In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Election Laws in Democracies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Data Sources
  • Selection of the Electoral System
  • The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws
  • Electoral Systems and Partisan Bias
  • Contamination Effects in Electoral Systems
  • Electoral Systems and National Party Systems
  • Methodological Issues

Political Science Election Laws in Democracies
Ignacio Lago
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0185


Contemporary democracies are based on the principle of division of labor: citizens delegate the tasks of governing to elected representatives, who are expected to act in the best interests of the people. How the election of representatives is regulated in contemporary democracies greatly differs across countries and even within countries. This is clearly an issue: it affects the significance and legitimacy of an election and shapes the behavior of both parties/candidates and voters, and also the resulting party and government system. Although the literature on election laws has almost entirely focused on electoral systems, they are only one of the components of electoral laws. “Electoral system” refers to the rules that translate the votes cast for political parties and/or candidates into seats. Any electoral system has five key components: the electoral formula (e.g., proportional representation versus majoritarian system); the number of districts and district magnitude; the size of the assembly; the ballot structure (e.g., nominal versus ordinal); and the legal threshold. Electoral systems are part of electoral laws, which regulate all the aspects of governing elections, such as suffrage and registration requirements, fairness of the administration of the election, ease of access to the ballot for would-be candidates, and campaigning (i.e., campaign finance rules, rules on media access, rules on sites where campaigning is forbidden, etc.). With the extension of universal suffrage in democratic regimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the electoral system has become the key redistributive component in electoral laws. As a result, the political consequences of electoral laws mainly depend on the electoral system and, not surprisingly, electoral system reform is the fundamental change that electoral laws have undergone since World War II.

General Overviews

Works that go beyond electoral systems and give some idea of the state of the art in electoral law design are scarce. Massicotte, et al. 2004 takes a snapshot sample of sixty-three democracies from every continent to examine six dimensions of election laws: the right to vote, the right to be a candidate, the electoral register, the agency in charge of the election, the procedure for casting votes, and the procedure to sort out winners and losers. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) regularly compiles information about electoral laws worldwide. For instance, IDEA has recently published a report on the funding of political parties and election campaigns (Falguera, et al. 2014). Since mid-2012, the Electoral Integrity Project directed by Pippa Norris has offered a systematic assessment of the fairness of elections according to a country expert survey. The survey captures the quality of elections, and in particular: electoral procedures, voter registration, party registration, campaign finance, and the voting process. A volume edited by Norris, et al. 2014 is devoted to the topic of electoral integrity. There are, however, many works providing overviews of electoral systems. Taagepera and Shugart 1989; Carey and Shugart 1995; Colomer 2004; Bormann and Golder 2013; and Reynolds, et al. 2014 offer compendia of electoral systems and electoral reforms, combining cross-sectional and longitudinal perspectives.

  • Bormann, Nils-Christian, and Matt Golder. “Democratic Electoral Systems around the World, 1946–2011.” Electoral Studies 32 (2013): 360–369.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.electstud.2013.01.005

    A recent and complete description of democratic electoral systems employed worldwide from 1946 to 2011.

  • Carey, John, and Mathew S. Shugart. “Incentives to Cultivate a Personal Vote: A Rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas.” Electoral Studies 14 (1995): 417–439.

    DOI: 10.1016/0261-3794(94)00035-2

    Presents a ranking of electoral formulas according to the incentives they provide to cultivate personal votes, from the most party-centered to the most candidate-centered.

  • Colomer, Josep M., ed. Handbook of Electoral Systems Choice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    A detailed description of the historical evolution of electoral systems worldwide, with a special interest in the selection and reform of electoral rules.

  • Falguera, Elin, Samuel Jones, and Magnus Ohman, eds. Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns: A Handbook of Political Finance. Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2014.

    Includes information about the regulations on political party and candidate finance in 180 countries around the world.

  • Massicotte, Louis, André Blais, and Antoine Yoshinaka. Establishing the rules of the Game: Election Laws in Democracies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

    An accessible book that goes beyond electoral systems and covers the other dimensions of election laws in sixty democracies around the world.

  • Norris, Pippa, Richard W. Frank, and Ferran Martínez i Coma, eds. Advancing Electoral Integrity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Collects essays analyzing flaws in electoral integrity in several areas in the world in an accessible manner.

  • Reynolds, Andrew, Ben Reilly, and Andrew Ellis, eds. Electoral System Design: The New International IDEA Handbook. Stockholm: International Institute for Electoral Assistance, 2014.

    An accessible overview of electoral systems employed in the world nowadays. In addition to a thorough description of electoral systems, it includes a discussion about their consequences and implications.

  • Taagepera, Rein, and Matthew S. Shugart. Seats and Votes: The Effects and Determinants of Electoral Systems. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

    A complete review of empirical knowledge about electoral systems from a quantitative and formal perspective. Although published in 1989, it still offers a sharp analysis of most of the issues relevant in electoral system scholarship nowadays.

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