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Erik Moberg ã:
A Theory of Democratic Politics
 
 

5.2 - PROPORTIONAL ELECTIONS

Proportional methods are used when several representatives from each constituency are to be elected. They are motivated by a quest for proportional representation of existing political opinions, or fair representation as some would say. If, for example, there are 70 % socialists among the constituency's voters, and 30 % liberals, then the ambition is to elect representatives in the same proportions. Exact proportionality is not always possible but the larger the number of representatives from the constituency is, the easier it is, of course, to come close to that goal. From this point of view large, and consequently few, constituencies, is desirable. In the extreme the whole country may form one single constituency.

In principle the proportional methods are quite simple. Let us start by considering a method according to which the political parties, in each constituency, present lists with their candidates in sequence. Thus, on each party's list, there is a first candidate, a second candidate, and so on. The voters cast their votes on the parties, each voter voting for his or her favored party. The election result is thus, primarily, a distribution of votes on parties. Representatives are then, according to this method, taken from the parties' lists, in proportion to the number of votes they have got, starting, for each party, with its first candidate, and so on. Elections of this kind are usually called list elections.

This general method may be varied, or complemented, in various of ways. In countries where the ideal is a very exact proportionalism it may thus be considered important to "correct", nation-wide, the perhaps somewhat erratic combined result of all the individual constituencies. Such a correction can be achieved by distributing a number of additional mandates in a proper way. In other countries it may, on the contrary, be considered desirable to make big parties' shares of the representatives somewhat bigger than their shares of the votes. This purpose may be achieved by using an appropriate formula, designed for the purpose, for the distribution of the mandates. In some countries it may also be considered expedient to discourage very small parties, which can be done by means of a threshold-rule of some kind.

Furthermore, it is sometimes considered desirable to give the voters a chance to express their feelings about particular candidates, for example by adding, or by erasing, names on the list of the party they are voting for. A candidate added, or erased, by a sufficient number of voters, may thus win, or lose, a place in the legislature in spite of the original list. Electoral systems like this may in fact be made completely independent of ordered lists of candidates. In Finland, for instance, the parties just nominate their candidates, without ordering them, and the voter then writes the name of one single candidate on his or her voting paper, which is blank from the beginning. Each vote thus becomes a vote both for a party and for a candidate. Within each party the candidates are then ordered according to the number of votes they have got, and each party becomes represented, from the top of the list determined by the voters and downwards, according to the number of votes it has got. This system thus gives the voters a very substantial influence over the composition, in terms of individuals, of the legislature.

But even if the proportional methods, as we have seen, can be varied in many ways, they all have one very important property in common, namely that they presuppose political parties. First the parties are needed for making the lists of candidates, or at least for nominating candidates. Second, and more basic, the very idea of proportionalism presupposes that there is something in the electorate, which can be proportionally represented in the legislature. It is the political parties which constitute that something. Proportional methods are therefore unthinkable without political parties.

Having said that it should however also be noted that there are electoral methods, which may be used in multi-member constituencies, and which do not presuppose parties. The single transferable vote method is an example. Certainly such methods are sometimes called proportional but, since there is nothing that is represented proportionally, that terminology is hardly appropriate.