members. Elections can be used to remove an individual from public office before the end of his or hr term depending on the rules governing the electoral body and the country as a whole.

The second use of elections is that they are used to hold elected officials accountable for their actions in office. Medvic (2009) says that “whether one believes in the trustee model of representation which maintains that representatives should act on behalf of their constituents, everyone agrees that representatives may not always act exactly as their constituents expect them to” (p. 12). Voters in this context give elected officials some leeway. Voters have the opportunity to remove their representative   from office when they are particularly troubled by the officeholder’s decisions or personal behavior (Medvic 2009).

The third function of elections is to give the people some say over the policy direction of their country, state, city, or other unit of government. Medvic (2009) says that this takes place in two basic forms one which is considered weak and the other considered strong. He continues to say that in its weak form the policy directing role for elections is accomplished by encouraging elected officials to be responsive to the public. As a result Medvic (2009) mentions that with an election looming or having just occurred representatives are keen to show how they are responding to citizen’s wishes. Through this process it is expected that voters are able to influence the actions of the elected officials.

Elections behavior has become a major mainstream component of contemporary political science.  This has been driven by some factors such as the intellectual fashion in favor of the New Institutionalism which emerged in the late 1980’s (Hawkesworth & Kogan, 2004). Another influence of the current trends in elections is the wide spread desire for the transparency and also the regulation of all aspects of electoral competition in order to remove the potentially delegitimizing effects of corruption (Hawkesworth & Kogan, 2004). Elections are being changed by the technological developments which lie at the root of partisan de-alignment which is central to changing the styles of political communication and virtually ensure that changes after the elections are irreversible (Hawkesworth & Kogan, 2004).

Research shows that in democracy proportional representation requires that the distribution of offices be broadly proportional to the distribution of the popular vote among competing political parties. Hawkesworth & Kogan (2004) found out that “this type of election seeks to overcome the disproportionalities hat result from majority and plurality formulas and to create a representative that result the distribution of opinion within the electorate” (p. 401). Proportional elections outcomes achieve more autonomy than plurality or majority systems.      

The Single-Member District Electoral System

Single member district system reveals that this type of electoral system favors the election of candidates of the majority group in each district (Rule & Zimmerman, 1994). Amy (2000) says that with the exception of at large voting all plurality and majority systems use single member districts. He says that because members of legislatures are elected one at a time in small districts this separates this voting system from proportional and semi-proportional systems which use multimember districts (Amy, 2000).

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The United States uses the single member district electoral system known as plurality. The single member districts in U.S. are characterized by its design to represent the majority or plurality of voters. Amy (2000) says that voters in the minority do not receive representation and also in this voting system one hundred percent of the representation goes to those who vote for the winner. This implies that those who vote for the losers get no representation. Amy found out that in a single member district contest a party must win over 50% of the vote so that the electorate can be sure that he or she wins the seat. A win of 51% is not always required to win hence if for example party A wins by 40% of the vote and parties B and C won 30% each then this means that party A candidate would win the seat.

But according to Amy (2000) 40% of the vote does not assure victory because in such a situation parties B and C might form an alliance around a single candidate that would then defeat party A candidate. Amy (2000) continues to say that the only way party A can be guaranteed the seat is to receive over 50% of the vote. It can not be excluded from office no matter what the other parties do. Single member district electoral system put a high priority on geographical representation. Amy (2000) says “that the main purpose of using geographical representation is that it produces a legislature that ensures that all geographical areas are represented” (p. 31).

The advantage of using single member district includes aspects of their simplicity which is evident in USA. Amy (2000) says that voters find them very easy to use; they simply cast their votes for their preferred candidates. He continues to say that using this form of electoral system it is easy to understand how votes are translated into seats. Amy (2000) mentioned that the most popular candidate in the district is elected.  Another advantage of single member district electorate systems is that they are clearly the best in terms of ensuring geographical representation. In this context since each representative is beholden to a specific geographical area, matters which are significant to a particular neighborhood or region are sure to have a champion (Amy, 2000)  

Single member district electoral system uses virtually small districts where candidates are able to get to know their constituents. Amy (2000) notes that “since it is clear which representative is obliged to serve which constituents, people readily know who to contact about their concerns” (p. 31).  It is also important to realize that in single member district electoral systems people usually vote for individual candidates not parties. Because voters are able to vote for individuals this gives them more direct control over exactly who is elected and gives them the power to get rid of their particular representative.

This type of electoral system encourages a two party system. Amy (2000) says that this is because a candidate must receive over 50% of the vote in order to be guaranteed victory. Single member district electoral system has a tendency to produce umbrella parties that must make broad based appeals in order to get elected. The aspect of broad based appeal comes in   whereby parties that need a majority or plurality to win must try to generate wide based support of the voters (Amy, 2000). This is considered to have a moderating effect because parties hope to win seats by narrow appeals to special interests or to specific racial or religious groups renders them difficulty.   One of the disadvantages of single member district voting systems is that winner take all and on the other hand produce a large number of wasted votes which elect no one to office. Amy (2000) says that people who cast wasted votes are denied representation.

Proportional representation-system

Proportional representation voting is common electoral system among the most advanced Western democracies. Amy (2000) says that twenty one out of the twenty eight countries in Western Europe use proportional representation. This type of voting is not one but several and therefore it acts as a basic principle that several different kinds of voting systems embody. Amy indicates that” its principle is that the number of seats a political party or group wins in a legislature should be proportional to the amount of its support among voters” (2000 p. 65). In proportional representation if a political party wins 30% of the vote, it should receive about 30% of the seats.

One of the common features of proportional representation is that list systems, mixed member and choice voting all differ in the way ballots are structured, votes are cast and seats are allocated (Amy, 2000). The first characteristic of proportional representation systems is that it uses multimember districts. This implies that instead of electing one member of the legislature in each local district it uses larger districts where several members are elected at once. This type of electoral system is used in Russia. Amy (2000) thus says that in practice the number of members elected in a district can vary depending on the country.

Unlike in a single member district electoral system where a winner takes all and where when one candidate is elected, then one party inevitably gets all of the representation in multimember proportional representation districts allow many parties to win seats in a district (Amy, 2000). Amy says that “more voters have more representation hence in proportional representation districts 80%-90% of voters win representation compared to the 40%-60% typical of winner take all voting systems” (2000, p.68).

The candidates who win the seats in multimember districts is determined by the proportion of the votes a party or political group receives. Amy (2000) says that this is the central defining characteristic of these systems. For example let assume that in election there is a ten member proportional representation district. If party A wins 50% of the vote they receive five of those ten seats. With 30% of the vote the party B gets three seats and if party C receives the other 20% of the vote it then gets the remaining two seats (Amy, 2000).

Proportional representation systems assume that most people tend to identify their political orientation according to parties and political ideologies and not geography. According to Amy (2000) single member districts puts more emphasizes on geographical representation over party representation in proportional representation geographical significance plays a much smaller role in peoples political identity. Amy (2000) noted that “this type of electoral system is designed to ensure that voters are fairly represented along these partisan lines” (p. 69).

Another major characteristic of these systems is their low thresholds of exclusion which is the minimum port ion of the vote a party must have to be sure of winning a seat in the legislature (Amy, 2000). Unlike in the in a single member district where winning threshold hold 50% + 1 in proportional representation systems a political group may be sure of winning an election if it gets 5% or 10% of the vote. However this may further vary from one proportional representation system to the other. For example Amy (2000) says that “in list forms of proportional representation I is usually less than 5% and in a few instances may be around 1%” (p. 69).  

One of main merits of proportional representation electoral system is that it ensures fair and accurate representation for parties participating in the elections. Amy (2000) says that this type of voting gives parties the proportion of seats they deserve based on their voting strength. This type of electoral system nurtures minor parties unlike in single member districts voting system. The system allows voters to cast sincere ballots for their candidates unlike voting in single member district where minor party candidates often makes little sense even if they are the individual’s first choice. Amy (2000) continues to indicate that “in proportional representation systems minor party candidates stand a better chance of being elected so citizens can vote sincerely for the candidates they most prefer instead of having to choose between the lesser two evils” (p. 71).

Russia uses unlike the United States uses a mixed form of electoral system which applies both the single member districts (SMDs) and the proportional representation (PR). This is the major difference which exists between the electoral systems of these two countries. Russia has over the years attempted to change its electoral system hence it has been a difficult task of using one form of electoral system.  

How these electoral systems operate in TWO countries (Russia and USA)

Russia uses a mixed electoral system. Sakwa (2008) says that the Russia’s electoral system has been subject to frequent changes with the electoral legislation modified following every electoral cycle and becoming more detailed. Russia tried to achieve both the majoritarian and proportional representation but both failed effectively to achieve either. Sakwa (2008) says that while a single member district intends to achieve a parliamentary majority in Russia such majority is to a degree irrelevant since the government appointed by the president is not directly accountable to parliament and is not based on the ability to muster a stable majority in parliament.

In Russia the mixed system was introduced in 1993 where half of the seats to the new 450 member state Duma were elected by the traditional first-past-the –post single member districts, while the other half were elected from party lists according to the weighted system of proportional representation(Sakwa, 2008). He continues to say that in order to be eligible to stand a party is required at least 100,000 nominations with no more than 15,000 signatures drawn from any one of Russia’s 89 regions and republics. Sakwa (2008) thus says that each party had to have demonstrable support in at least 7 regions or republics.

Studies show that to date the Russian electoral system has become more regulated despite trying to adopt the two types of electoral systems. In 2007 elections minimal membership was raised to 50,000; the threshold was raised to 7 percent. On the other hand Ross (2002) says that Russia’s choice of electoral system for the national parliament has worked against the development of a truly national party system. For example he goes further to indicate that in Duma there in a mixed electoral system in operation which means that half of the members are elected by proportional representation using a pry list system  with a 5% threshold and half by a first-past-the-post system in single member districts.

United States uses the single member district electoral system. Bibby & Schaffner (2007) says that “the single member district plurality system of election has meant that a party’s percentage of the house membership will not necessarily be proportionate to its national popular vote for Congress” (p. 308). They continue to say that in the United States if one party’s voters tend to be concentrated in districts’ that it wins overwhelmingly, and if the opposition party tends t win most of the marginal districts by narrow margins then the composition of the legislative chambers is not apt to reflect accurately the share of the total vote received by either party (Bibby & Schaffner, 2007). In United States the single member districts electoral system a disparity between popular votes and a party’s share of the legislative seats is an inevitable consequence of the uneven manner in which adherents of the two parties are scattered across the country and the way boundary lines are drawn (Bibby & Schaffner, 2007).  

In the United States the Republican and Democratic parties are assured of automatic ballot access that is each party name and candidates appearing on the general election ballot because of their prior success in winning votes (Bibby & Schaffner, 2007). They also noted that because of the single member districts electoral system a large number of states have sore loser laws which prevent candidates who lose primary elections from then running as independent candidates in the general election (Bibby & Schaffner, 2007).    

How votes are translated into seats in the legislature.

In the United States the hypothetical two party contests for all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives it is expected that one party gets the majority then it will win every seat while the party with fewer representatives gets none (Jillson, 2009). In addition Bibby & Schaffner (2007) says that two party competition and the minor parties in United States was encouraged by the Electoral College system for choosing presidents. In this context election as a president requires an absolute majority of the electoral votes. Also it is important to articulate that the states electoral votes are allocated under a winner take all arrangement. Bibby & Schaffner (2007) thus says “in the United States all that is required is to capture states electoral votes is a plurality of the vote in that state” (p. 43). To win the presidency, a presidential candidate must secure a majority of votes or 270 in the Electoral College (Medvic, 2009). The national popular vote aims to ensure that the popular vote winner captures the presidency. Like the congressional elections most state legislative elections operate under the single member plurality system. Medvic (2009) continues to say that (most states provide for the election of statewide executive branch officials beyond government. Voters will thus be asked to vote for a lieutenant governor, a state treasurer, a state auditor and a secretary of state.  

Unlike in the United States in Russia, there is a legal threshold for representation is also found in many PR systems. Moser (2001) says that Russia uses a 5% legal threshold in the PR tier of its mixed system. These thresholds are designed to encourage party consolidation by denying smaller parties representation and therefore have effects similar to low district magnitudes (Moser, 2001). He continues to say that the 5% legal threshold designed to deter the proliferation of small parties. Moser (2001) thus says that in the transformation of votes into votes, the degree of party proliferation in the electoral realm conditioned the mechanical effect of the 5% legal threshold. In Russia studies show that under proportional representation 225 seats are elected in one nationwide district with 5% legal threshold while using plurality tier 225 seats elected by plurality in single member districts (Moser, 2001).

In conclusion, electoral systems in most advanced democracies in the world are well defined. Although some countries such as Russia use mixed electoral systems which are single member district and proportional representation the election process is well defined. Elections on the other hand are used to enable voters to choose the candidates who will vie for various political positions. The single member district in United States has worked well for the country, while in Russia the use of both systems appears convenient when there. The translation of votes into seats in the legislature depends on the laws governing the electoral systems and also the electoral system in place.


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