Electing our leaders: How election systems differ around the world

Daron Shaw
Commentary

Daron Shaw

Professor, University of Texas at Austin
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Free and fair elections are the foundation of democratic societies. But not all elections are the same. There are two main types of election systems: single member, simple plurality, or SMSP, and proportional representation. 

This article will explain how they both work and how they correspond to elections in the United States and around the world. 

Single member, simple plurality 

The SMSP system is used in the United States along with 62 other countries around the world for their legislatures. To win an election, a candidate needs to receive the most votes in their district. Local rules dictate whether the total must be an outright majority (more than 50 percent) or a plurality of votes cast. 

Pros of the SMSP system:

  • Greater accountability of representatives to the voters because one person represents one district
  • Encourages aggregative, coalition politics at the electoral level, before the election, as parties that don’t have a chance of winning a plurality have incentives to combine with larger parties that are closer to their preferred policy preferences

Presidential elections 

The U.S. president is elected using the Electoral College, which is separate from the SMSP elections used in most other races in the United States. Each state has its own election and the plurality of the vote decides who gets the electors from that state. In this case we have a multi-member, simple plurality, rather than a single member, simple plurality. 

A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency out of the possible 538. A state’s electoral votes are equal to the number of representatives in the U.S. Congress plus its two U.S. senators. Wyoming has one House seat plus two Senators, so three electoral votes. After the 2020 census, California has two senators and 52 House seats totaling 54 electoral votes. 

Proportional representation 

Proportional representation systems allow voters to cast ballots for a party which is then awarded seats in a legislative body based on their percentage of the total vote. In other words, there’s a proportional representation of seats based on votes. 

Here’s an example: If a city council has 10 open seats, multiple political parties can have 10 of their members run in the same election. If party one receives 50 percent of the vote, it gets five representatives on the council. If party two receives 20 percent of the vote, it earns two seats. If party three receives 30 percent, it earns three seats.

96 countries, including 40 in Europe, use this system.

Pros of proportional representation:  

  • Increases fairness because there is a closer relationship between seats to votes
  • Encourages minor parties because they can win representation with a smaller share of the vote
  • Encourages coalitions between parties post-election 
  • Avoids gerrymandering

To learn more about voting and elections in America, including voter registration and convenience voting, visit our voter integrity page

Free and fair elections are the foundation of democratic societies. But not all elections are the same. There are two main types of election systems: Single member, simple plurality and proportional representation. 

The United States uses the single member, simple plurality system, OR SMSP, along with 62 other countries around the world for their legislatures.  

How does it work? A single representative is chosen after receiving a majority of votes. Whether it be a statewide election, a congressional district, or city. So what are the advantages of SMSP systems? For that lets bring in Straight Arrow News Contributor Professor Daron Shaw. 

Shaw says: There’s also greater accountability of representatives to the members. It’s not disbursed over 10 members representing a single district, it’s a particular individual. And because you have to win a plurality in order to get any representation it encourages aggregative, coalitional politics at the electoral level. Before the election Because parties that don’t have a chance of winning a plurality have incentives to combine with larger parties that are closer to their preferred policy preferences. 

Presidential elections are run differently – using the electoral college.

Shaw says: What you have in the United States is a system in which each state has its own election and the plurality of the vote decides who gets the electors from that state. 

A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win the presidency, out of the possible 538. The number of electoral votes a state has is equal to the number of representatives in the US congress plus their two US senators. Wyoming has one House seat plus two Senators so three electoral votes. After the 2020 census – California has two senators and 52 house seats totalling 54 electoral votes. 

Shaw says: In this case what we have is instead of a single member simple plurality, we have a multi-member simple plurality. 

The other system is proportional representation.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say a city council has ten open seats. Multiple political parties could have ten of their members run in the same election. If party one receives 50 percent of the vote, they get 5 representatives on the council,  Party two receives 20 percent of the vote and therefore two seats. Party three, thirty percent and 3 seats. 

Shaw says: “So in other words there’s a proportional number of seats based on votes.” 

It’s pretty popular. 96 countries use it, including 40 in Europe.

Shaw says: “Proponents say it increases fairness because there is this closer relationship between seats to votes. It encourages minor parties because you can actually get represented with a smaller share of the vote. It tends to be more likely that you’ll  get coalitions between and amongst political parties when it comes to governing because parties have to come together after the election to govern, and you avoid the problems associated with gerrymandering that is drawing districts that over represents certain groups compared to others.” 

To learn more about about voting and elections in America, including voter ID and convenience voting keep watching our series on youtube or straightarrownews.com