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date: 24 May 2017

Political Representation and Electoral Systems

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Political representation is at the heart of liberal democracies. Whether democracy is understood as popular rule or as effective fate control by the people, representation is the means to realize the democratic idea of giving people a voice in large states. Thus, from a normative point of view, there should be a causal relationship between citizens’ interests and policy decisions of representatives. Elections are the major link establishing causality between the wishes of the people and acts of governance. However, how and whom citizens elect varies considerably across democracies. The two ideal types, or “two visions of democracy” as Bingham Powell has called them, are majoritarian and proportional elections. In a majoritarian electoral system, citizens elect persons in single-member districts. In a proportional electoral system, citizens elect parties voting for lists and parties determine by candidate selection how those lists are composed. The causal link between citizens and representatives differs clearly between the two kinds of elections. The mandate in the majoritarian model is given to a person, and this person is held accountable in the next elections for her performance. In the proportional model, the mandate is given to a party, and the party is held accountable in the next elections. Thus, different actors have the duty to deliver representation in different electoral systems: individual deputies in the majoritarian, political parties in the proportional model. This implies that representatives should have different roles and foci of representation depending on the mode of their election. The two visions of democracy embedded in the two electoral systems carry distinct normative ideals about good representation. Looking at political representation in democracies from a comparative perspective, electoral systems seem to induce the respective orientation toward the mandate and whom to represent by different incentives for candidates running in single-member districts or on party lists. The role of a party delegate is more frequent in proportional, the delegate and trustee roles more frequent in majoritarian systems. In majoritarian systems, representatives are very much inclined to represent the median voter of the district; in proportional systems, representatives rather tend to represent their party voters.