Global Ranking of Electoral Systems

Author: Adam Sundle

As part of his internship with Citizen Network Research Adam Sundle carried out this global review of electoral systems, supported by Dave Goswell. The UK’s electoral system is one of the least democratic systems by global standards, although a number of highly populated ex-British colonies also use this system.

Is the UK a democratic country?

In the UK there are many people who think that the current electoral system is unfair. But how does the UK’s system relate to other countries? During 2021 we began to explore the different systems around the globe. 

You can look at our global map here:

https://citizen-network.org/library/global-democracy.html

The UK’s Parliament in Westminster is elected using a system which is usually know as First Past the Post (FPTP) which means that several people can stand for a post and the person with the most votes wins. Clearly some people think this is the best way to organise elections. In fact the current UK Government is now looking to turn the tide back. After a couple of decades of experimentation with other electoral systems it seems that FPTP is back in favour. For example, recently, the Government announced that the mayoral and police commissioner elections in England and Wales would switch to First Past the Post (FPTP). This seems to be a politically motivated decision to maintain and increase Tory gains in national and local elections.

https://www.publicsectorexecutive.com/articles/first-past-post-be-introduced-all-mayoral-and-pcc-elections

However the Government’s claim that “FPTP is the world’s most widely used electoral system” is very ambiguous. FPTP is not used by most countries; however the small number of countries that do use the system are some of the countries with the largest populations (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the USA). FPTP certainly does not seem to be the most democratic system, and as our map shows that there are many more democratic alternatives to the FPTP system.

Grading electoral systems

We’ve tried to show how democratic different systems are. We have not included every country and we’ve not compared the UK to dictatorships or to nations with very weak democracies. The Democracy Map is also supplemented with some key electoral facts to illuminate how democratic such nations are.

It is also important to remember that states often have multiple democratic system and different systems can be used at different levels. For example, although the UK Parliament uses FPTP, the Scottish Assembly is elected using the Additional Member System (AMS). For the purposes of this analysis we have simplified matters by focusing on the dominant legislature. This is obviously not perfect; for in some countries (e.g. France, USA and Russia) elected presidents have significant power that is distinct from and in addition to the main legislative chamber.

There are also many different alternatives to FPTP and the umbrella term Proportional Representation (PR) does not exhaust all our options. We have ranked electoral systems into 7 different groups, starting with the most democratic options:

  1. Proportional Representation (PR) - Each party composes a list of potential candidates for each multi-member districts and the number of those elected from each list is representative of the vote. There are many different forms of PR including the STV (Single Transferable Vote) system. Within our definition of Proportional Representation we’ve grouped together the different forms that PR can take.
  2. Alternative Vote (AV) - Voters rank candidates in order of their preference. If a candidate wins over 50% they automatically win the seat. If there is no victory by majority, the candidate with the fewest 1st preference votes is knocked out and their 2nd preferences are distributed to the other candidates. This process is continued until one candidate has the support of over 50% of the votes.
  3. Mixed System - A Mixed System is also known as an Additional Members System (AMS) and is a system that combines both PR and FPTP. There are two ballot papers. One is to vote for a local representative. The other is a list of candidates who represent a party.
  4. Two-Round System (2RS) - Voters mark their preferred candidate. If they win over 50%, then they win the election. If not, a second vote is conducted between the two candidates who came first. The candidate who wins the second ballot is then elected.
  5. Parallel System (PS) - This is a hybrid of systems which, on our analysis is a hybrid of FPTP and PR. Unlike mixed systems like AMS the PR component of a parallel system does not compensate for any disproportionality within the FPTP system.
  6. First Past the Post (FPTP) - Voters pick a local representative (who usually belongs to a party). The candidate with the most votes will then go into government to form a state legislature.
  7. Party Block Voting (PBV) - Voters have 1 vote where they vote for a block list of candidates. The party with the most votes wins the entire list of candidates.

Our criteria for ranking these systems were these four factors:

  1. Representative - The balance of the vote is genuinely translated into the balance of seats in the legislative chamber.
  2. Strong constituency link - The locality of the voters are represented in the system
  3. Multi-party system - The voting system encourage a genuine choice between varied candidates.
  4. Few wasted votes - The system provides as much value as possible to all votes.

In the text below we provide more background information about these systems, their impact and examples of places where the system is used.

1. Proportional Representation (PR)

Examples: Czech Republic, Serbia, Sweden, Colombia

System: Each party composes a list of potential candidates for each multi-member district and the number of those elected from each list is representative of the vote. There are many different forms of PR including the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.

On our analysis of PR is the most representative electoral system. This is because the purpose of PR is to try and reflect how the population has voted as accurately as possible. This means that PR ranks well against all our criteria, particularly regarding representation, multi-party system and few wasted votes. This is because smaller parties can gain representation. This consequently means that there are few wasted votes. Representation of smaller parties is crucial for democracy in order to provide scrutiny to the ruling parties.  However, the challenge may be choosing which format to take as there are various forms in which PR is utilised.

PR encourages the development for a multi-party system. Fringe parties can rise to prominence based on the public agenda. Austria for example in its most recent legislative election, had 5 parties receive between 71 seats and 15 seats. The Green party who had previously managed 0 seats in the prior election, increased their total to 26. This highlights how PR can respond to public opinion. On the other hand, the Green Party struggle to gain representation in the UK because of the FPTP electoral system. They consistently in the past few elections only managed to get 1 seat. This has amounted to around 0.2% of seats but they have received a greater percentage of the vote. Whilst it was just at 3.2% in the last election, if voters had faith in a system whereby their vote wouldn’t be wasted, then they would have more faith and vote for fringe parties. PR allows this to happen. Whilst the electorate are aware that they may not win, they can be confident that voting for them means that they can at least gain some form of parliamentary representation. Latvia is an example of a new democracy that has gone down the PR route. It has proven to produce a multi-party system. In the most recent parliamentary election, 7 parties gained seats ranging from 23 to 8 seats. This highlights the equal split and level of multi-representation. 

BY our criteria PR only relative weakness is that it weakens the constituency link by relying on larger constituencies. However, what PR does mirror how the the constituency has actually voted. This means that there is a greater possibility that the voter helps elect a candidate who they have voted for.

A supposed attraction of FPTP is that it does provide a strong constituency link. However this is something of an illusion. As documentaries like ‘Toryboy’ highlight people’s apathy towards their local MP. But, this is largely because of neglect from their MP. A system like PR would mean that MPs would have to fight for their seat and not take the constituents for granted. This is because they are more susceptible to change given that there are a greater number of seats per constituency.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ToryBoy_The_Movie

One could argue that there are in fact wasted votes in a PR system. Mark Rutte’s VVD party has led the government since 2010 despite never receiving 26% of the vote. However, there is a far greater equal split in terms of representation in the Dutch legislature. The 2021 election showed 17 parties gaining representation in the House of Representatives. Even parties with who received around 1% of the vote gained a seat in the House. This shows that your vote under PR has more meaning and even if your preferred party doesn't win, they can still form some sort of representation in the legislature. This is vital in a proper functioning democracy in order to achieve proper scrutiny of ruling parties. 

2. Alternative Vote (AV)

Example: Australia

System: Voters rank candidates in order of their preference. If a candidate wins over 50% they automatically win the seat. If there is no victory by majority, the candidate with the fewest 1st preference votes is knocked out and you then look towards the 2nd preferences and so on.

A core advantage of AV is that it permits a multi-party system. Voters have to take interest in various parties to assess where their preferential votes are going. There are also few wasted votes as if an MP does not receive a majority then the second round of voting comes into play. This also means that smaller parties have a higher chance of gaining some form of representation. However, if a party were to win 51% of the vote, then the remaining votes would be wasted in that constituency. This can lead to many wasted votes. Indeed, the multi-party system can be jeopardised too given that larger parties attempt to strike up deals with smaller parties. This gives too much leverage to larger parties meaning that they can manipulate smaller parties. Whilst voters may take greater notice of smaller parties when they are choosing their different preferences, they may base these opinions on how they have coalesced with larger parties. 

An advantage of AV is that an MP has to win a majority. This means you are less likely to get MPs who don’t care for their constituents and live for a large quantity of their time abroad (as can happen in the UK) for they need to ensure they are getting the majority of support from constituents. In this aspect, constituents are electing candidates for whom they actually vote. It is also an effective way to ensure that a majority is reached. Indeed, there won’t always be a majority winner in any system but, this attempts to ensure that if voters’ first preference votes aren’t chosen then at least their alternative preferences may be given support.

AV is a less democratic system than PR given that it is ultimately not as representative as PR. The winner takes all approach means that ultimately there isn’t as great representation as there is under PR. Indeed, an MP can be elected without winning a majority on the first round. This ultimately means that an MP doesn’t necessarily represent the interests of their constituents. In Australia smaller parties have helped to form the centre-right alliance of the Liberal-National Coalition’. Australia has in effect become a two-party system with the Liberal-National Coalition competing against Labour. In principle, AV should encourage voters to take greater interest in their alternative preferences. But, in practice this is not proving the case. In the last 3 elections in Australia, apart from the two largest parties, no other party has won more than 1 seat in parliament.

3. Mixed System

Examples: Germany, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Parliament

System: Mixed System like the Additional Member System (AMS) is a combination of PR and FPTP. There are two ballot papers. One is to vote for a local representative. The other is a list of candidates who represent a party. In the district seats, the list seats are used to balance out the disproportionate results.

AMS is an attempt to try and maintain representation and a strong constituency link. In principle, it is a democratic idea. It means that there can be strong levels of representation nationally whilst also having local representation. Baston states

“Supporters of AMS claim that it provides the best of both; its detractors say it combines the worst of both.”

Baston L in McCarvill P (2010) Devising an Electoral System for the 21st Century: The Case for AMS. IPPR: London, p.9.

The local representative however ultimately doesn’t have a great deal of authority. Also, the use of FPTP to elect a local MP is not representative of the overall vote for the respective constituency. AMS also stimulates internal conflict. It creates resentment from the constituency MPs towards the party list MPs. It encourages parties to draw up a list of MPs to sneak people ‘through the back door’. It is also becomes difficult when party-list MPs try to get involved in local issues. It generates uncertainty amongst the MPs and can create a degree of a power imbalance between the two.

However a positive of AMS is that voters have more choice and there is a multi-party system with voters often exercising that right. Voters can choose who they would like to represent them locally and nationally. This creates a multi-party system. Greater choice means greater political engagement too. An issue with systems like FPTP is that fringe parties struggle to gain representation. In the UK for example, it can predominantly be viewed as a 2 party-system. This means that parties like the Green party, despite gaining more of the popular vote and gaining more relevance in political discourse, struggle to gain any sort of authority in parliament. The 2021 Federal election in Germany highlights how AMS can respond and reflect popular opinion. The Green party won 118 seats in parliament in 2021 - something that is almost unimaginable in the UK. Indeed, Germany is a strong example of a multi-party system. Although the SDP and CDU/CSU did win the majority of votes between them, there is still significant representation in the makeup of the Reichstag from parties such as the Greens, FDP, ADF and the Left Party. 

4. Two-Round System (2RS)

Example: France

System: Voters mark their preferred candidate. If they win over 50%, then they win the election. If not a second vote is conducted. The candidate who wins the second ballot is then elected.

Two-Round voting system is rarely used in legislative chambers but is much more common as a system of electing a President. The core problem with Two-Round voting is that it is much harder for fringe parties to gain power. France is a rarity in that it uses a Two-Round system for both its legislature and its presidential elections. Despite receiving just 4% less of the vote than first place Macron in the first round of the voting in 2017, the Republican party because they were in third place wouldn’t go to the second round. Indeed, this leads to a high amount of wasted votes of people who wanted to vote for the Republican party but in the Second Round had to settle for either voting for Macron or Le Pen. Similarly, La France Insoumise also received just 5% lower of the vote of Macron and didn’t receive adequate representation. In this 2017 election, En Marche! Topped the 1st round with 8.6million votes. They went to the next round with the 2nd place National Front. But The Republicans and La Republique En Marche received 7.2million votes and 7million votes respectively. This was evidently a very tight election that because of the system ended up between a choice between En Marche! And the National Front. This isn’t a democratic choice given how the vote panned out in the first round of voting. One could argue however that a Two-Round system has allowed for parties like La Republique En Marche to enter the forefront of politics. Indeed, it is possible for fringe parties to gain relevancy. However, in each election, there is still a question mark over how representative of the population as a whole. It may allow for fringe parties to rise but, representation may not be achieved for all of the relevant parties.

Moreover, whilst multi-party government may be possible, since the Second World War France has largely been dominated by two major parties. Although which parties these are has changed - and they are now far-right and centre parties. So effectively France still has a two-party system with other parties struggling to maintain relevancy. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron won just 24% of the vote in the first round. In an election with all the potential candidates present, for a party to win on just 24% of the vote is undoubtedly unrepresentative. He may have won 66% in the second round but fundamentally this highlights a further issue regarding a multi-party system. In the second round if the choice is only between two people that excludes smaller parties. In the second round in 2017 in France, the choice was simply between Macron and the far-right candidates Le Pen. That means voters settle on one candidate often who they deem to be the least worst.

Moreover, France also produces disproportionate results. In 2017, the Presidential Majority coalition in the Second Round of voting received 49% of the vote but 60% of the seats. This is a similar representation as to how the voting occurs on a local level. If a local representative doesn’t receive a majority after the first round and goes to the second round, voters are therefore left with a choice of two parties they may have a lot of apathy towards. Indeed, they may still go out and vote but, a large number of the constituents will be disillusioned with their options. This is highlighted by how in the French legislative elections in 2017, 56% of the population abstained. 

5. Parallel Voting System

Examples: Senegal, Andorra

System: Parallel systems can take multiple formats but the core principal is that it is 2 systems that elect 2 or more different chambers each. So, this may be a mix including proportional Representation, First Past the Post, Party block voting. Indeed , this is similar to AMS but the key difference is that with a Parallel Voting System there is no compensatory for disproportionality as a result of the district seat results. This means that proportionality of the vote is less likely and more likely to be distorted than under AMS. Another disadvantage is that it creates a split between the two different sets of MPs. There is one group who are voted in by the electorate and are bound to their constituents. The other group, the election of party lists are accountable to their party leaders. This means that the elected officials are not wholly representative of the population, nor do they necessarily represent the desires of their party.

Parallel systems can certainly vary in terms of representation and some countries, and countries deviate in how many seats they assign for each system. Countries could assign 80% of the seats elected through PR and 20% through FPTP or vice versa. Votes can therefore be manipulated to suit a party’s desires to their preferred electoral system. Andorra have a fair representation, as far as parallel systems, go with a 50/50 split.

6. First Past the Post (FPTP)

Examples: USA, UK, India.

System: Voters pick a local representative (who usually belongs to a party). The candidate with the most votes will then go into government to form a state legislature.

An advantage of FPTP is that it can provide a strong constituency link. Steve Rotherham, an MP for Liverpool Walton, has campaigned for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. This highlights how an MP under FPTP can connect and represent local issues. A strong constituency link can be a beneficial factor of FPTP but it is far from a given. The 2015 general election led to 331 MPs being elected without a majority of the vote. Under FPTP, many MPs are therefore elected without a majority of the vote - this means that it is not representative of the desires of the locals and leads to a lack of representation nationally too. A 2015 Hansard survey found that 75% of people don’t know who their local MP was. Indeed the recent issue of MPs having second jobs highlights how committed MPs are to their constituency. Geoffrey Cox has been spending time in the British Virgin Islands as part of his second job. This is hardly an exemplary example of FPTP showing a strong constituency link. FPTP is therefore obviously not working in its supposed core positive which is to provide a strong constituency link if so many people have no evident connection to their MP. With a winner takes all approach to each constituency, this consequently leads to a significant number of wasted votes. In the 2019 general election, 14.5 million votes were cast to candidates who weren’t elected. This accounted for 45% of the overall vote.

FPTP globally has just proven to be simply too unrepresentative. In 2014, the NDA Alliance in India won 62.5% of the seats on just 38.5% of the vote. Moreover, In 2016 Donald Trump received nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hilary Clinton yet, won more electoral college votes. This highlights the overwhelming influence of swing states such as the Rust Belt states in the U.S. FPTP also means that there are huge number of wasted votes. In 2015, the Liberal Democrats won the seat of Southport on just 31% of the vote.

With a party having to gain the most votes in each constituency to win representation, it means that smaller parties need to ensure that they can get concentrated support in each constituency. In a system like PR, national support means that fringe parties can still gain representation. The need for concentrated support such as under FPTP means that fringe parties often don’t garner support and those votes go wasted. 

The winner takes-all-approach of FPTP means that fringe parties struggle to gain representation. Parties need high-levels of concentrated support which is why FPTP often generates two-party systems. Fringe parties are consequently left behind. It also encourages gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the redrawing of constituency or district lines. This is generally exploited by incumbent parties in order to increase their number of seats. There are 2 key tactics when it comes to Gerrymandering. There is ‘packing’ which concentrates voters of the same party to reduce their influence in other more balanced and precarious districts. There is also ‘cracking’ which involves spreading voters of a particular party out in order to reduce the concentration of support in a particular district. The United States has had its districts drawn into abnormal lines in places such as Baltimore to manipulate an election to be swayed in a certain direction. As a consequence, this creates further misrepresentation of the vote.

This has become evident in the UK too. The Conservatives have recently proposed boundary changes which, off the basis of the vote on the 2019 election would increase their majority from 96 to 99. It may only be a slight increase but, it is an obvious manipulation of the vote to try and favour the ruling or incumbent party. It may only be a small step but, it is an example of how FPTP can encourage the subversion of democracy.

7. Party Block Voting

Examples: Mauritius, Djibouti

Systems: Voters have 1 vote where they vote for a block list of candidates. The party with the most votes wins the entire list of candidates.

Party Block Voting’s (PBV) core reason of being undemocratic is due to how unrepresentative of the vote. In the 1997 Djibouti general election, the RPP-FRUD party whilst it won a large majority of 78% of the vote, they won 100% of the seats. Party Block Voting involves the country being split into constituencies like under FPTP. However, it differs in that you vote for a list of people but, it is still a winner takes all approach. Therefore, more candidates are elected to represent each constituency even if they don’t represent the makeup of the electorate. In a sense, it is similar to PR in that a list of people are elected but, under PBV this list of people all represent the same party. A supposed benefit of PBV is that it enhances representation as it is supposed to encourage parties to draw up a list of candidates. This means that they can dictate the representational makeup of the list. However, in Mauritius for example this has proven not to be the case. Just 11% of the current National Assembly are female for example. Opposition parties in Mauritius have proposed a change to the electoral system but as of yet have not had success. Opposition parties have proposed some sort of hybrid between PR and FPTP. A core component of this movement is to try and increase the number of MPs to improve local representation in Mauritius. At the moment under a PBV system, the constituencies are too large meaning that the MPs aren’t accountable to a local district. Therefore, a change to PBV has been proposed to try and improve local representation.

What electoral system should the UK be using?

Our Democracy Map shows that Britain is not alone in its use of FPTP. Many other nations, particularly in the commonwealth have taken on FPTP. However, new states and nations, for example in Eastern Europe, chose not to adopt FPTP, and generally use some form of PR. When exploring their options for an electoral system policy-makers, such as the Czechs, were very dismissive of using the UK’s system of FPTP (REF). PR is by far the most popular system in Europe.

A key reason to keep FPTP is that it keeps a strong constituency link.  However, the recent issues that have emerged surrounding MPs taking second jobs and ‘Tory sleaze’ show that in the UK this is only an ostensible link. A strong constituency link can certainly be a consequence of an electoral system but doesn’t guarantee it. FPTP is therefore not worth justifying with a strong constituency link as the elected don’t necessarily guarantee any form of a connection or representation. FPTP is ultimately not a democratic electoral system. It has proven to be very disproportionate in its results meaning that the parliamentary makeup is often not representative of how the electorate have voted from a national perspective. Moreover, a winner takes all approach means that fringe parties struggle to get representation. This means that voting for a party like the Greens is often dubbed as ‘wasting your vote’. Under a system like PR smaller parties can still gain representation if there is enough national support. If voters knew that their vote wasn’t going to be wasted, then they would also be more likely to vote for a fringe party. This is why FPTP doesn’t stimulate a multi-party system but a system like PR does.

Our analysis reinforces that PR is the most democratic electoral system and STV as used in Ireland and Malta is the most democratic form of PR. This allows for proper representation of the vote, with multiple parties in with a chance of gaining proper representation in their respective parliaments. PR also allows for effective representation.

A downfall of PR is that it can potentially lead to more extremist parties or populist candidates gaining greater representation. Some countries have a threshold that parties need to achieve in order to gain seats in parliament such as in Israel. The election of Donald Trump In 2016 highlights that populism can still happen in FPTP however. The election of Imran Khan as PM in Pakistan, also highlights how FPTP can lead to a populist leader. An advantage of a Two Round system like that used in France can prevent extremists from rising to power like Marine Le Pen. The fact that she needed a majority in the second round of voting in 2017 meant it was more difficult to get to power. However, whilst Brazil utilises a PR system for its Chamber of Deputies, it uses a Two-Round System for its Presidential elections. Extremist Bolsonaro, gained power in 2018 highlighting that a Two-round system is not reliable when it comes to avoiding extremist parties.

Many countries use mixed systems, particularly some sort of hybrid of FPTP and PR. Whilst this does have its benefits, it is not as representative a system as straight PR. It also leads to strategic voting anomalies. Many countries, whilst using one system for the legislative chamber, often use an alternative system to elect their leader. This often comes in the form of a Two-Round system. By our criteria for democracy, PR and more specifically STV reflected positively. There is an accurate translation of votes per part to seats, it allows for a multi-party system, PR systems across the globe have adapted to ensure that is local representation and voting for a party often means that they will get some sort of representation meaning the vote is unlikely to be wasted.

What the graph demonstrates is that there are other more viable and democratic options to FPTP that could be implemented in the UK. Indeed, the models of STV and PR have proven to be far more democratic than FPTP. Groups like Unlock Democracy and Compass are at the forefront of helping to inspire electoral change to create a fairer, more open electoral system.

On our analysis the UK falls down in how democratic its electoral system is on the basis that the representation of the vote is so often so skewed. Only marginal seats matter and this also stimulates greater political disillusionment and there is an abundance of wasted votes. Indeed, local representation is often a key argument for sticking with FPTP. In principle, it should maintain a strong link but the fact that the system is so misrepresentative means that a lot of voters, quite often a majority, didn't vote for their MP. This MP is therefore not representative of their constituency and they don’t make decisions on behalf of the constituencies populace.

If a constituency were to elect multiple MPs like under STV, then there would be fewer wasted votes and MPs would be more accountable. It means there also wouldn’t be as many ‘safe seats’. Under FPTP, many MPs neglect their constituents as they are almost guaranteed to be re-elected. Under STV, this would be less likely and would ensure that candidates attempt to represent their constituents as efficiently as possible.


The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Global Ranking of Electoral Systems © Adam Sundle 2022.

Article | 08.03.22

Constitutional Reform, politics, Global, Article

Adam Sundle

England

Researching constitutional structures

Dave Goswell

England

Business Analyst & Tableau Certified Professional

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