The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy


Electoral Rules Matter: Conclusion

Filed under: Democratic MethodsRepresentation — eidelberg @ 8:30 am

As noted by professors Rein Taagepera and Matthew Shugart, “a main function of an electoral system is to preserve political stability in the face of potentially disruptive or paralyzing disagreements on issues.” Since Proportional Representation (PR), as a general rule, multiplies the number parties, then, as indicated in Part II, the number of possible disputes in government increases roughly as the square of the number of actors.

However, diminishing the degree of proportional representation—say by combining national list PR with single-member plurality districts—does not necessarily diminish the number parties in the legislature (or in multi-party governments like Israel). Italy recently diminished PR, but the number of parties remained virtually the same because new issue dimensions arose, serious enough to trigger the formation of new parties. This only indicates that politics is more complicated than electoral rules, although the significance of such rules should not be minimized, let alone ignored.

As our two experts make clear, electoral systems and issue dimensions are not independent of each other. When an electoral system is changed, it will influence the number of issue dimensions existing at that particular time. This is not an argument against shifting from PR to single-member electoral districts. We merely want to emphasize the complexity not only of political systems but also of political culture.

For example, under the French Constitution, where the President may be of one party while the parliamentary majority belongs to different parties, the resulting “cohabitation” may paralyze the government. This is not the case of the United States where the President and the Congress are controlled by different parties (the situation today). Cohabitation or “gridlock” is avoided because the two major parties, Democratic and Republican, unlike parties in France, are loose coalitions; and given the existence of open primaries in the U.S., where candidates are not subject to party leadership, what may appear to amateurs or the media as a political deadlock in theory is negligible in practice.

U.S. Senators and Representatives, unlike members of Israel’s Knesset, are individually accountable to the voters in their respective (geographic) constituencies; and politicians must produce results if they are going to be re-elected. Bi-partisanship is the rule,

The phenomenon of gerrymandering, which may result from multi-district elections, is another matter. There are ways of eliminating or at least minimizing this evil by diverse electoral rules: for example, by the “Personalized Proportional Representation” system used in Sweden, Germany, and Denmark, or the “Preferential Vote” system used in Australia, Ireland, and Malta. (See my book Jewish Statesmanship on this subject.)


Our two mentioned authorities raise the question: “Can a malfunctioning electoral system alone destabilize a regime?” They answer: “This is rarely the case in a direct sense [but let’s not forget the examples of Chile and Germany discussed in Part I]. Undesirable outputs [such as instability] can be compensated by ad hoc means or by changes in either the electoral system itself or in some other component of the political system. This is possible if the polity is otherwise healthy. A sound polity can salvage a defective electoral system, while no electoral system can save a polity bent on self-destruction…. But this leaves the marginal cases, and in our world many regimes are in marginal health.” (Emphasis added.)

Many people will agree with the present writer that Israel is anything but healthy regime. Hence I have ceaselessly advocated not only changes in its electoral rules, but also drastic reform of Israel’s political and judicial institutions (to say nothing of its ethically neutral departments of education).

However, as Rein Taagepera and Matthew Shugart point out, “Compared to other components of political systems, electoral systems are the easiest to manipulate with specific goals in view. This does not mean that electoral rules are easy to change but only that the other components are usually even harder to change.”

It is in this light that the present author has so often urged that Israel, to begin with, should scrap its single nationwide district election—which necessitates proportional representation—and establish a multi-district or constituency electoral system that makes members of the Knesset individually accountable to the voters, and not to party machines or party leaders. This reform is a necessary precondition of changing the disastrous course of this country.