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Electoral System Design: Hitting the Sweet Spot

- April 19, 2011

One thing I have definitely learned from studying elections in post-communist countries is that “electoral design”:http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V9P-3Y45TGJ-2&_user=142623&_coverDate=12%2F31%2F1995&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=gateway&_origin=gateway&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1723967378&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000000333&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=142623&md5=491a1a2ad9446a9712f54a3e86737d24&searchtype=a can matter a lot in new democracies, especially when actors new to democratic politics are just beginning to learn the incentives associated with electoral rules. As the “Arab Spring”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring rolls on, there may be many more countries facing the challenge of designing new electoral rules, and once again these decisions are likely to be consequential. Indeed, this was exactly what motivated me to write this piece at the “Wall Street Journal”:http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/02/18/why-egypt-needs-a-two-round-presidential-election/ on the potential importance of a two-round presidential election for Egypt.

Thus it was with great interest that I saw this recent _American Journal of Political Science_ article (“gated”:http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00495.x/pdf; “ungated draft”:http://personal.lse.ac.uk/hix/Working_Papers/Carey_Hix-Electoral_Sweet_Spot-19June09.pdf) by Professors “John Carey”:http://www.dartmouth.edu/~jcarey/Welcome.html and “Simon Hix”:http://personal.lse.ac.uk/hix/Research.HTM. In it, the authors argue that thinking about proportional vs. majoritarian systems as dichotomous categories with particular benefits and costs may be missing the point. Instead, we might want to think of the variation in the effect of electoral rules as more of a continuous variable, with trade-offs varying based on different choices within the two categories. Their bottom line is the PR systems with small district magnitudes tend to hit the “sweet spot”, conferring many of the benefits of proportional rules without the costs of wide spread party fragmentation and unruly coalitions. Here’s the abstract:

bq. Can electoral rules be designed to achieve political ideals such as accurate representation of voter preferences and accountable governments? The academic literature commonly divides electoral systems into two types, majoritarian and proportional, and implies a straightforward trade-off by which having more of an ideal that a majoritarian system provides means giving up an equal measure of what proportional representation (PR) delivers. We posit that these trade-offs are better characterized as nonlinear and that one can gain most of the advantages attributed to PR, while sacrificing less of those attributed to majoritarian elections, by maintaining district magnitudes in the low to moderate range. We test this intuition against data from 609 elections in 81 countries between 1945 and 2006. Electoral systems that use low-magnitude multimember districts produce disproportionality indices almost on par with those of pure PR systems while limiting party system fragmentation and producing simpler government coalitions.