Electoral systems are methods and rules used to determine the outcome of an election. The system used and how it is used varies in each country. What voters know about the system can have an impact on how they vote or who they vote for. We can categorise these into four “families”, namely Proportional Representation, Mixed, Majority, as well as Plurality systems. In this article, we’ll look at Proportional Representation and Majority Systems.
Proportional Representation (PR) Systems
There are two types of PR Systems namely, List PR and Single Transferable Vote (STV) PR. Under List PR, voters choose from a list of candidates. Candidates are ranked on this list and become elected representatives in order of this ranking and parties are allocated seats in direct proportion to the number of votes they receive.
List PR aims to create a representative body that more or less reflects the interests of the citizens. If a party gets 30% of the vote, they receive 30% of the seats in that representative body. South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and other countries, use List PR. In South Africa, the party chooses its own candidates – this is a Closed List system. With Open List systems, voters choose the candidates instead.
With List PR, all votes have equal value and are accurately translated into the seats won by each party. There is a more representative legislature because minority parties and women in politics are given a platform. Even so, it often leads to coalition governments which are often indecisive due to each party involved trying to get their way. These systems can also lead to situations where the majority party continues to rule even when they have lost the favour of many voters (Reily&Reynolds, 2019).
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) used in Scotland and Ireland have voters rank candidates on the ballot based on preference. Candidates must reach a certain number of votes and anyone who has more first-preference votes than the quota is elected. STV wastes fewer votes because the extra votes received by the winning first-preference candidate, automatically go to each voter’s second favourite candidate. STV also gives voters more choice, facilitates voters’ influence in who makes up possible coalitions, and provides higher chances of the election of independent candidates.
However, STV requires a certain degree of literacy and numeracy because ballot papers can get long-winded and confusing, with a complicated and long vote-counting process. STV may cause internal fragmentation within parties due to its candidate-centred approach, and possibly lead to parties with majority votes winning fewer seats than their rivals.
Majority systems are candidate-centred with the winner being the candidate with the most votes. Candidates must win with an “absolute majority” — more than 50% of the votes. There are two types of majority systems, the Alternative Vote (AV), and the Two-Round System (TRS).
With AV, voters rank candidates based on preference on the ballot paper. Used in Australia and the United States of America (often called Instant Run-off Voting), it gives voters more options. AV allows the votes of the various candidates to accumulate, combining diverse but related interests to win representation (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2005). Supporters of candidates who have fewer chances of winning are able to influence the election of a major candidate through their second preferences.
AV needs a degree of literacy and numeracy for effective use. It can also produce disproportional results because it operates in single-member districts. It may lead to the election of members that voters are indifferent to or actively dislike, and it does not work well in multi-member districts.
The Two-Round System has two voting rounds — the first where the candidate or party must win by more than 50% of the vote and the second only happening when there is no absolute majority in the first round. How the second round is conducted differs in each country, but the most common method is a run-off contest between the top two candidates from round one.
TRS gives voters a second chance to elect their preferred candidate (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2005), or even change their minds, while enabling candidates to react to the changing political landscape in-between rounds. This system is easy to understand and lessens problems of vote-splitting. However, two elections are expensive with much electoral administration and results may be disproportionate. TRS fragments party systems in new democracies.
Elections are a defining moment in the history of any country. The electoral system used in a country matters because it influences who gets to govern a country and how it is governed. Unless a government chooses a system that works for its electorate, elections can never be free, nor fair.