Comparing Winner-Take-All to Proportional Systems
Substantial comparative research has been conducted on the impact of winner-take-all systems vs proportional systems. This Appendix covers a wide range of indicators, as one might expect, because the choice of electoral systems has wide ranging implications on how citizens relate to their governments and how government policies are considered and implemented.
Reasons Why a Proportional System Would Have an Impact:
PR gives equal value to every vote and for this reason is likely to lead to increased government accountability to citizens and greater voter satisfaction. Some of the impacts of this can be seen below in the section titled Measures of Democracy.
A flaw of winner-take-all systems is that small shifts in electoral preferences are sufficient to generate large shifts in power. This creates political instability and the phenomenon of “policy lurch” when one majority government is succeeded by another at the other end of the political spectrum. It also encourages political parties to jockey for short-term advantage rather than focusing on long-term policy issues. One can expect these tendencies to be reduced under PR, which fosters a long-term view and greater policy coherence over time.
PR empowers ordinary citizens, by making every vote count and allowing for a wider range of views to be represented in the legislature. This can reduce inequality and improve access to social services over time, and, according to Salomon Orellana1, could have a salutary effect on how a country deals with diversity more generally. Orellana argues that increased opportunities for diversity and dissent allow PR countries to outperform in four areas:
- policy innovation
- mitigating the pandering of politicians in the pursuit of voters by promising quick-fix solutions
- increasing the political sophistication of the electorate
- limiting elite control over decision making
Measures of Democracy
Arend Lijphart, a world-renowned political scientist, spent his career studying various features of democratic life in majoritarian and PR democracies (he calls the latter “consensual democracies). In his landmark study, he compared 36 democracies over 55 years.2
Using World Governance Indicators and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Lijphart found that PR countries outperformed majoritarian ones on 16 out of 17 measures of sound government and decision making – nine of them at a statistically significant level – including government effectiveness (quality and independence of the public service, quality of policy making), rule of law, and the level and control of corruption (including capture of the state by elite interests).
Looking at a number of specific indicators, Lijphart found that in countries using proportional systems:
- Voter turnout was higher by 7.5 percentage points, when contextual factors are taken into account.
- Government policies were closer to the view of the median voter.
- Citizens were more satisfied with the performance of their countries’ democratic institutions, even when the party they voted for was not in power.
- There was a small increase in the number of parties in Parliament.
- The share of women elected to legislators was 8 percentage points higher.
- Scores were higher on measures of political participation and civil liberties
Lijphart concludes that consensual (PR) democracies are “kinder, gentler democracies.”
Research by other authors has yielded similar results. Lijphart’s finding that proportional systems lead to governments that better reflect the views of the median voter was confirmed by McDonald, Mendes and Budge, who looked at 254 elections producing 471 governments in 20 countries.3
Pilon demurs somewhat on the subject of PR’s impact on voter turnout, noting that the observed impact varies from study to study and is affected by other considerations than the choice of electoral system, but ends up supporting Lijphart’s conclusion, describing the “typical bonus” of voter turnout under PR to be in the order of seven to eight percentage points.4
Women in Politics
There exists an abundance of research on the effects of electoral systems on the participation of women in politics. As we saw above, Lijphart found that the share of women in parliamentary bodies was eight percentage points higher in PR countries. This finding of a positive correlation between PR and women elected to legislatures is well established in the literature.5
While women’s participation in politics can only be fully explained with reference to a wide range of variables, the research community is united in declaring that PR elects more women. One of the most widely accepted theories is that multi-member districts allow more women to be elected because parties will want to put forward a diversified slate of candidates to reach a wider range of voters. It is much easier for a party to ensure balanced representation with multi-member districts than in single-member districts.
Australia provides the perfect petri dish to test this theory, because the same voters use two different voting systems to elect their Representatives: the non-proportional Alternative Vote (AV – single-member ridings with ranked ballots) for the House of Representatives, and the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV – multi-member ridings with ranked ballots) for the Senate.
The results are as the theory would predict. Kaminsky & White looked at elections in both chambers over a 61 year period and found that more than 2.5X times as many women were elected to the Senate than to the House of Representatives.6 After women were given the right to run for Parliament in 1902, the share of women representatives began to increase sooner in the Senate than in the House, and has averaged 10-15 points higher in recent years (37% vs. 26% in 2013).
Canada, the US, the UK, France and Australia’s lower house all vote with majoritarian electoral systems and all share an embarrassingly low rate of women in their legislatures. None reach or exceed the most basic target set by the United Nations of 30% representation of women in politics. In comparison, legislatures in PR countries such as New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark all include over 30% women. Sweden tops the chart at 45%.
In Canada, more women are running for office, 533 in 2015, yet only 16.5% of those women were elected. Women’s representation in Canada’s House of Commons has stagnated at 27% (as of 2017) (though, to be fair, BC elected 39% women in 2017 under our current system; this is because nomination practices have a very significant influence and the NDP nominated roughly 50% women and saw 46% of their elected MLAs being female, as compared with under a third for the Liberal Party (14 of 43)).
Stability and Ability to Take a Long-Term Perspective
One of the biggest debates about PR is whether it leads to political and policy instability. This section looks at several facets of this question:
- the frequency of elections,
- the issue of policy lurch, and
- the ability of governments to deal with long-term issues of importance to the economic and environmental stability of the country.
As we shall see, the evidence strongly favours PR over winner-take-all systems.
Frequency of Elections
Regarding the frequency of elections, the comparative research shows little difference between PR and FPTP countries. Looking at elections from 1945 to 1998, Pilon calculates that countries using FPTP averaged 16.7 elections, while countries using proportional systems averaged only 16.0 elections.7 The difference between these two groups of countries is negligible.
He points to other data that shows a somewhat shorter government (i.e., cabinet) life-span in PR countries (1.8 years as opposed to 2.5 years in FPTP countries), but discounts this result because it is heavily influenced by the Italian experience mainly involving what would elsewhere only be considered as cabinet shuffles.8 He concludes that this type of instability is “not a problem for PR systems in western countries”.9
Countries with winner-take-all systems tend to oscillate from left to right, are characterized by policy shifts largely unrelated to underlying voter preferences, and cannot be said to satisfy the test of long-term policy stability. Indeed, it is not unusual for one government to spend the first year or two of its mandate simply undoing what the previous government has done, in a process called “policy lurch” frequently seen in winner-take-all systems such as Australia, the US, the UK and Canada.
In New Zealand, dramatic policy shifts enacted by the National and Labour governments in the 1970s and 1980s were one of the main reasons for voter disaffection with the first-past-the-post system prior to the introduction of MMP in 1996. Although the government has continued to be dominated by the National and Labour parties at different moments since then, the need of the government to secure the support of other parties to enact legislation and the stronger voice of smaller parties in the House are felt to have considerably tempered the policy lurch phenomenon.10
In Canada, we need look no further than the efforts by the Harper government to undo much of the Liberal government legacy that they inherited, along with the subsequent undoing of conservative policies by the Liberal government following the 2015 election and the present reversal by the BC NDP of BC Liberal decisions such as the Site C dam and the Massey Bridge.
After the federal Liberal Government came to power in 2015, they published a list of budget cuts enacted by the previous government, many of which were aimed at programs established by previous Liberal governments.
This included cuts to:
- Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development,
- the Environment Portfolio,
- Fisheries and Oceans,
- Parks Canada Agency,
- Citizenship and Immigration,
- the Canadian Food Inspection Agency,
- the Canadian Heritage Portfolio,
- Library and Archives Canada,
- the National Arts Centre, and
- the National Film Board of Canada.
Since then, the Liberal Government has spent much of its first year in office undoing these cuts, including the following measures11:
- restored the long-form census;
- pledged to reverse funding cuts to the CBC;
- overturned the closing of veterans offices;
- overturned two pieces of legislation it considered punitive to labour;
- restored funding to First Nations which had been frozen under the previous government’s transparency act;
- planning to boost Parks Canada to counter Tory budget cuts;
- reopened coast guard stations;
- reopened funding for women’s groups;
- restored refugee health benefits cut by previous government…
Such policy reversals are a normal feature of our electoral system because small shifts in the political winds can lead to significant shifts in power, as the country goes from a majority government at one pole of the political spectrum to another.
Economic Performance and Fiscal Responsibility
That sensitivity of winner-take-all systems to small shifts in voter preferences has another well known implication: the tendency of politicians to focus on short-term issues or wedge issues at the expense of long-term policy issues. This sub-section and the following one suggest that PR systems are better equipped to deal with long term issues such as sound fiscal management, economic growth and environmental management.
Commenting on the economic performance of countries using different systems, Carey and Hix found that countries with moderately proportional systems were more fiscally responsible and more likely to enjoy fiscal surpluses.12 Orellana found that proportional systems tend to have higher surpluses or lower deficits than less proportional systems, and lower levels of national debt.13 Orellana’s regression analysis predicts a surplus of 0.05 percent of GDP for fully proportional countries, against a deficit of 2.9 percent of GDP in majoritarian countries. The projected national debt is 65.7 percent higher in majoritarian countries than in those with fully proportional systems, meaning the cost of servicing the debt will be higher.
Turning to the issue of economic performance more generally, the correlation seems to depend upon the sample being used. Lijphart and Orellana found no relationship between electoral systems and economic growth.
However, when Knutsen looked at a much longer historical period involving 3,710 country-years of data covering 107 countries from 1820 to 2002, he found that proportional and semi-proportional systems produced an “astonishingly robust” and “quite substantial” increase in economic growth – a one percentage point increase – compared to plurality-majoritarian systems.14 He suggests that this may be because PR tends to promote broad-interest policies rather than special interest policies; and because PR systems produce more stable and thus more credible economic policies. He concludes that PR and semi-PR systems generate more prosperity than majoritarian systems.
Frederiksson found that countries with proportional systems set stricter environmental policies.15 Darcie Cohen found that countries with proportional systems were faster to ratify the Kyoto protocol, and that their share of world total carbon emissions had declined.1
Both Lijphart and Orellana found that countries with proportional systems scored six points higher on the Yale Environmental Performance Index, which measures ten policy areas, including environmental health, air quality, resource management, biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, agriculture and climate change.
Using data from the International Energy Agency, Orellana found that between 1990 and 2007, when carbon emissions were rising everywhere, the statistically predicted increase was significantly lower in countries with fully proportional systems, at 9.5%, compared to 45.5% in countries using winner-take-all systems.
Orellana also found that citizens in countries with proportional representation were more supportive of environmental action, and more willing to pay the costs associated with environmental protection. He found the use of renewable energy to be approximately 117 percent higher in countries with fully proportional electoral systems.
In sum, countries with proportional systems tend to act more quickly and do more to protect the environment.
As noted earlier, PR tends to empower ordinary citizens and one might expect that to be reflected in indicators of income inequality and of social policy outcomes. This expectation is borne out by the research.
Lijphart found that countries with proportional systems had considerably lower levels of income inequality.17 Likewise, Birchfield and Crepaz found that “consensual political institutions (which use PR) tend to reduce income inequalities whereas majoritarian institutions have the opposite effect.”18 The results of the regression work they present were highly significant, with PR accounting for 51% of the variance in income inequality among countries.
The authors explain this result in terms of the higher degree of political power of people in PR systems.
In their words:
The more widespread the access to political institutions, and the more representative the political system, the more citizens will take part in the political process to change it in their favour which will manifest itself, among other things, in lower income inequality. Such consensual political institutions make the government more responsive to the demands of a wider range of citizens.
Vincenzo Verardi, in a study of 28 democracies, also found that when proportionality increases, inequality decreases.19 Iversen and Soskice found that PR is associated with greater efforts to promote income redistribution.20
Investigating the broader impact of PR on society, Carey and Hix21 looked at 610 elections over 60 years in 81 countries and found that PR countries garnered higher scores on the United Nations Index of Human Development, which incorporates health, education and standard of living indicators. Carey and Hix consider that the Index of Human Development provides “a reasonable overall indicator of government performance in the delivery of public goods and human welfare.” Lijphart found that countries with PR spent an average of 4.75% more on social expenditures than majoritarian democracies.
Diversity and Social Cohesion
Electoral systems can affect how citizens and government interact and how citizens relate to each other. As we saw in the introduction, Orellana22 provides a number of reasons why the diversity of views in PR systems can have an impact. Here are some of the repercussions of adopting more proportional electoral systems.
Prejudice, Tolerance and Changing Attitudes
Using data from the World Values Survey conducted between 1981 and 2010, Orellana found that citizens in countries with proportional systems tend to show less prejudice towards minority and marginalized groups. Countries with majoritarian systems scored approximately 44 percent higher on the prejudice scale than countries with fully proportional electoral systems.
He found that citizens in countries with more proportional electoral systems tend to have higher levels of tolerance for homosexuality, abortion, divorce, euthanasia and prostitution; and a higher level of disagreement with the notion that men make better leaders.
Furthermore, their attitudes towards those issues tended to evolve more quickly than elsewhere. Over a roughly 25-year period, the share of the population demonstrating tolerance of homosexuality increased by 41 percentage points in countries using proportional systems but only 20 percentage points in single member district systems.
Law Enforcement and National Defense
Perhaps because PR mitigates pandering for votes based on quick fixes, both Lijphart and Orellana23 have found that countries with less proportional systems tend to have more public support for punitive solutions to crime, and produce more punitive policy outcomes including higher incarceration rates and greater use of capital punishment. Orellana found that support for incarceration is approximately 28 percentage points higher in countries with majoritarian systems. Confirming similar results by Lijphart, he found that the statistically-predicted incarceration rate for countries with fully proportional systems was 136 per 100,000 people compared to 246 per 100,000 in majoritarian countries.
Relying on an indicator of privacy and surveillance produced by Privacy International for over 30 countries, Orellana found that countries with proportional systems scored 58% higher on the privacy index.
Looking at the average military expenditure as a percentage of GDP between 1988 and 2012 and data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Orellana found that the predicted level of military spending for countries with majoritarian systems was more than twice as high as for countries with fully proportional systems (2.6% vs. 1.1% of GDP).
Leblang and Chan found that a country’s electoral system is the most important predictor of a country’s involvement in war, according to three different measures: (1) when a country was the first to enter a war; (2) when it joined a multinational coalition in an ongoing war; and (3) how long it stayed in a war after becoming a party to it.24
Lijphart found that PR is strongly correlated with a lower degree of violent events, more political stability and a lower risk of internal conflict.25
Is ‘Perfect Proportionality’ Best?
In an interesting article from 2011 entitled “The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low-Magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems”26, Carey and Hix (professors at Dartmouth College and the London School of Economics, respectively) investigated whether pushing proportionality to the limit was important. They found that “one can gain most of the advantages attributed to PR, while sacrificing less of those [advantages] attributed to majoritarian elections, by maintaining district magnitudes in the low to moderate range. … Electoral systems that use low-magnitude multimember districts [e.g., in the range of 4-8 seats] produce disproportionality indices almost on par with those of pure PR systems while limiting party system fragmentation and producing simpler government coalitions.” In other words, by some measures, there is an ‘electoral sweet spot’ that suggests that proportional voting systems that treat local regions relatively independently can produce most of the good outcomes that we want in our government.
In conclusion, the existing body of comparative research internationally leaves little room for doubt that PR is the better choice.
PR outperforms winner-take-all systems in almost every respect:
- higher quality of democratic life,
- prudent fiscal management,
- higher economic growth,
- better environmental management,
- reduced income inequality,
- higher levels of human development,
- greater tolerance of diversity,
- a less punitive approach to law enforcement,
- greater respect for privacy, and
- lower levels of conflict and militarism.
1 Orellana, Salomon (2014). Electoral Systems and Governance: How Diversity Can Improve Policy Making. New York: Routledge Press (summarized by FVC: http://tinyurl.com/gmjtg2t).
2 Lijphart, Arend (2012). Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in 36 Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale Press.
3 McDonald, M., Mendes, S. and Budge, I. (2004). “What are Elections for? Conferring the Median Mandate.” British Journal of Political Science 34: pp. 1-26, Cambridge University Press.
4 Pilon, Dennis. (2007). The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System. Toronto: Emond Montgomery.
5 Norris, P. (2004) Electoral Engineering: Voting Rules and Political Behavior. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
6 Kaminsky, J., & White, T.J. (2007). “Electoral systems and women’s representation in Australia.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 45: 185-201
7 Op. cit., pp. 146-154.
8 Ibid, p. 147.
9 Ibid, p. 151.
10 Presentation by James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party of New Zealand, at the Green Party of Canada Convention, Ottawa, August 5-7, 2016 and associated discussions.
11 As reported in the following media articles:
“Burning down the Harper legacy serving Trudeau well,” Thestar.com;
“Carolyn Bennett reinstates funds frozen under First Nations Financial Transparency Act,” CBC News;
“Environment Minister seeks to boost Parks Canada after nearly $30 million in Tory budget cuts,” CBC News;
“Fisheries minister in Vancouver to help re-open Kitsilano Coast Guard,” National Observer;
“Liberals to reopen funding taps for women’s groups,” thestar.com;
“Liberals restore refugee health benefits cut by previous government,” The Globe and Mail.
12 Carey, John M. and Hix, Simon (2009). “The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low-magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems.” PSPE Working Paper 01-2009. Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.
13 Op. cit.
14 Knutsen, Carl (2011). “Which Democracies Prosper? Electoral Rules, Forms of Government, and Economic Growth.” Electoral Studies 30: 83-90.
15 Fredriksson, P. G. and Millimet, D. L. (2004). “Electoral rules and environmental policy.” Economics Letters, 84(2), pp. 237–44.
16 Cohen, Darcie (2010). Do Political Preconditions Affect Environmental Outcomes? Exploring the Linkages Between Proportional Representation, Green parties and the Kyoto Protocol. Simon Fraser University.
17 Op. cit., p. 282.
18 Birchfield, Vicki and Crepaz, Markus (1998). “The Impact of Constitutional Structures and Collective and Competitive Veto Points on Income Inequality in Industrialized Democracies.” European Journal of Political Research 34: 175-200.
19 Verardi, Vincenzo (January 2005). ”Electoral Systems and Income Inequality.” Economics Letters, 86-1.
20 Iversen, T., & Soskice, D. (2006). “Electoral Systems and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More Than Others. American Political Science Review 100-2: 165–81.
21 Op. cit.
22 Op. cit.
23 Op. cit.
24 Leblang, D., & Chan, S. (2003). “Explaining Wars Fought By Established Democracies: Do Institutional Constraints Matter?” Political Research Quarterly 56-24: 385–400.
25 Op. cit.
26 Op. cit.(2009) and Carey, John M. and Hix, Simon (2011). “The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low-magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems.”. American Journal of Political Science 55-2: 383-397.