Essay: Electoral systems

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))

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