Electoral systems are what we call the rules used to organize voting and then to convert votes into election outcomes. For at least the past few decades, political scientists have been fascinated by the idea that certain electoral systems might help “troubled” societies heal what ails them. One recent contribution to this literature appears in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Democracy, in the form of an article asserting that majoritarian electoral systems should work better than proportional representation (PR) at keeping new democracies alive and ending violent conflicts. The January article is a response to a piece in the previous issue asserting the opposite, that new democracies in the Middle East and North Africa could improve their chances for survival by adopting PR. ( If you don’t know what these labels mean and are curious to learn, Georgetown University’s Charles King offers a simple primer here.)
The literature on electoral-system design as a policy instrument is produced by very smart people, but it still feels like a big “Coke! Pepsi!” fight to me.
For one thing, empirical evidence of the effects of electoral systems on outcomes like democratic consolidation and conflict resolution is, and will probably remain, too ambiguous to resolve the argument. Articles often toss out a couple of supporting examples, but the fact of the matter is that these systems are really complex, and the conditions under which they operate vary widely. Because the systems are so complex, any particular combination of rules has often only been tried one or a few times in the real world. Because the numbers of similar and contrasting cases are inevitably small, it’s impossible to make the kinds of sharp comparisons we’d need to infer causality with any confidence.
Second and more important, this literature consistently ignores the real-world politics of institutional design that would inevitably be involved in making the choices it recommends. Electoral systems aren’t drawn up and plunked down by technocrats hoping to make democracy stick or to end fighting. Instead, they’re usually the products of tough bargaining among loose coalitions of shrewd actors all looking for a selfish edge. Iraq and Afghanistan under foreign occupation in the 2000s are about as close as the real world will ever come to the conditions in which technical experts were in a position to prescribe and impose systems designed to achieve certain ends. Yet, in both cases, the systems that emerged deviated substantially from expert recommendations after local actors (understandably and appropriately) asserted themselves and injected their own ideas and interests into the process. If paper solutions couldn’t get translated into practice under those conditions, it’s hard to see how this literature is going to become much more than an intellectual exercise unless and until it incorporates the politics of institutional choice into its recommendations.
Last but not least, articles in this vein often gloss over the fact that decisions about electoral-system design inevitably involve trade-offs between different values. As Pippa Norris puts it,
There is no single ‘best’ system: these arguments represent irresolvable value conflicts. For societies, which are raven [sic] by deep-rooted ethnic, religious or ethnic divisions, like Mali, Russia, or Israel, the proportional system may prove more inclusive (Lijphart 1977), but it may also reinforce rather than ameliorate these cleavages (Tsebelis 1990). For states, which are already highly centralized, like Britain or New Zealand, majoritarian systems can insulate the government from the need for broader consultation and democratic checks and balances. In constitutional design it appears that despite the appeal of ‘electoral engineering’ there are no easy choices.
Until the literature starts dealing more effectively with these issues–the ambiguity of the empirical evidence, the hard politics of institutional change, and the inevitability of trade-offs between supposed ends–I’m going to keep hearing “Tastes great! Less filling!” whenever I read pieces like the ones in the recent issues of JoD.