The Simpler the Better: Choosing Electoral Systems in Democracies

In order to make an argument as to the “best” electoral systems, it is necessary to first contextualize this subjective description. This paper will assess the “best” electoral systems in the context of democracy due to the fundamental necessity of elections in any democratic system. Thus, at the core, this paper seeks to demonstrate that the best electoral systems in a democracy are that which are the simplest to understand in two ways: using a definition of democracy and the paramountcy of accountability, and by assessing the implications of the accountability and representation tradeoff inherent to democratic electoral systems. The argument proceeds as follows: first, the paramount importance of accountability in democratic systems is presented using a definition of democracy; next, using both a generalized theoretical argument and the case of FPTP, single-member constituency electoral systems, the connection between the simplest electoral systems and enhanced accountability is established, supporting the definitional argument; lastly, this paper proposes that the simplest electoral systems are not only best definitionally, but also in the context of the accountability/representation tradeoff as a function of accountability facilitating the increased ability for citizens to express preferences outside of elections, thus creating better representation. To clarify, although others have addressed the connection between simple executive systems and accountability, this paper will focus on the mechanism of legislative accountability to demonstrate that the simplest electoral systems are best for democracy (Hellwig & Samuels).

While democracy has a variety of definitions and necessary components, accountability is perhaps the most crucial element. Schmitter and Karl define modern political democracy as “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens,” highlighting the paramount importance of accountability in any democratic system (Schmitter & Karl). Therefore, considering this definition of democracy, deciding which electoral systems are best for democracy equates to finding which electoral systems best promote accountability of politicians. 

In both general theory and through the proxy use of an example electoral system, the simplest electoral systems best provide accountability. According to Hellwig and Samuels, accountability is defined as the “voters’ capacity to reward or sanction incumbents,” and this capacity rests on two sets of conditions: the ability of voters to assign policy responsibility (to specific politicians) and the opportunity of voters to act on assigned responsibility. In a theoretical sense, the connection between simplicity of electoral systems and enhanced accountability is clear. In simpler systems, more voters will understand (and better understand) how the electoral system functions; as a result of understanding the system, voters are more likely to participate in the system and hold politicians accountable. This correlation exists because understanding facilitates assignment of policy responsibility and the opportunity to act on this determination, the key conditions of accountability. The details of these mechanisms can be explained by employing the example of FPTP, single-member constituencies as a proxy for the simplest electoral system. This proxy is practical because both FPTP and single-member constituencies have been described as extremely simple. Schmitter and Karl argue that the representation channel of democracy based on territorial constituencies is “the most visible and public” (Schmitter & Karl). Visibility and publicity are inherently related to simplicity in this context because like simplicity, they facilitate voters knowing who to hold accountable and provide the opportunity to do so. As for FPTP, Blais and Massicotte bluntly state that such a system “outperforms all other options in terms of its pristine simplicity” (Blais & Massicotte). Further, since Blais et al. and King explain the high correlation between FPTP and single-member constituencies, which are both simple, the electoral system that combines them serves as a proxy to more practically demonstrate the theoretical argument between the simplest electoral systems and accountability (Blais & Massicotte) (King).

Under a FPTP, single-member constituency electoral system, the two accountability conditions are easily achievable. First, it is easier to assign policy responsibility. Under this system, voters have assigned representatives (based on geographic constituencies); thus, responsibility is automatically assigned to that representative because there is an inherent connection between representative and voter. Consequently, a voter can simply decide if they agree or disagree with their representative’s policy decision. In systems where there is not an inherent and established connection between specific voters and representatives, voters may not know who to assign policy decisions to. Further, although a voter’s representative may not have supported a specific policy measure, the voter can still then assign a lack of responsibility for the passing of a certain measure. This situation in which responsibility is negated in a simple and effective manner would not be the case in systems where voters and representatives are not inherently connected. Second, the opportunity to act on this assigned responsibility is also best accomplished under this electoral system. In some ways this condition is endogenous to the previous. For example, by knowing whom to assign responsibility to and thus contact inherently provides the opportunity for such contact to take place. Being unaware of who is responsible (such as in electoral systems without assigned representatives) clearly lessens the opportunity to act on accountability mechanisms. However, the FPTP, single-member constituency electoral system also has an exogenous effect on widespread accountability. As a result of having assigned representatives based on geographic constituency, it follows that a larger number of representatives will be held accountable than in systems where voters do not have assigned representatives. When each representative has a specific constituency, that constituency holds that representative accountable, thus ensuring that no representative can operate without voter oversight. 

The opportunity of voters to act on assigned responsibility occurs both during and outside elections. In elections, a voter can hold their specific representative accountable by either voting for or against them, while in systems without assigned representatives and party list voting for example, it is more difficult to hold individual politicians accountable for their policies. Outside of elections, voters can contact their assigned representatives; such contact is less likely in other electoral systems because it would be less clear who to contact and because the voter lacks an established connection with the representative. Therefore, it is clear that in FPTP, single-member constituency electoral systems, accountability is easier to achieve. And, since this type of electoral system is widely considered the simplest, it provides concrete evidence to the aforementioned theoretical argument that the simplest electoral systems best facilitate accountability. Lastly, because accountability is perhaps the most paramount aspect of democracy according to the cited definition, it follows that since the simplest electoral systems best facilitate accountability, that they are consequently the best electoral systems for democracy definitionally. However, not only are the simplest electoral systems best for democracy definitionally, but also by providing the best overall outcome in the accountability and representation tradeoff.

While it was established earlier that accountability is paramount to the definition of democracy, many other scholars discuss the counterbalancing relationship between accountability and representation as crucial factors in a democratic system. In a blog post entitled “Representation, Accountability and Electoral Systems,” the author identifies the tradeoff between accountability and representation as fundamental to democracy, but also challenging in terms of choosing an electoral system. The author states that the tradeoff in terms of electoral system choice is that plurality systems (likely paired with single-member constituencies) are better at providing accountability, while PR systems are better at providing representation Representation, Accountability and Electoral Systems). However, the argument that PR systems better provide representation is misguided because it solely focuses on representation in terms of translating votes to seats. In this sense, there is little doubt that PR systems better represent the preferences that voters wish to express during elections. But what about the ability of voters to express preferences outside of elections? Does that not constitute representation? In fact, expressing preferences outside of elections may be more important since there are more days without elections than with them, especially when incorporating the notion that “modern democracy … offers a variety (added emphasis) of competitive processes and channels for the expression of interests and values” (Schmitter & Karl). Considering this, the simplest electoral systems (e.g. FPTP, single-member constituency systems) actually lead to better representation across time via increased accountability and contact. As stated before, in the simplest systems, voters are more likely to know who to contact and follow through on it; this demonstrates that the simplest electoral systems better facilitate the expression of voter preferences outside the context of elections. While in PR systems the timeshot expressions of preferences (votes) may be better represented, PR systems are less receptive to representing voter preferences outside of elections. Consequently, because FPTP, single-member constituency electoral systems can better represent voter preferences outside of elections and are superior in accountability, the tradeoff outcome rests favorably with such systems. And, because it has been demonstrated that FPTP, single-member constituency electoral systems are arguably the simplest, it follows that the simplest electoral systems result in the best tradeoff outcome between accountability and representation, two key factors of democracy. 

While Pippa Norris may argue that there is no best electoral system, this paper has demonstrated that when accounting for democracy definitionally (paramountcy of accountability) and in providing the best outcome of accountability and representation, that it is possible to determine which electoral systems are best for democracy (Norris). Therefore, because the simplest electoral systems best provide accountability and result in the best accountability/representation tradeoff, it is evident that the the best electoral systems (for democracy) are the ones that are simplest to understand.  

Bibliography

Blais, André, and Louis Massicotte. “Electoral Systems.” In Comparing Democracies 2: New Challenges in the Study of Elections and Voting, 2nd ed., 40–69. London: Thousand Oaks, 2002. 

Hellwig, Timothy, and David Samuels. “Electoral Accountability and the Variety of Democratic Regimes.” British Journal of Political Science 38, no. 1 (January 2008): 65–90. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007123408000045

King, Charles. “Electoral Systems.” Georgetown University, 2000. http://faculty.georgetown.edu/kingch/Electoral_Systems.htm.

Norris, Pippa. “Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems.” International Political Science Review 18, no. 3 (July 1997): 297–312. https://doi.org/10.1177/019251297018003005

Schmitter, Philippe C, and Terry Lynn Karl. “What Democracy Is … and Is Not.” Journal of Democracy 2, no. 3 (1991): 75–88. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/225590/pdf

Unknown. “Representation, Accountability and Electoral Systems.” Unparliamentary Affairs. University of British Columbia, June 28, 2016. https://blogs.ubc.ca/unparliamentary/2016/06/28/representation-accountability-and-electoral-systems/