Electoral systems are the set of rules that structure how votes are cast at elections for a representative assembly and how these votes are then converted into seats in that assembly. Given a set of votes, an electoral system determines the composition of the parliament (or assembly, council, and so on as the case may be). Not only do theses electoral systems vary across the world but they are also, in many countries, the subject of fierce political debate and argument. Gallagher, M. & Mitchell (2006) argue that electoral systems are a crucial link in the chain connecting the preferences of citizens to the policy choices made by governments. In order to determine the main advantages and disadvantages of both majoritarian and proportional government within electoral systems it is vital that we discuss the founding principles of each and how each version within both (eg, Majoritarian- First Past The Post, Alternative Vote and Second Ballot System and Proportional-Single Transferable Vote, Additional Member System and Party-list System) is practiced throughout politics and elections.
There are two main basic systems in regards to parliamentary electoral systems. The first being, majority election system and second being proportional representative electoral system. Majority electoral systems include, first past the post (FPTP). FPTP is used most commonly in countries that are, or at one point were, British Colonies. FPTP is primarily used to elect Members of Parliament to the House of Commons and for local elections in England and Wales. General elections in the UK are carried out using this single member plurality system: FPTP. In order to win a constituency must win more votes than any other candidates.
‘Majoritarian systems are usually thought to be at their weakest when they are evaluated in terms of their representation functions’ (Haywood, A. 2013). Haywood argues that one of the main disadvantages of majority electoral systems being implemented is the limited spread of representation. As with this system there only needs to be one vote between the winner and the candidate in second place. Therefore it does not necessarily have to be an overall majority. By using FPTP it is not usual to find that runner up has just fallen short of the winner. For example in the 1992 General Election, the winner party was Liberal Democrats with 26% of the vote and Labour falling short with (25%) of the vote. (UK Polling Report). Another example being, in the General Election 2010, the Conservative party gained 47% of the parliamentary seats with only 36% of the vote, Labour gained 40% of the seats with only 29% of the vote, and the Liberal Democrats gained a only 9% of the seats despite having 23% of the vote. The 1997 Election also demonstrates FPTP in its weakest form as even though the Conservatives gained a reasonable level of votes (18%) in Scotland, they did not gain one seat in parliament.
Arguable the most advantageous feature of FPTP is how simple it is to carry out. This system is renowned for its simplicity as the voters simply indicate their vote by putting a cross in the box next to their chosen candidate’s name. The candidate with the most votes is then declared the winner of the constituency and the party with the most MP’s is declared the winner of the election. However, due to the absence of complications, if the winning party get less than half of the MP’s in parliament, it can experience problems in regards to passing bills as the opposition party are likely to have more members and could in such events, vote against them. As the system is so simplistic, it is not very time consuming and votes can be counted very easily and the winner can be informed instantly.
The Second Ballot system is used traditionally in France. This system uses two ballots to ensure that the winning candidate receives the majority of the votes, hence why the system is called Majoritarian. This process slightly differs from FPTP as it consists of two ballots, not one. The first ballot is used to eliminate those candidates who have the least votes and then second is used to differentiate between the two remaining candidates to see who will be the overall winner- the person with over 50% of the votes in the second ballot. In some cases, if one candidate is sufficiently popular a second ballot will not be needed. (Robinson, C. (2010))
The purpose of Majoritarian Electoral Systems, are generally to elect with a majority of votes in the constituency. The Second Ballot system is a single member constituency. Under this system, it ensures that the winner has a majority of the votes cast and the proportion of seats granted in parliament to the winner candidates reflects the votes they received in the election. (Robinson, C. (1998)) The Second Ballot System can be viewed as a advantage as it ensures that the candidates that are elected earn their position with a majority vote. REF MORE THAN ONE Many argue that this system is easy for the voters to understand as it is considered a ‘run off’ contestant which enables it to be comprehended easily. Voters can also have another say, even if their original voted candidate has been eliminated, which is thought to be an advantage, as the voters can have another say due to their two votes, therefore, even if their original voted candidate has been eliminated. Another advantage would be that under this system a candidate must win over 50% of the votes in order to be elected which encourages each individual candidate to make their electoral appeal as wide as possible in order to win the votes of more citizens across the country. However, with every advantage comes disadvantages. Due to the use of two votes, the process is prolonged. This wait inbetween the two rounds of voting can sometimes lead to voters switching allegiances as their first preferred candidates in the first round may be eliminated before the second round. It is quite common for the former forerunner in the first ballot to lose in the second ballot, due to the shift in support for candidates in the period between.
Proportional representation (PR) is used in Scotland. It is the alternative to FPTP as this system attempts to share out the seats available in parliament in proportion to the number of votes received in that election (Parliament UK). There are many different forms of proportional representation. The first is Additional member systems. This is a hybrid system which allows people to have a local constituency MSP and also add other member to make the overall result more proportional. As AMS is described as ‘hybrid’ it advantages minorities as for more viewpoints can be represented in parliament. Many argue that this system has its benefits the voters. Haywood (2013) argues that the votes casted are less likely to be wasted. This is due to voters having more choice as smaller parties can put forward more candidates and then they are more likely to have someone elected due to the second vote for a party. Through this system, extremist parties are avoided. In 2011, Scotland had a coalition government which means the party have to co-operate with each other, so there is a negotiation and agreement about the policies introduced. The wide range of parties in the Parliament reflect the country more accurately making it more representative. Women and minorities are more likely to be elected because the parties are more likely to be elected because the parties put forward their list of candidates in order of preference, so voters are not electing specific individual against whom they may be prejudiced. Evidence shows that under this system 34% of women are elected in to Scottish Parliament and under FPTP at West Minister only 18%.
The Additional Member system, gives a fairer result. As the 2007 election for the Scottish Parliament demonstates the overall use of AMS gives a proportional truly democratic result within its seats. One of arguably the main advantages of this system is that many view points can be represented in parliament as each voter gets to two opportunities to vote. Their first votes would be for their preferred constituency MP and the second is cast for a party, which may be different from their initial supported party. (Robinson, C. 1998))
There are two main types of electoral systems in the UK:
- First Past the Post (FPTP)
- Proportional Representation (PR)
First Past the Post (FPTP)
FPTP is the voting system used for the election of MPs to 'seats' in the UK Parliament. It is a system in which the 'winner takes all' and usually gives a clear majority both at constituency and national level. This means that a candidate in a constituency only needs one more vote than the nearest rival to win the seat. Similarly, political parties only need to win one more seat in the House of Commons to have a majority.
Advantages of FPTP
There is very little chance of extremist parties being elected to Parliament under FPTP because they are unlikely to gain enough votes in any one constituency.
Generally the results of elections using FPTP can be calculated quickly. When necessary, this makes the transfer of power from one party to another much easier.
Disadvantages of FPTP
The main criticism of FPTP is that the number of votes cast for a party in general elections is not accurately reflected in the number of seats won. An example of this was the 1997 election when the Conservatives gained 18% of the vote in Scotland but not one seat. This is mirrored at constituency level, where the winning candidate may have received only one third of the votes cast. Indeed, a government may be elected on a minority vote, as happened in 1974 when Labour won the general election on the number of seats gained but the Conservatives had a larger share of the vote across the country.
Smaller parties are not fairly treated under FPTP. Although they may have a sizeable national support across the country, they do not get a proportional number of MPs because there are not enough votes concentrated in constituencies to let them win seats.
FPTP also encourages tactical voting. This means voting for a party, other than your preferred party, to prevent another party from being elected. An example of this would be when a Labour supporter in a marginal Liberal/ Conservative seat votes Liberal Democrat in order to keep the Conservatives from winning.
Another disadvantage of FPTP can occur in marginal constituencies, where voters tend to change their party loyalty from election to election, and among 'floating' or 'swing' voters, who have no firm party loyalty. The outcome of an election can be decided on the voting patterns in these situations, even although the constituents may number only a tiny proportion of the electorate.
A mark on one bit of paper matters - make your vote count
Proportional Representation (PR)
There are a number of systems that use PR such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and the Regional/National Lists. Some hybrid systems combine FPTP and a form of PR such as the Additional Member System (AMS). The AMS system is used in elections for the Scottish Parliament, where voters can vote for single candidates in their constituencies but also for candidates from regional 'lists' put forward by each party. If there is a discrepancy between the percentage of seats the party has won and the percentage of votes cast, the seats are 'topped up' from the regional list.
Advantages of PR
In PR systems there are no wasted votes in elections. As a result, there is a far greater degree of proportionality; the number of seats more accurately reflects the number of votes cast for each party.
In the 2003 Scottish Parliament results Labour did better than the other parties, with 50 of the 129 seats and just over 33% of the constituency vote and 29.3% of the regional list vote. The SNP got 27 seats and over 20% of the vote, the Conservatives got 18 seats with just over 15% of the vote, the Greens won 7 seats and the Scottish Socialists won 6 seats. The Liberal Democrats came fourth with 17 seats but remained part of the government in coalition with Labour.
The number of seats won under the Additional Member System in Scotland in 2007 were:
|Party||Constituency Seats||Regional or 'List' seats||Total|
The SNP had the largest number of seats but were a minority government, meaning they id not have a majority over the other parties combined.
PR encourages coalition or minority governments. This encourages a less confrontational form of politics because of the need for parties to co-operate, also known as consensus politics. This also means that there are fewer dramatic changes in policies as the parties tend to keep a balanced 'middle way'.
Under AMS in Scotland, constituencies are multi-party. This means that several different parties can be represented which gives voters a choice of MSPs to consult. List systems can also increase the numbers of women, ethnic minority and disabled representatives in a parliament, if the party leaders choose to put them near the top of the List.
However, there are no guarantees that the AMS will lead to a minority government - and the 2011 results deonstrate this as the SNP did win enough seats to form a majority government. The number of seats won under AMS in Scotland in 2011 were:
|Party||Constituency Seats||Regional or 'List' seats||Total|
Disadvantages of PR
A criticism of PR is that, in elections, voters do not vote for coalition governments. The compromises that are made between politicians from different parties in coalition can sometimes be without public backing. Small parties in coalition without a majority vote from the electorate can become 'king-makers'. This means that small parties can have unfair power over the larger parties by threatening to withdraw from coalitions.
In the regional or national list systems, party leaders may draw up lists of only like-minded candidates which may disadvantage minority groups within a party. Although there is a larger than average number of women in the Scottish Parliament, there are few representatives from other groups such as ethnic minorities or the disabled. This is not desirable for effective democracy.
Local Council Elections in Scotland
2007 marked the first time the Single Transferable Vote (STV) voting system was used to elect Local Councillors in Scotland. This followed criticisms that some councils in Scotland were dominated by a single party. Using a form of PR, not FPTP, it would be fairer and all parties would be better represented. It is hoped that more people will turn out to vote however, it will lead to coalitions running many Scottish councils.
STV uses multi-member constituencies of 3 or 4 councillors per ward. Each party selects a number of candidates to be elected. Voters rank their preferred candidate(s) in order of preference. To be elected a candidate needs to reach a set number of votes also known as a quota. The candidate with the least votes drops out and their votes are reallocated to the voters’ second choices until the required number of candidates (3 or 4) have reached the quota and are elected. Using STV ensures there are far fewer wasted votes.
Only five councils in Scotland are now controlled by one party and 27 councils have no one party in control. Many councils have formed coalitions or partnership agreements. This will no doubt make it difficult to get things passed if there is not agreement among the parties.