Proportional representation

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Proportional representation (PR) is a principle applied to voting systems to elect an assembly or council to ensure that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received. For example, under a PR voting system, if 30% of voters support a particular party then roughly 30% of seats will be won by that party.

PR is an alternative to voting systems based on single-member districts or on bloc voting. These non-PR systems tend to produce disproportionate outcomes for the winning party or parties (shares of seats larger than shares of votes) and are biased in favour of larger political parties. Under PR systems, smaller parties are allocated seats in proportion to their share of the vote and are thus more likely to secure a certain level of representation, although the details will vary from case to case depending on the details of any particular system.

There are many different forms of PR. Most systems can be classified as variants of the following categories:

  • list PR systems, focused on achieving proportional representation by different political parties;
  • the Single Transferable Vote system (STV-PR), which allows voters to choose among individual candidates in multi-member districts;
  • Mixed Member Proportional representation (MMP), which combines both local representation and overall proportionality; and
  • the Parallel or Mixed Member Majoritarian Systems, which retain a single-winner voting system for district seats but adds to that a parallel layer of at-large seats the are proportionately allocated.[1]

The degree of proportionality of different models also varies, depending on factors such as the precise formula used to allocate seats, the number of seats in each constituency or in the elected body as a whole, and the level of any minimum threshold required for a small party to win a seat.

Single-Winner Systems in contrast to PR[edit]

PR differs from electoral systems involving a single winner in each electoral district. Elections for single-member districts are held under a number of voting systems, including the first-past the post approach (FPTP) in which the candidate with the most votes or "plurality" is the winner, and run-off or instant run-off voting in which a majority of votes is needed. Single-winner systems are still used in some countries of the former British empire such as the United States, the UK, Canada and India. However, most nations today use some form of "proportional representation," as indicated in the table below.

Single-winner systems tends to promote strong two-party competition as in the United States, although scenarios involving three major parties also exist as in Canada or the UK at this time. Single-winner systems make it relatively difficult for smaller parties to secure parliamentary representation - a case in point being the marginalized position of the Green party in countries with single-winner systems (see Duverger's Law). This feature of single-winner systems effectively eliminates small national parties and makes it difficult for rebel fractions from the two strongest parties to create new parties. Single-winner systems can also reinforce the position of regional parties, as happened in Canada where the Bloc Québécois became a dominant feature of federal representation from the province of Quebec in the 1990s and 2000s.

Debate about proportionality[edit]

Proportional systems emphasize the political agenda by parties, since parties often function at the heart of proportional representation. For example, a party that receives 15% of the votes under such a system receives 15% of the seats for its candidates.[2] However, nations with proportional voting may differ in that some emphasize the individuals within the parties, such as the system in the Netherlands, while other nations only allow voting for parties, such as in the Spanish electoral system.

The majority of debate about voting systems is about whether to move to more proportionality. This is because the established parties in current US and UK elections can win formal control of the parliament with support from as little as 20-25% of eligible voters, due in part to low voter turnout.[citation needed] In Canada, governments are regularly formed by parties with support of under 40% of actual voters holding majority power for full five-year terms. Coupled with turnout levels in the electorate of less than 60%, this can lead to a party obtaining a majority government by convincing as few as one quarter of the electorate to vote for them.

Party-list proportional representation is one approach, in which each political party presents its list of candidates: voters choose a party list. The open list form allows the voter to influence the election of individual candidates within a party list. The closed list approach does not: the party chooses the order with its highest ranked candidates more likely to be elected. There is an intermediate system in countries like Uruguay, where each party presents several closed lists, each representing a faction. Seats are distributed between parties according to the number of votes, and then between the factions within each party.

Another variation is the single transferable vote (STV) which does not depend on political parties. Voters rank candidates in order of preference: if their most preferred candidate receives insufficient votes, the vote is transferred to the second choice and so on. Elections for the Australian Senate use what is referred to as above-the-line voting where candidates for each party are grouped on the ballot, allowing the voter to vote for the group or for a candidate. In elections to the Irish Dáil Éireann, candidates are listed on the ballot in alphabetic order, irrespective of party affiliation. In the US and UK the Single Transferable Vote is the proportional system advocated by the best known non-profit advocacy groups specialising in electoral systems; the Electoral Reform Society and FairVote.

Party list PR[edit]

The parties each list their candidates according to that party's determination of priorities. In closed list systems, voters vote for a list of candidates, with the party choosing the order of candidates on the list and thus, in effect, their probability of being elected. Each party is allocated seats in proportion to the number of votes it receives, using the party-determined ranking order. In a local list system, parties divide their candidates in single member-like constituencies, which are ranked inside each general party-list depending by their percentages. This method allows electors to judge every single candidate as it happens in an FPTP system. In an open list, voters may vote, depending on the model, for one person, or for two, or indicate their order of preference within the list – nevertheless the number of candidates elected from the list is determined by the number of votes the list receives.

This system is used in many countries, including Finland (open list), Latvia (open list), Sweden (open list), Israel (national closed list), Brazil (open list), the Netherlands (open list), Russia (closed list), South Africa (closed list), Democratic Republic of the Congo (open list). For elections to the European Parliament, most member states use open lists; but most large EU countries use closed lists, so that the majority of EP seats are distributed by those.[3] Local lists were used to elect the Italian Senate during the second half of the 20th century.

An alternative method is the mixed member system, which combine a national or regional proportional mechanism with single seat constituencies elected by a single winner system, attempting to achieve some of the positive features of each. Mixed systems are often helpful in countries with large populations, since they balance local and national concerns. They are used in nations with diverse geographic, social, cultural and economic issues. Such systems, or variations of them, are used in Germany, Lesotho, Mexico, Bolivia and New Zealand.

Single transferable vote (STV-PR)[edit]

This system uses single transferable vote, a ranked voting system. Each constituency elects two or more representatives in constituencies equivalent in size to the sum of single-member constituencies that would produce the same number of representatives. Parties tend to offer as many candidates as they optimistically could expect to win. Major parties usually nominate more than minor parties. Voters rank some or all candidates in order of their preferences.

To be elected, a candidate must achieve a certain quota of votes. There are different ways of setting the quota, but the most commonly used is the Droop quota, calculated by "dividing the Total Valid Poll by one more than the number of seats to be filled, ignoring any remainder and then adding 1 vote."[4] Also used is the Hare quota (also known as the simple quota), established by dividing the number of votes by the number of seats.

Only by rare coincidence would all candidates reach the quota and be elected in the first count. This is where voters' second choices come in. If one candidate is elected on the first count, that candidate's votes in excess of the quota (called surplus votes) are transferred to the candidates of each voter's second choice. In the event that no candidate is elected in the first count, the least popular candidate is eliminated and that candidate's votes are redistributed according to voters' second choices.

It is possible for more than one candidate to be eliminated after the first count if it is clear that these candidates would be eliminated in the next round anyway. This could happen when eliminating only one candidate with a small number of votes would not generate enough second choice votes to ensure that any candidate would meet the quota in the second count. This means that one or more additional candidates would need to be eliminated regardless, and it would be more efficient to eliminate simultaneously the required number of candidates to potentially fill a seat.

The process repeats itself until all seats are filled, either when the required number of candidates achieve the quota or when the number of remaining candidates matches the number of remaining seats. Although the counting process is complicated, voting is clear and most voters get at least one of their preferences elected.

All deputies are answerable directly to their local constituents. Some political scientists argue that STV is more properly classified as 'semi-proportional' as there is no assurance of a proportional result at a national level. Indeed, many advocates of STV argue that preventing nationwide proportionality is one of the primary goals of the system, to avoid the perceived risks of a fragmented legislature.

This system is used in the Upper House in India, Australia (Senate, Tasmanian and Australian Capital Territory Houses of Assembly and the Legislative Councils in New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria), Ireland, Northern Ireland (assembly, local government and European elections, but not national), Malta, local government elections in Scotland and selected (optional) local governments in New Zealand. The system was also used in several cities in the United States in the early 20th century.[5]


The British schoolmaster Thomas Wright Hill is credited as inventor of the single transferable vote, the use of which he described in 1821 for application in elections at his school. The method, which guarantees proportional representation, was introduced in 1840 by his son Rowland Hill into the public election for the Adelaide City Council. Unlike several later systems, this did not allow for party-list proportional representation.

Single Transferable Vote was first used in Denmark in 1857, making STV the oldest PR system, but the system used there never really spread. STV was re-invented (apparently independently) in the UK, but the British parliament rejected it.

A party-list proportional representation system was first devised and described in 1878 by Victor D'Hondt of Belgium. The procedure, known as the D'Hondt method, is still widely used. Victor Considérant, a utopian socialist, devised a similar system in an 1892 book. Some Swiss cantons (beginning with Ticino in 1890) used the system before Belgium, which was first to adopt list-PR in 1900 for its national parliament. Many European countries adopted similar systems during or after World War I.

STV was used in Tasmania in 1907. In the last Irish elections to the UK Parliament in 1919, STV was used in the University of Dublin constituency; two Independent Unionists were elected. STV has been in use since Irish independence. A mainly centrist party, Fianna Fáil, typically receives 30%-50% of the vote while opposition parties, traditionally the centre-right Fine Gael and the centre-left Labour Party, are comparatively weak. This has led to a series of coalition governments; there has not been a single-party government since 1989.

PR is used by more nations than the single winner system, and it dominates Europe, including Germany, most of northern and eastern Europe, and is used for European Parliament elections (as enforced by EU law). France adopted PR at the end of World War II, but discarded it in 1958. In 1986 it was used for parliament elections.

Proportional representation is less common in the English-speaking world; New Zealand adopted it in 1993. PR has some history in the United States. Many cities, including New York City, once used it to break up the Democratic Party monopolies on elective office. Cincinnati, Ohio, adopted PR in 1925 to get rid of a Republican Party monopoly, but the Republicans returned the city to FPTP in 1957. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois used a semi-proportional cumulative voting system to elect its House of Representatives. Each district across the state elected both Republicans and Democrats year-after-year. Cambridge, Massachusetts and Peoria, Illinois continue to use PR. San Francisco had city-wide elections in which people would cast votes for five or six candidates simultaneously, delivering some of the benefits of proportional representation.

Switzerland has the largest use of proportional representation, which is the system used to elect not only national legislatures and local councils, but also all local executives.

District magnitude[edit]

Some nations with proportional elections, such as Israel and the Netherlands, have one electoral district only: the entire nation, and the entire pie is cut up according to the entire outcome. Most nations have district systems in place where more than one person is elected per district. The constituency or district magnitude (DM) of a system is therefore measured by the number of seats per constituency. The greater the number of seats in a constituency, the more proportional the outcome will be. PR applied to a single-member district (SMD) is by necessity majoritarian. If the constituency is in a jurisdiction using list PR in its multimember districts (MMDs) the winning candidate needs a relative majority of the votes to win, so that the election in the SMD is by first-past-the-post. If the constituency is in a jurisdiction using PR-STV in its MMDs, an absolute majority of 50% plus 1 will likely be the minimum required for victory (depending on which quota is used) so that the election in the SMD is by the alternative vote. Four elected officials per district delivers a threshold of 20% (1/M+1) to gain a single seat. However, constituency borders can still be gerrymandered to reduce proportionality. This may be achieved by creating "majority-minority" constituencies—constituencies in which the majority is formed by a group of voters that are in the minority at a higher level. Proportional representation with the entire nation electing the single body cannot be gerrymandered.

Multimember districts do not necessarily ensure that an electoral system will be proportional. The block vote can result in "super-majoritarian" results in which geographical variations can create majority-minority districts that become subsumed into the larger districts. Also, a party that does not run enough people to fill all the seats it wins may be given those unfilled seats. This is termed an underhang.

Some nations, with either exclusively proportional representation or mixed-member systems, require a party list to achieve an election threshold—a set minimum percentage of votes to receive any seats. Typically, this lower limit is between two and five percent of the number of votes cast. Parties who do not reach that support are not represented in parliament, making majorities, coalitions and thus governments easier to achieve. Proponents of election thresholds argue that they discourage fragmentation, disproportionate power, or extremist parties. Opponents of thresholds argue that they unfairly redirect support from minor parties, giving parties which cross the threshold disproportionate numbers of seats and creating the possibility that a party or coalition will assume control of the legislature without gaining a majority of votes.

The most common way of measuring proportionality is the Gallagher Index.

Fragmentation - the case of Israel[edit]

Israel is a notable example of nationwide proportionally-elected Parliament which happens to be highly fragmented, with currently 14 parties. The balance of power is then in the hands of party leaders who form coalitions to unite and create a representative government.

To respond to this problem, Israel has tried multiple strategies:

  1. Raising the electoral threshold from 1% (until 1992) to 1.5% (until 2004), then 2% (took effect in Israeli legislative election, 2006) and to 3.25% in 2014.[6]
  2. Prime ministerial elections, in order to give the PM popular support and strengthen his role in government. Voted in 1992, it was tried three times (in 1996, 1999 and 2001). The system was abandoned after 2001, having failed to produce more stable governments.
  3. Very large coalitions, representing a supermajority larger than the absolute majority (61 seats), and thus giving the coalition's main fraction (the Prime minister's) more options. Netanyahu's 2009 cabinet had the potential support of 74 of the 120 MPs.

List of countries using proportional representation[edit]

Countries by type of PR system

This is a list of countries using proportional representation for central government.

Country Type
Albania Party list
Algeria Party list
Angola Party list
Australia For Senate only, Single Transferable Vote
Austria Party list, 4% threshold
Argentina Party list
Aruba Party list
Belgium Party list, 5% threshold
Bolivia Mixed member proportional
Bosnia and Herzegovina Party list
Brazil Party list
Bulgaria Party list, 4% threshold
Burkina Faso Party list
Burundi Party list
Cambodia Party list
Cape Verde Party list
Colombia Party list
Costa Rica Party list
Croatia Party list, 5% threshold
Curaçao Party list
Cyprus Party list
Czech Republic Party list, 5% threshold
Democratic Republic of the Congo Mixed member proportional
Denmark Party list
Dominican Republic Party list
Equatorial Guinea Party list
Estonia Party list, 5% threshold
Finland Party list
Germany Mixed member proportional, 5% (or 3 district winners) threshold
Guinea-Bissau Party list
Guyana Party list
Hong Kong Party list
Hungary Mixed member proportional
Iceland Party list
India For Upper House (Rajya Sabha) only, Single Transferable Vote by State Legislatures
Indonesia Party list
Iraq Party list
Ireland Single Transferable Vote (For Dáil only)
Israel Party list, 2% threshold
Italy Party list, 4% threshold
Japan Mixed member proportional
Latvia Party list, 5% threshold
Lesotho Mixed member proportional
Liberia Party list
Liechtenstein Party list, 8% threshold
Luxembourg Party list
Macedonia [1][dead link]
Malta Single Transferable Vote
Mexico Mixed member proportional
Moldova Party list
Montenegro[2] Party list
Morocco Party list, 6% threshold
Namibia Party list
Nepal Party list
Netherlands Party list
New Caledonia Party list
New Zealand Mixed member proportional, 5% threshold
Nicaragua Party list
Northern Ireland Single Transferable Vote
Norway Party list
Paraguay Party list
Peru Party list
Poland Party list, 5% threshold
Portugal Party list
Romania Mixed member proportional, 5% threshold
Russia Party list, 7% threshold
San Marino Party list
Sao Tome and Principe Party list
Serbia Party list
Sint Maarten Party list
Slovakia Party list, 5% threshold
Slovenia Party list, 4% threshold
South Africa Party list
South Korea Mixed member proportional, 3% (or 5 district winners) threshold
Spain Party list, 3% threshold in small constituencies
Sri Lanka Party list
Suriname Party list
Sweden Party list, 4% national threshold or 12% in a district
Switzerland Party list
Taiwan Mixed member proportional
Thailand Mixed member proportional
Tunisia Party list
Turkey Party list, 10% threshold
Uruguay Party list
Venezuela Mixed member proportional
Wallis and Futuna Party list

Further reading[edit]


  • Amy, Douglas J. (1993). Real Choices/New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the United States. Columbia University Press. 
  • Denis Pilon (2007). The Politics of Voting. Edmond Montgomery Publications. 
  • Colomer, Josep M. (2003). Political Institutions. Oxford University Press. 
  • Colomer, Josep M., ed. (2004). Handbook of Electoral System Choice. Palgrave Macmillan. 
  • Pukelsheim, Friedrich (2014). Proportional Representation. Springer. 
  • Jess; Mary Southcott (1998). Making Votes Count: The Case for Electoral Reform. London: Profile Books. 

James Forder, The case against voting reform, Oneworld Books, London, 2011


  • John Hickman and Chris Little. "Seat/Vote Proportionality in Romanian and Spanish Parliamentary Elections" Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans Vol. 2, No. 2, November 2000


  • Roland Nicholson, Jr., "Proportional Representation Elections in Hong Kong", New York Times, September, 1992

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adapted from the Law Commission of Canada, Voting Counts: Electoral Reform For Canada. Ottawa, 2004, pp. 22-26.
  2. ^ Kolesar, Robert J. (1996-04-20). "Communism, Race, and the Defeat of Proportional Representation in Cold War America". Massachusetts: Mount Holyoke College. Retrieved 2010-05-12. 
  3. ^ As counted from the table in [in German]; "Vorzugsstimme(n)" means "open list".
  4. ^ Proportional Representation Irish citizens information
  5. ^
  6. ^ Israel ups threshold for Knesset seats despite opposition boycott Reuters, 11 March 20134

External links[edit]