Political Science Electoral System Reform in Advanced Democracies
by
Matthew Shugart, Justin Reeves
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0020

Introduction

The electoral system is the set of rules and procedures used to translate votes cast for specific candidates or political parties into seats in a legislative body; some scholars also include presidential or other executive elections under the rubric of electoral systems. Electoral system reform, often called simply electoral reform, is the adoption of some fundamental changes in these rules and procedures. Although no clear agreement exists on how much change is required in order to qualify as electoral system reform, the term is generally understood to mean more than incremental changes in specific features of an electoral system. Thus, electoral system reform typically means a shift in the main principle by which allocation of seats takes place, such as a move from majority allocation to proportional representation or from candidate-based to party-list allocation (or vice versa). By this standard, electoral system reform is a relatively rare event. Major reforms of electoral systems have taken place in the late 20th and early 21st centuries in several key countries, including France (twice), Italy (twice), Japan, and New Zealand. In addition, in the latter part of the 20th century, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have adopted for their own parliaments new electoral systems that are fundamentally different from those used for the UK House of Commons. Serious discussions of reform, in the sense of wholesale change in the principle of representation, have occurred in Canada (including some its provinces) and the United Kingdom. However, as of the early 21st century, reforms of the electoral system for the UK and Canadian House of Commons and Canadian provincial legislatures have not occurred. Some researchers increase the number of relevant cases by including more-incremental modifications to electoral systems rather than only wholesale changes. Within the family of proportional representation, incremental changes include alterations of the threshold (the minimum vote share needed to win a seat) or in the rules applying to the role of preference votes for individual candidates in the ordering of party lists. Such changes are much more common than wholesale changes between proportional and majority principles of representation. Most researchers do not consider changes in district boundaries (or the criteria to be used in such boundary drawing) in plurality/majority systems to be reform, since they are more-routine procedures periodically required by the laws of most countries using such systems.

General Overviews

Works that understand electoral reform in the advanced industrial democracies to mean major changes in the very principle of representation are generally limited to the cases of Italy, Japan, and New Zealand; sometimes the two French reforms of the 1980s are included. Several works review the literature (e.g., Scheiner 2008) on individual cases. Others include original research on some or all of these cases (e.g., Renwick 2010, cited under Why Electoral Reform). Also of note are more-general works on electoral systems that include a significant component about reform of such systems. Examples of such works include Lijphart 1994, which employs a broader definition of change in an electoral system and which separates cases before and after such changes into separate cases in the author’s larger comparative analysis. Review essays in the handbooks Bowler 2006 and Taagepera 2006 discuss reforms. Colomer 2004 offers a compendium of changes in a wide range of democratic countries. Gallagher and Mitchell 2005, an edited volume consisting mainly of detailed, country-specific chapters, covers both the wholesale-change variety of electoral reform and smaller reforms within systems. Other works that are more broadly devoted to the topic of electoral systems also include significant discussion of electoral reforms. Among these are Farrell 2001; Reynolds, et al. 2008; and Taagepera 2007.

  • Bowler, Shaun. “Electoral Systems.” In The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions. Edited by R. A. W. Rhodes, Sarah A. Binder, and Bert A. Rockman, 577–594. Oxford Handbooks of Political Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Overview of literature on the electoral system as a political institution. Includes a section on changes in electoral systems, with primary focus on changes at democratization, but including changes in established, advanced industrial democracies.

  • Colomer, Josep M., ed. Handbook of Electoral System Choice. Houndsmills, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230522749E-mail Citation »

    Encyclopedic overview of changes in electoral systems, including incremental changes as well as wholesale reforms, with a broad historical sweep. Concludes that there has been a trend toward systems that are more “inclusive” (e.g., proportional) over time.

  • Farrell, David M. Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction. New York: St Martin’s, 2001.

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    A compact and highly accessible book, in textbook format, covering all major aspects of electoral systems. Includes an entire chapter on electoral system choice that also looks at voter attitudes toward reform in Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

  • Gallagher, Michael, and Paul Mitchell, eds. The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/0199257566.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Contains overview chapters on electoral systems and reform, as well as chapters on 22 countries, grouped by type of electoral system. Each country chapter includes discussion of the political reasons for the choice of system, consideration of effects in the broader context of the country’s politics and society, and a look at actual and proposed reforms.

  • Lijphart, Arend. Electoral Systems and Party Systems: A Study of Twenty-Seven Democracies, 1945–1990. Comparative European Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Cross-national study of effects of electoral systems on party systems. Includes analysis of reform that counts as “new” any system in which there was change in the electoral formula (e.g., d’Hondt to Sainte-Lague), a change of 20 percent or more in the effective threshold (i.e., the votes required to win a seat), or a change of 20 percent or more in the assembly size.

  • Reynolds, Andrew, Ben Reilly, and Andrew Ellis, eds. Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2008.

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    A thorough and accessible overview of all the major choices in electoral system design, with a primary focus on developing countries. However, the themes are relevant to any democracy, and specific, short case studies cover each of the major cases of actual or proposed reform in advanced democracies.

  • Scheiner, Ethan. “Does Electoral System Reform Work? Electoral System Lessons from Reforms of the 1990s.” Annual Review of Political Science 11 (2008): 161–181.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.060106.183415E-mail Citation »

    Review of the literature on the effects of reforms in Italy, Japan, and New Zealand. Relates the outcomes produced to the intentions of the reformers in order to assess whether reform worked as intended. Available online through purchase.

  • Taagepera, Rein. “Electoral Systems.” In The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics. Edited by Carles Boix and Susan C. Stokes, 678–702. Oxford Handbooks of Political Science. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    An overview of the literature on electoral systems in comparative studies. Includes a concise discussion of the interparty and intraparty effects of reforms in Japan, Italy, and New Zealand and their relevance to the broader study of electoral systems in general.

  • Taagepera, Rein. Predicting Party Sizes: The Logic of Simple Electoral Systems. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    A systematic comparison of the effects of electoral systems in established democracies, with emphasis on building logical predictive models of how electoral systems shape the number and size of parties. Not focused on reform, per se, but structured explicitly around the question of what “practitioners” who may be seeking to reform existing systems can learn from the models and data presented.

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