Choosing an electoral system is increasingly being recognized as one of the key institutional decisions for a democracy. Electoral system reviews and discussions are being held all around the world. Often these discussions are initiated by political parties and candidates who understand that the electoral system determines to a large extent how many seats they will get themselves and they will seek to determine and adopt the electoral system which will benefit them the most. Such considerations will most likely be part of any review process, but the aim of this module is to broaden the discussion and feed into debates in countries wanting to address wider problems of for example inclusion, accountability, or representation.
This module starts by defining what an electoral system is and discusses why we have electoral systems and what makes them important. It then moves on to suggesting a classification of electoral systems which sets the scene for the rest of the module and offers a basis for understanding how the different building blocks/ the different components can vary between the systems.
The overarching key understanding of this module is that all electoral systems have advantages and disadvantages – affecting a wide range of areas – which means that looking at what criteria the electoral system should fulfil is a good place to start when introducing or changing an electoral system. There will always be tradeoffs between the different criteria and therefore it is not possible to identify one best system as what is best will be determined by the priorities of the country in question. This is why the following sections of the module focus on how to determine the respective pros and cons of the different electoral systems and reach an understanding of different groups in society having different priorities and reaching different conclusions when it comes to deciding which system is the fairest and the most suitable one.
Even though electoral systems have implications on a number of different areas – ranging from the political party system to the role of the opposition and voter registration – most of these implications can be traced back to how votes are turned into seats on election day. One simulated election result therefore acts as the basis of all electoral system illustrations in this module and shows how the same vote distribution can lead to completely different results depending on what electoral system is chosen.
The module also has a specific focus on how electoral systems affect the representation of women, how they affect cost and sustainability issues and how systems can be designed using a holistic view on different elected bodies. It closes by discussing direct democracy provisions and some more in-depth issues relating to electoral system change.