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Election Systems in a Representative Democracy

In a representative democracy, a critical issue is how voters elect their representatives to participate in the governing process.

The underlying concept in a democracy is that the selection of "good" representatives will lead to governments that reflect the concerns of voters, and that because these governments reflect their concerns, their policies and programs will be not only "better", but also more accepted by the electorate.

Election systems address questions who can be a candidate for election, how can aspiring candidates participate in an election, how many elections are needed to select a representative, what do voters vote for i.e. one candidate in a most-votes-win scenario or all candidates ranked by voter preference, and if the latter, how to the voter rankings of candidates get translated in an election result.

Election systems in many countries were created in the late eighteenth century, with relatively few changes since the. Where election systems have been in place for a long time, there are several reasons why a re-examination may be warranted.

  1. The issues of the day (particularly those that affect voters) are increasing in number and in complexity.
  2. Voters are becoming better educated, and have a variety of tools (notably the internet) to become informed about the issues of the day.
  3. Candidates have a growing capacity to communicate with their voters through television, radio, telephone, and internet-based advertizing.
  4. The rise of the ultra-rich, and the willingness of the ultra-rich to manipulate election systems in their interest, combined with modern communication systems, creates a significant threat to the principles of democracy, representative government and majority rule.
  5. Corporate interests are also interested in manipulating electoral systems in their interest, through lobbying, political advertizing, and campaign donations.
  6. There are indications that existing election systems are not working well, evidenced by instances where:
    1. governments appear to be getting out of touch with electors,
    2. voters distrust the governments they elect,
    3. voter apathy and low turnout at elections,
    4. the rise of the extremism by minority interests, and
    5. the election of incompetent governments.
  7. The rise of technologies is changing the way societies work, and creating opportunities for superior and cheaper solutions in all facets of modern living including in the election systems.
  8. Electoral processes are becoming increasing organized through political parties. In Canada's 2019 election, there were
    22 partiesLiberal, Conservative, Bloc Québécois, New Democratic, Green, People's,Christian Heritage, Rhinoceros, Libertarian, Veterans Coalition, Marxist–Leninist, Animal Alliance, Communist, Pour l'Indépendance du Québec, Progressive Canadian, Marijuana, Canada's Fourth Front, The United Party, National Citizens Alliance, Stop Climate Change, Canadian Nationalist Party, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation[s]
  9. Voter apathy and low voter turnout at elections is a concern. The success of a representative democracy depends on voters exercising their right to vote.

The purpose of this article is to consider desirable properties of election systems, to examine options for election systems, and to assess the options in terms of the desirable properties.

Desirable Properties

The ultimate goal is to elect candidates that represent their voters. This goal should be achieved through the following properties.

  1. Inclusive Candidate Eligibility: Candidate eligibility is an issue. If there is only one candidate, there is a problem because the voter has no choice. Too many candidates create confusion. It also increases the cost, since putting candidates on a ballot costs money. Candidate eligibility also needs to take into account political parties. A truly independent candidate can be assumed to provide the best representation of community views, but typically may lack influence within the governing processes because of the lack of party affiliation. Political parties on the other hand a typically coalitions of interests; it is possible that no party adequately represents the voter's views. Voters need the opportunity to choose among candidates with and without party affiliations. Inclusive candidate eligibility critera need to address these issues.
    Tools at the disposal of election systems include personal criteria related to the candidate such as:
    1. requirements related to citizenship, residence, education, age, criminal record;
    2. requirements related to pre-election support for the candidate, such as getting names on a petition or support of a political party operating in the voting district;
    3. deposit requirements, to eliminate frivolous candidacies;
    4. penalties for having inadequate basic support in the election, such as lost deposits;
    5. limits on election campaigns, such as financing, compliance with rules, etc.
  2. Maximizing Expression of Voter Views: Voter views are expressed in elections, but there are different ways to solicit voter views. One way is to hold multiple elections. Another is the maximize the views expressed within one election. This is done through preference voting, where the voter gets an opportunity to express preferences on as many candidates as he or she wishes.
    In some jurisdictions, voters get to express their views through referenda. Two observations are relevant here. First, the need for referenda arise when representative democracy does not work and there is a need to bypass representative democracy. As such, they are outside the bounds of this article. Second, referenda often do not work well, typically because questions are narrowly defined, options limited, and implementation details have not been worked through.
  3. Voter Convenience: It is taken as given that modern election systems need to incorporate the basics such as mail-in ballots, flexible polling hours, easy registration. The more fundamental questions are:
    1. the convenience or inconvenience of multiple elections, since for each election, the voter must take the time to participateinconvenient, and
    2. the ranking candidates in a preference voting system, since the voter must know who the candidates are and what they stand for.
  4. Turnout and Meaningful Votes: Election systems need to be gear to maximize voter turnout at elections. In Canada's federal election in 2019, voter turnout was 18,350,359 from 27,373,058 registered voters, for a turnout rate 67.03 per cent. With almost a third of the population not voting, the legitimacy of the resulting Parliament is undermined.
    Turnout depends on several issues:
    1. whether voting is a privilege, and therefore voluntary, or a duty, and therefore mandatory.
    2. where the voter gets to cast a meaningful ballot i.e. the vote can make a difference in the election. In some voting districts, the voters may have overwhelmingly similar views in terms of candidates, and whether an individual votes or not does not matter much. However, in many cases, voter views are not overwhelming similar, but voters may feel the result is a foregone conclusion so there is no need to vote. This can arise when:
      1. generally similar views get fragmented among multiple candidates, and opposing views get concentrated in one candidate, so that one candidate becomes the winner, although not necessarily with views representative of the majority of voters.
      2. the effect of money and advertizing behind one candidate give that candidate the appearance of overwhelming support. The fewer the candidates, the more likely that negative advertizing will be effective in discouraging voting.
      3. negative advertizing may undermine voter interest in candidates. Negative advertizing will be more effective with fewer candidates, as the advertizing can focus on fewer candidates.
      4. in the absence of preference voting systems, the voter gets to express only one opinion, and thus can be considered limiting, and sufficiently so to undermine the desire to vote in some people.
      5. historically consistent patterns of voting can lead to the impression that these patterns will persist, and lead to a continuation of these patterns, regardless of the circumstances. Historic paterns of voting may be more likely when there are limited candidates, and when moneyed interests line up behind the historic patterns and influece voter perceptions.
  5. Ballot Validation: One expression per ballot limits validation issues to where the one expression is clearly indicated. Multiple expressions create possibilities of errors, blanks. Canada election 2019 blank or invalid ballots 179,479 out of 18,350,359 ballots cast. The extent to which this is an issue only becomes apparent after preference voting systems have been tried.
  6. Legitimacy of an Electoral "Win": This does beyond ballot validation issues and issues related to low turnout and meaningful votes. Whoever wins the election, that winner should be the undisputed victor. In a democracy, the undisputed victor is one who can claim a "majority" in some sense. The most votes among candidates does not define a majority; it simply reflects the fact that one candidate got the more votes that any other.

Vote Share Range (%)Number of Winning Candidates in the Range
Less than 30%2 0.59%
30% to 35% 15 4.44%
35% to 40% 49 14.50%
40% to 45% 74 21.89%
45% to 50% 74 21.89%
50% to 60% 81 23.96%
60% to 70% 17 5.03%
70% to 80% 16 4.73%
80% to 90% 10 2.96%
All 338 100.00%
  1. Cost of Elections: Beyond candidate costs, election system should be at a minimum affordable, and preferably cost-effective (i.e. maximum benefit and minimal cost).

Any change in election system will inevitably lead to transition issues. As transition issues arise only if a change occurs, and they arise for any change from one system to another. Where transition issues arise, there are always mitigation measures that can be implemented to reduce the effects of the issue. When the goal is to choose the best election system, they should not be included as a factor in the comparison. Transition issues are inherently a consideration for preserving the status quo.

Security is also an issue. Clearly, there is a need to prevent foreign meddling. In the broader system, election security can be effected through audit systems such as paper trails, due attention to cybersecurity, and the like. The need for security applies to all election systems, so are not considered here.

Understanding Election Systems

Essential elements in a voting system include:

  1. Number of elections: There are three election models based on number of election. There are one-event elections; one election determines the outcome. There can be two-event elections. For example, the first election can elect candidates for the main election, as in the American primary and final election system. In an additional model, there can be a multi-candidate first election, followed by a run-off election in no candidate gets a majority, as in the French system. There can also be multi-event elections, as often occur in conventions. Here, each election serves to eliminate the candidate with the least votes. This election system works well as a convention, where multiple elections can occur in a practical way because the voters are already at the convention. It is worth noting that convention organizers choose this elimination system because it is perceived as generating the best candidate.
  2. Candidate eligibility: Clearly, a candidate cannot be elected unless his or her name is on the ballot. Candidate selection options include:
    1. Almost anyone can be a candidate with minimal restrictions (e.g. citizenship, residency in the geographic area, able to get a certain number of signatures on a petition, requirements to eliminate frivolous candidacies, etc.
    2. Similar to above, with additional formal restrictions such as age and income. Also, there can also be informal limitations such as financing restrictions for campaigns in the absence of campaign expense limits.
    3. Candidates need to selected by other processes outside the main election (e.g. primary elections as in the United States, where Democrat or Republic primaries are used, or the totalitarian regime such as the Communist Party of Cnina or religious regimes, which must approve candidates for election).
  3. Ballot processes for selecting the representative: If there is only one candidate, then the process is simple: select the candidate, while counting the ballots as a formality or to give some legitimacy to the selection. If the voter has the opportunity to express only one opinion with his or her only selection on the ballot, then the process for selecting the representative involves counting the ballots. If the voter has the opportunity to rank candidates, then there are a number of processing algorithms that could be followed. All the algorithms would involve recording all preferences in a database, counting the ballots for each candidate, eliminating the candidate with the fewest votes, readjusting the preferences of those that gave highest preference to the eliminated candidate so that second preferences become first, etc. and then doing a recount. The process would continue until all candidates but the winner are eliminated.
  4. Voter opportunities to express an opinion: If there is only one candidate and one election, then the voter has in essence no opportunities to express an opinion. Voter opportunities to express an opinion in three ways: multiple candidates, multiple elections, and within an election ranking candidates by preference rather than just voting for the most preferred candidate.needs to rank the candidates; the ranking gives the voter the opportunity to express a much broader range of opinions. Also, multiple issues on the ballot.

In terms of actual voting systems, we are dealing with "systems" in which elements are combined. In systems, the presence of one element may determine how other elements are addressed.


Here are examples of voting systems:

This is a case example from the 2001 Australian election, as reported in "Antony Green's Election Guide". The key point to make is that at each stage of the count, the candidate with the lowest count is excluded and their ballot papers examined for next preferences. This continues until one candidate secures a majority.

In the case example, on the first count, no candidate had an absolute majority (i.e. 50% of the vote).

First Count: All Candidates
CandidateFirst Count
Candidate 134836 43.6
Candidate 25379 6.7
Candidate 333929 42.4
Candidate 4895 1.1
Candidate 54898 6.1
Total Vote 79937100.0

For the second count, the candidate with the fewest votes (Candidate 4) was excluded. All votes for the excluded candidate were examined for their second preferences. Their votes were added to the first vote totals. All ballots were then recounted.

First Count (All Candidates) and Second Count (Candidate 4 Excluded)
CandidateFirst CountCandidate 4 Preferences from First CountSecond Count: Candidate 4 Preferences Added to First Count
Candidate 134836 43.6 +178 19.9 35014 43.8
Candidate 25379 6.7 +118 13.2 5497 6.9
Candidate 333929 42.4 +264 29.5 34193 42.8
Candidate 4895 1.1 .... .... .... ....
Candidate 54898 6.1 +335 37.4 5233 6.5
Total Vote 79937100.0 895100.0 79937100.0

As there was not an absolute majority on the second count, the candidate with the lowest vote (Candidate 4) on the second count was excluded for the vote on the third count. This candidate's votes on the second count were then added to the totals of remaining candidates for the third count. Note that Candidate 4's votes included those that voted for him/her as a first preference. They also included those that voted for Candidate 5 as a first preference and who voted for Candidate 4 as a second preference. For this group, the vote counts being re-allocated were third preferences.

Second Count (Candidate 4 Excluded) and Third Count (Candidates 4 & 5 Excluded)
CandidateSecond CountCandidate 5 Preferences from Second CountThird Count: Candidate 5 Preferences Added to Second Count
Candidate 135014 43.8 +569 10.9 35583 44.5
Candidate 25497 6.9 +3112 59.5 8609 10.8
Candidate 334193 42.8 +1552 29.7 35745 44.7
Candidate 55233 6.5 .... .... .... ....
Total Vote79937100.0 5233100.0 79937100.0

As there was no absolute majority on the third count, the candidate with the lowest total on the third count (Candidate 2) was eliminated from the election, and the candidate's vote total on the third count reassigned to the remaining candidates for the fouth count. This reassigned vote total included those ballots from voters that voted for this candidate as a first preference, plus those ballots from voters that voted for this candidate as a second preference after voting for Candidate 4 as a first preference, and those ballots from voters that selected this candidate as a third preference after voting for Candidate 5 as a first preference and Candidate 4 as a second preference.

On the fourth count, Candidate 3 had a clear majority and won the election.

Third Count (Candidates 4 & 5 Excluded) and Fourth Count (Candidates 2, 4 & 5 Excluded)
CandidateThird CountCandidate 2 Preferences From Third CountFourth Count: Candidate 2 Preferences Added to Third Count
Candidate 1 35583 44.5 +2175 25.3 37758 47.2
Candidate 28609 10.8 .... .... .... ....
Candidate 335745 44.7 +6434 74.7 42179 52.8
Total Vote79937100.0 5233100.0 79937100.0

In this example, it is worth noting that:

  1. The ultimate winner beat every other candidate, and on this basis, acquires some legitimacy.
  2. Beyond this, the ultimate winner received the backing of the majority of the voters.
  3. The candidate with the most votes on the first count did not ultimately win the election.
  4. The case shows that first count victories, as occur in one count elections, do not necessarily reflect the preferences of voters, so the winner is not necessarily representative of their interests.77
  5. All voters provided preferences equal to the number of candidates, so the final count included the preferences of all voters. In other words, every voter participated directly in the outcome, whether for or against the winning candidate.
  6. On a technical note, all voters expressed preferences for all candidates. This may be unusual, since it is conceivable that some voters may not have preferences for every candidate on the ballot. This would be quite likely if there are a large number (too many?) candidates. It is also conceivable that voters will make ballot errors by not clearly indicatingd preferences, or by indicating some preferences twice.

Options and Issues

Issues and Options for Election Systems
United States of AmericaCanada, UKFranceAustralia
Inclusive Candidate EligibilityYes in primary elections to select party candidates, but practically no in general election because party candidates almost always win. To win, a candidate needs to finance two campaigns; financial costs put a practical limit on inclusivenessYes, although party candidates have an advantageYes, although party candidates have an advantageYes, although party candidates have an advantage
Maximizing Expression of Voter ViewsLimited to one expression per election times two electionsLimited to one expression in the only electionLimited to one expression over one and possibly two electionsMultiple expressions, which depend on number of candidates, in one election
Voter ConvenienceNeeds to vote twice, with one selection per electionNeeds to vote once, with one selection per voteNeeds to vote at least once and perhaps twice, with one selection per voteOne vote, with multiple selections in that vote
Turnout and Meaningful VotesPotentially very low in the election that matters because of very limited candidates and limited potential to express views, leading to sense that vote does not matterPotentially somewhat low because of somewhat limited candidates and limited potential to express views, leading to sense that vote does not matterPotentially low because of limited candidates and limited potential to express views, leading to sense that vote does not matterPotentially higher than other options because preference voting may create a stronger sense that the vote matters
Ballot ValidationMinor potential for mistakes and ambiguities in completed ballotsMinor potential for mistakes and ambiguities in completed ballotsMinor potential for mistakes and ambiguities in completed ballotsGreater potential for mistakes and ambiguities in completed ballots because the ranking options create the possibility of errors (not only of ambiguous selection, but also ranking errors such as duplicate rankings and ranking gaps)
Legitimacy of Electoral "Win"Likelihood of majority on a vote, but legitimacy undermined by low turnout, limited opportunities to articulate a view, and limited candidate optionsPotential for winner to have a significant minority of votes, and further undermined by low turnout, limited opportunities to articulate a view, and limited candidate optionsWinner in run-off would have a "majority" on the vote, but legitimacy undermined by limited opportunities to articulate a view, and limited candidate optionsWinner would have a "majority" in the sense of getting more support than any other candidate in fair head-to-head comparisons
Cost of ElectionsHigh, because of two electionsModerate, because of only one electionPotentially high in the event of two electionModerate because of one election, but inflated very, very slightly by need for more sophisticated vote counting system because of ranking within the ballots in the one election

Bottom Line

Perhaps we need to rethink our elections systems and their role representative democracies.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
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