Polisci 2230 March 19 th
Elections, Electoral Systems, and Reform
Have to know what an electoral system does, which one we use in Canada and how
it works, SMP, MMP, and STV (pro’s and cons)
• First Half: Electoral Systems as x
What are elections and electoral systems?
What kinds are there? How do they work?
What are their effects and consequences?
Examples of electoral systems in comparison
• Second Half: Electoral Systems as y
What affects electoral systems?
When does reform happen? When does it fail?
Are electoral systems x or y… or both?
What is an election?
• Eligible electors cast votes to decide who does a particular job
• Elections determine who governs: this is the most critical feature of a
• Elections bestow the authority to govern and grant democratic legitimacy
• Usually legislative, though executive elections are possible, and even judicial.
• Point is what we use to find the preferences of voters in a particular office
that needs filling
• Elections decide who governs and give that person the mandate to do so
What does an electoral system do?
• Sorts and counts preferences expressed by voters on ballots
• Provides rules for using those preferences to determine which candidates
have won office
• Provides predictable conditions for winning that (almost) everyone can more
or less agree on
• Who won depends on what you’re voting for and how that formula calculates
the winner of this election
• What matters is the way we do it is agreed upon by all the players
• Since there are many ways to do that, we can look at different kinds of
What kinds are there?
• Single-member Plurality (SMP), also called “first past the post,” is probably
familiar • Many other kinds of systems exist, including the Alternative Vote (AV), two-
ballot runoff, list-based proportional representation (List-PR), and even
hybrid systems like Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) and Single
Transferable Vote (STV)
Pippa Norris’s Typology
• Norris sorts electoral systems into three broad categories: plurality systems,
majority systems, and proportional systems
• Plurality systems (like SMP) allow winning with only a plurality of the vote
Use tricks to find out that whoever wins did get majority support
• Majority systems (like AV or runoff) ensure that, one way or another, the
winner has a majority of the vote
• Proportional systems (like list-PR, MMP, or STV) try to make seat share
match vote share
Try to make vote share match up with seat share
Forgot about Blais
• Blais sorts electoral systems based on features, not by categories
• Object of the vote: just what are we voting for? What is the district
magnitude, i.e. how many seats are up for grabs?
• Ballot structure: how many votes do we get? Is there preference ranking or
some other way we can play with the order of candidates?
• Electoral formula: the actual math used to determine a winner
• Sorts systems based on their features
Electoral Systems: How Do They Work?
• They influence how people compete for office
• They influence how people make vote choices
• These in turn influence politics in general
• They are persistent and hard to change
• They are really just counting
• Under some systems, small parties will do alright under the ballot box, but in
others they just get hammered
• The decision to run in the riding ex. Bloc Quebecois do they want to run in
Quebec? – strategic entry
• Deciding whether to go alone or to join a larger party – coordination
(deciding who to support)
• Influence how the voter decides
• Electoral systems are the rules of the political game, they structure the
competition and matter a lot Duverger (1954) lays down the law
• Duverger's Law: plurality systems (like SMP) tend to produce two-party
• More proportional systems tend to allow for more parties (if there are
sufficient social cleavages to support them!), but do not cause there to be
• Electoral systems all put a brake on the number of parties; some just hit the
• This happens in two ways: mechanical effects and psychological effects
• When there is a proportional system, there can be more parties, but only
• Every kind of system will pose constraints on how many parties there can be
• Under plurality rules, there will tend to be fewer parties because of the
• Exceptions, because it doesn’t hold anywhere Ex. Some countries have a
plurality system with more than 2 parties (Ex. Canada)
• The point he was trying to get across is that electoral systems matter
1. Mechanical effects
2. Psychological effects
• These are purely technical
• Ways that the math can affect the outcome of a system
• They are ways that the mathematical operation of an electoral system affects
the outcome of an election under that system
• Vote distortion under SMP is one example
SMP over-rewards the largest party
SMP punishes small parties unless they are geographically concentrated
Mechanical effects under SMP in the 2011 Federal Election
• Data courtesy of Elections Canada Popular Vote Share (%)
Seat Share (%)