G. Bingham Powell, Elections as Instruments of Democracy (2000).

Abstract:_ Elections are key way for citizens in a democracy to communicate with representatives. Different rules about elections and concentration of assembly power can create either majoritarian or proportional systems of democracy. Theoretically, we expect a tradeoff between majoritarian and proportional aspects of democracy. Empirically, both types of systems seem to do a relatively good job of achieving the goals for which they are designed. However, proportional systems seem to do a better job both representing diverse interests (based on committee power) and aligning government and policy makers with the median voter’s ideal point.

 

_Main Argument:_ Powell examines over 150 elections in 20 democracies over 25 years. Elections are key way for citizens in a democracy to communicate with representatives. Different rules about elections and concentration of assembly power can create either majoritarian or proportional systems of democracy. Theoretically, we expect a tradeoff between majoritarian and proportional aspects of democracy. Empirically, both types of systems seem to do a relatively good job of achieving the goals for which they are designed. However, proportional systems seem to do a better job both representing diverse interests (based on committee power) and aligning government and policy makers with the median voter’s ideal point.

 

_Method:_ Powell identifies voter preferences from survey data, mainly the World Values Survey. The data base is constituted by 150 elections held in 20 democracies over the past quarter of a century.

 

 

== Notes ==

 

 

The goal of the analysis is to evaluate whether and how much the two alternative systems, majoritarian and proportional, are successful in their own terms in performing the tasks they set themselves. Powell analyzes the degree to which elections give citizens influence over policy making.

 

_What is responsiveness?_

–  PR and majoritarian systems have a different view of the relation between voters and politicians

–  Majoritarianism encourages legislative mandates and the implementation of majority/plurality will (goal of accountability)

–  Proportionalism is an attempt for policy to be responsive to as large a coalition as possible (goal of representation)

 

 

_ Role of Elections_

Majoritarian vision:

–  Accountability: limited demands on electorate; possible rejection affects incumbents

–  Mandates for majority government to enact policy

 

Proportional vision:

–  Voters choose agents to bargain for them

–  Proportional representation between interests of society and elected political groups

 

 

_Two dimensions of voting are relevant:_

  1. Voting for a representative agent or for collective government
  2. Retrospective versus prospective voting

 

 

_Election threshold and consequences_ (see Cox 1997)

 

* Number of parties: higher the threshold the fewer the number of parties.

* Seat-vote disproportionality: higher threshold leads to greater disproportionality

* M+1 rule: number of effective parties = number of members/district + 1 (Cox 1997)

 

 

_ Concentration vs. dispersion of assembly power_

 

Examine role of committees in legislative process (see Strom 1990)

–  Countries fall into three groups: rules facilitate opposition influence; rules encourage some dispersal of influence; rules support centralized legislative control

–  Dispersion of power outside of assembly: independent executives; separate legislative chamber; federal system; judicial review

–  Majoritarian systems tend to score higher on concentration of power

 

 

–  Elections are not only instrument of democracy but they are a defining feature

–  They build connections between wishes of citizens and behaviour of policymakers [14]

–  Majoritarianism uses elections to bring power of the people to bear on policymakers

–  Rules of representation encourage election of legislative majorities that can control the exec. [21]

–  Rules for making authoritative public policy concentrate political power in hands of this “govt”

–  The main problem with congruence in the majoritarian systems is that the plurality winner is too far from the median – and is then given by the election rules a majority that precludes the need to bargain with smaller parties at or across the median

–  Proportionalism an alternative positive, democratic ideal to overcome “limiting majorities”

–  Election rules encourage equitable representation of multiple parties

–  Decision rules encourage dispersion of power

–  The proportional vision allows the voters to choose among a wider menu of agents who are then relatively free to choose their parliamentary allies and to implement their programs in combination with the other governmental partners’ platforms

–  While the proportional vision promises more and, perhaps, better representation of a wider spectrum of opinions and preferences, it does so at the expense of identifiability and full accountability

 

 

_Concentrated Power_

–  Elections are seen as tools to control policymakers

–  Elected officials can make policy

–  Citizens know who is responsible; can reward/punish

–  Concentrated power necessary for majoritarianism provides a clear winning policy coalition

 

 

_Dispersed Power_

–  Elections are more indirectly related to policy making

–  They bring many different agents together to bargain; a shifting coalition

–  Why disperse power?

–  Elections may not reflect actual majority preferences

–  Preferences of all citizens, not just winning position, taken into account

Assuming full participation, how do elections influence government? From the voter’s perspective:

–  Target of choice voter is either considering a representative agent who will negotiate best for them (delegate), or voting for a government with power to make decisions (trustee)

–  Temporal dimension choosing retrospective or prospective voting

 

 

Different roles of elections under majoritarian control/concentrated power:

–  Accountability evaluating incumbent government

–  Citizens have opportunity to change policymakers

–  Some (Riker) say the electorate can’t really choose positive policy direction effectively

–  Anticipation of possible rejection shapes policies

–  Requires little knowledge on part of the electorate

 

 

Electoral mandates not strictly focused on incumbents. What does opposition have to offer?

–  Voters must be able to identify possible future government

–  Winning party must be able to dominate policymaking after election

 

 

Conditions for citizen influence/dispersed power:

–  Authorized representation in policymaking

–  Retrospective-prospective distinction less important here

 

 

Citizen represented by multi-stage process:

–  At election stage voters must be able to identify a candidate that has their confidence

–  Number of representatives must represent the number of voters who chose them

–  At post-election stage, assumes flexibility in forming coalitions

–  Distance between voter and his/her authorized representative greatest at this time

 

Test by looking at responsiveness in selecting governments and policymakers:

–  Citizen preferences and party positions voting indicates citizen preferences but only within a limited range of choices. So he also uses a Left-Right scale

–  Representational congruence optimum relationship between voters and govt (meaning elections are good instruments of democracy)

 

 

_Chapter 2: Majoritarian Versus Proportional_

Majoritarian versus proportional designs determined by looking at election rules and policy-making rules:

–  Duverger’s Law: single-member district plurality tends to lead to two major parties

–  Strategic voting: citizens may vote for second choice if they know their first choice won’t win

–  Anticipating this, parties may not bother running candidates with poor prospects of winning

–  In single member districts, we expect only two major candidates

–  The greater the district magnitude, the more candidates

–  The greater the magnitude, the less the consequences of a strategic mistake

–  Effective threshold (Lijphart): how many votes must a party win to get national representation?

 

 

Election outcomes:

–  Majoritarian vision favours high threshold, making representation difficult for small parties

–  Proportional vision uses low threshold

–  Data for his 20 countries support these expectations in terms of effective number of parties and vote-seat disproportionality

 

 

_Part III:_

–  Powell analyzes the proximity of citizen preferences to government policies on the left-right scale

–  According to the majoritarian vision, democratic governments should have policy positions that reflect those of the median vote

–  However, majoritarian systems have frequently failed in this respect (chapter 8)

–  In fact, political systems based on the proportional vision are more successful at encouraging government proximity to the views of the median citizen (chapter 9)

 

 

 

_Critiques:_ He perhaps does not credibly account for the outlook of the losers (Anderson & Guillory 1997 for example) and does not prove his assumption that one outcome is the best outcome.

 

_Critique:_ Powell assumes that parties are the key agents of representation in democratic politics. This assumption, however, is true only to varying degrees. In democracies with weakly institutionalized party systems, individual politicians are of equal or greater importance as agents of representation. In many democracies, voters choose representatives based on their individual profiles rather than on the programmatic profiles of their parties.

 

_ Critique:_ Powell argues that citizens have the greatest difficulty in identifying which parties hold responsibility for government policy in single-party minority governments [52–68]. This argument is not convincing; it should be easier to identify which party has responsibility for government policy if there is only one governing party.