Elections these functions. There will be a deeper analysis

Elections make a
fundamental contribution to democratic governance: in modern democracies they
allow citizens to choose their representatives. They differ on the kind of
system used and on the institutions they are electing office seekers to. This
essay will start by examining different views on the relationship between
elections and democracy, drawing a line between direct and indirect forms of
democracy. Secondly, it will focus on representative democracies and it will
analyse the main functions of elections in such contexts, offering also a
commentary on two different interpretations of these functions. There will be a
deeper analysis of one specific function, that is representation, to which will
follow an overview of the two main categories of electoral systems. Finally,
the essay will attempt to identify the option which gives the most democratic
results, expressing a preference for the mixed-member proportional system as
the best formula.

Elections are often
regarded as the symbol of democracy by thinkers who portray it as an
“institutional arrangement”, such as Schumpeter (1967: 173). However, other scholars – such as Reeve
and Ware (1992:
71) – argue
that there is only a contingent connection between elections and democracy,
since the existence of the former does not prove the presence of a democratic
political system. Evidence of this can be found in two examples: on one hand
direct democracies do not need a voting system or an apparatus of elections, on
the other elections may occur in political systems which have a doubtful
democratic character – research shows that since 1946 there have been almost as
many elections under dictatorship as there have been under democracy (Golder 2005: 120).

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The alternative to
Schumpeter’s view is to think of democracy in terms of “a set of ideals which
value popular rule, political equality, political participation and so on” (Reeve and Ware 1992: 73). Among these ideals
there are some of the most important rights provided to citizens in democratic
states, such as freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of
association, from which flows the right to vote, understood as the right to
participate in the decision-making process. This may occur in a direct or
indirect way. Due to the impracticality of the use of a system of direct participation, in which
continuous popular participation would be required, most democracies are indirect and need
elections of decision-makers as a substitute for voting on most decisions (Reeve and Ware 1992: 165).
Elections, therefore, allow to extend democracy from small groups to much
larger bodies.

In the context of liberal
democracies, elections may follow different rules, but they generally have in
common universal suffrage, secret ballot and electoral competition (Heywood 2013: 205). There are two different
interpretations of their functions. The first emphasises the ‘bottom-up’ function of elections, such as
political recruitment, representation, choice of government and so on.
According to this view, elections force parties to listen to the electorate and
to develop policies that are likely to attract a majority of the electorate;
they are therefore a means of communication between voters and parties and
government. The second, more radical, interpretation portrays elections as a
device for “expanding the power and authority of the governing elite” (Harrop and Miller 1987:
Supporters of this ‘top-down’ view believe that elections give an illusion of
choice and encourage people to obey the state without fundamentally limiting
its autonomy. In reality, elections are a ‘two-way street’: elites and the
electorate mutually influence one another.

One of the main functions
of elections in democratic countries is the recruitment of politicians, which
then leads to the making of governments. This latter function, however, is
seldom fulfilled in a direct, ‘bottom-up’ way: as both Harrop and Miller (1987: 249) and Heywood (2013: 205) underline, the political
executive is directly elected only in states such as Venezuela and France,
whereas in more common parliamentary systems the electorate can only choose the
assembly in a direct way. In countries where no single party has a clear
parliamentary majority – usually due to the employment of proportional
representation which, as it will be discussed further on in the text, contributes
to the creation of multi-party systems – post-election deals play a key role in
the formation of governments, meaning that governments can change without the
need for an election, as it happened in Italy where, since the last elections
(2013), three governments have been changed.

A ‘bottom-up’ function of
fair elections, strictly related to the concept of indirect democracy, is
providing representation. There are different schools of thought when it comes
to the meaning of this concept. The ‘resemblance model’ is perhaps the one that
takes it more literally than any else, as it claims that only people coming
from a particular group can fully identify with its interests. This model,
however, is incompatible with free elections, as Harrop and Miller explain (1987: 245). The way the electorate is
guaranteed representation in democratic electoral systems is through
representatives acting effectively on its behalf rather than mirroring it.

The variations of
proportionality in ensuring this representation – i.e. how proportionally votes
are converted into seats – are the key parameter that allows to group electoral
systems into two broad categories. The first one consists of majoritarian
systems, in which the candidate or party with the largest number of votes wins
the election and the majority of seats; the second one includes proportional
systems, in which seats are awarded in proportion to the number of votes cast.

European electoral systems
were traditionally based on majoritarian principles (Harrop and Miller 1987:
45). This
kind of system increases the chances of a single party gaining a majority and
being able to govern, producing a clear-cut situation in parliaments by
exaggerating the winning party’s lead. In fact, in countries like the United
Kingdom – which uses a single-member plurality system (SMP) – even though no
party since 1945 ever won more than 50% of the votes (Kimber 2017), the party that is
supported by a plurality of votes normally wins more than 50% of the seats. For
this reason, majoritarian systems are usually thought to have the capacity to
deliver strong and stable government, to the detriment of their representative
functions: popular preferences are – to a greater or lesser extent – distorted.

Representative functions
are better taken into account in proportional electoral systems: proportional
representation increases citizens’ perception that their vote matters in an
election, since it allows smaller parties with an evenly spread vote to win
seats. These multi-party systems enhance the likelihood that factions will
strive to distinguish themselves ideologically, presenting to voters more
options to choose from (Banducci and Karp 2009: 109). Conversely, electoral systems that do not leave room for
parliamentary representation of small parties invest on the logics of the
‘wasted vote’ to favour the creation of two-party systems: citizens are driven
to change their original preference for smaller parties that have very limited
chance of success and choose to support larger parties in order not to ‘waste’
their vote (Chryssogonos
and Stratilatis 2012: 24, Reeve and Ware 1992: 147, Wolff 2003: 13).

Due to the aforementioned
multi-party nature, proportional electoral systems are more likely to produce
coalition governments, generally considered to be weaker and more unstable
compared to the ‘strength and stability’ of majoritarian systems (Banducci and Karp 2009:
127, Heywood 2013: 210, Jeffery 1998: 242, Reeve and Ware 1992: 162). Several examples – such
as Italy’s long list of short-lived governments – are often cited in support of
this argument, however in other cases, like Germany, coalition governments have
typically been effective and stable. This suggests that high or low degrees of
proportionality do not necessarily imply the strength or weakness of a
government, but rather it is more important the political tradition within
which the government operates. Even countries employing majoritarian systems
might be harmed by the so called ‘adversary politics’, that can cause damages
when transitioning from the government by a ‘strong’ big political party to
another with opposite views (Jeffery 1998: 243). Moreover, it should be noted that parliament functionality
should not be reduced to concern for governmental stability: the duties that a
parliament is expected to perform do not always presuppose one-party

No electoral system can be
said to be best for all functions in all contexts, this is because such
functions are often barely compatible with each other. The choice of a specific
set of rules results from a balancing process which depends on each country’s political,
social and cultural circumstances. The same applies to the choice of the most
democratic electoral system: representative government is undemocratic in its
nature when considering the etymological meaning of democracy as ‘popular
government’. It could be argued that representative government has an
oligarchic dimension, and therefore no electoral system can give truly
democratic results. However, in their being representative, today’s governments
combine both undemocratic and democratic features (Manin 1997: 236): the degree of
independence enjoyed by elected representatives distances representation from
popular rule – however indirect – but is counterbalanced by freedom of public
opinion. Analogously, the presence of elections on a regular basis compensates
the fact that representatives – by virtue of said independence – are not bound
by promises made to voters, and holds them accountable to those they represent.
In spite of the inegalitarian character of elections (individuals running for
public office do not have equal resources and this inevitably favours elites)
theoretically all citizens have equal power to designate and dismiss their
rulers (Manin
1997: 238).
The democratic quality of the results given by a given political system could
be measured according to the extent to which that power is granted and ensured.
From this it follows that those systems which guarantee that the preferences of
all citizens – including minorities – are mirrored as equally as possible can
be considered more democratic than others which move proportional
representation to the background. Nevertheless, it should be considered that no
electoral system will ever give perfectly democratic results in this regard,
not even the most proportional, since there will always be a part of the
population that did not participate in the vote, and even those votes that were
cast might be the result of misinformation, uncertainty or ‘tactical voting’ (cf. Wolff 2003: 13), just to give some

Having established this,
it could be argued that there is no real need for electoral systems to give the
most democratic results, as long as such results allow both governability and a
fair share of representativeness of those that voted. These two key features
are combined in recent forms of more complicated system that, for this reason, have
been named ‘mixed’. The electoral system preferred the most by specialists is
mixed-member proportional (MMP) (Bowler, Farrell and Pettitt 2005: 7), because it is able to
combine the virtues of both majoritarian and proportional systems, requiring
electors to cast two votes: one for a constituency MP and one for a party. The former
will be given a proportion of seats (usually 50%) allocated using a
single-member plurality system, and the second vote will follow a party-list
system that ‘corrects’ the distortions of SMP. It is not a system that allows
perfect proportionality, but it tries to consider and actualize the aforementioned
democratic features of representative democracy.


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