Party List Proportional Representation

Countries worldwide employ various voting systems to elect their government officials and representatives. One of the most common electoral systems used today is the party-list system, a type of proportional representation. This article aims to provide you, the student, a clearer understanding of party-list proportional representation, as well as its advantages and disadvantages.   

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Table of contents

    Party-List Proportional Representation Definition

    Party-list proportional representation is a voting system used in more than 80 countries worldwide in which multiple candidates are elected according to their ordered position on a predetermined electoral list. Parties are awarded seats in parliament according to the overall proportion of votes they receive within their district or constituency. Two main voting methods are used in party-list systems: open and closed lists. We will describe both in more detail in the section below.

    Additional Features Party-List Proportional Representation

    • Constituency size varies. For example, the entire country is one significant constituency in the Netherlands and Israel. In other countries, there are smaller constituencies.

    • Party-list systems can be national or regional.

    Party-List Proportional Representation Purpose

    Polling station sign Party List Proportional Representation StudySmarterFig. 1 – Polling station sign.

    The purpose of using proportional electoral systems is to produce governments that more accurately reflect the overall level of public support each party commands. This helps to ensure that the needs and concerns of broad segments of society are given a voice in government.

    Party-list proportional representation also makes it easier for smaller parties to win seats in Parliament. As a result, governments elected using the party-list system are often comprised of a diverse range of parties. The party-list system also tends to produce more coalition governments (e.g. when no single party wins a majority of seats), forcing parties to form alliances and work together to pass laws.

    There are currently 650 constituencies in the United Kingdom, each electing one member of parliament. It is projected that the UK would have 26 constituencies under a party-list system, each electing 25 MPs3

    Case Study

    Some states have reformed their electoral laws to implement proportional representation systems in the United States. The most extensive research to date is the Proportional Representation and Electoral Reform in Ohio, produced by Kathleen Barber and colleagues.

    The study analyzed the political effects of proportional representation (PR) systems in five Ohio cities. They found that PR systems ensured fairer and more balanced representation in the state's legislature. In an election in Cincinnati held prior to the adoption of the PR system, the Republican Party won only 55% of the votes but received 97% of the city council seats. Conversely, in the first election using the PR system, the Republicans, having won 27.8% of the votes, were awarded 33.3% of the seats, whilst the Democrats won 63.8% and were awarded 66.7% of the seats.2

    Party List Proportional Representation Process

    The two most common party-list proportional representation voting systems are the closed and open list systems.

    Closed List

    In the closed party-list system, voters are asked to tick the box on the ballot that corresponds with their preferred party rather than selecting an individual candidate (the parties themselves choose an ordered list of candidates beforehand). Once the election concludes, seats are allocated to each party based on the percentage of votes they receive. For example, if a party gets 40% of the votes in a ten-seat constituency, they would win four parliamentary seats. If the party gets 20% of the popular vote, they will win two seats, etc.

    An ordered list of candidates created before the election determines which candidates ultimately fill the seats allocated to each party. Candidate lists typically vary, so they are tailored to the voters the party seeks to attract. For example, some factors taken into account include gender and geography. The first name on the list is usually the most popular candidate.

    From 1999 to 2019, England, Wales, and Scotland used the closed party-list proportional system during the European Parliamentary elections.

    Open List

    In the open list system, each ballot contains a candidate list. In this case, a vote for a candidate equals a vote for that candidate's party (this is important when the votes are counted and seats are allocated to each party).

    Note: In some countries, you can vote for a party and leave the ordering of the candidates up to other voters.

    Examples of party-list proportional representation

    More than 80 countries worldwide use the party-list system1. Some of the more prominent examples of countries that use the closed list system include Israel, Argentina, Turkey, and Albania, whilst Brazil, Finland, and the UK (European Parliament elections) use the open-list system.

    Case Study

    In the 2014 European Parliament Election, UKIP, a British right-wing populist party, won 27% of the popular vote earning them 24 seats in the European Parliament. It marked the first time a party not considered one of Britain's two major parties (the Labour Party and the Conservative Party), won Britain's popular vote since the early 20th century.

    Pros and Cons of Party-List Proportional Representation

    The party-list proportional representation voting system has its share of advantages, but it also has some disadvantages. In this section, we will discuss both sides of the coin.

    Pros

    Cons

    Wide range of parties to choose from

    Countries that use party-list proportional representation tend to form multi-parties governments, as list systems are highly proportional

    In countries that use party-list proportional representation systems to elect their MPs, newer, smaller parties have a better chance of gaining seats in parliament as the vote threshold is lower

    Party-list representation systems encourage voter participation as they give the electorate a broader range of choices.

    Party-list systems can give too much power to parties

    The biggest concern with party-list systems is that they can give too much power to parties

    Furthermore, local party members often have no say in the selection, and voters may be stuck with an unpopular candidate

    Open list systems can make candidates more responsive to voters

    Voters can pick amongst individual candidates. This is attractive to the electorate as voters may feel that candidates are more likely to take their concerns more seriously.

    There is less of an MP constituency link.

    Under the First-Past-The-Post system (the system currently used in most large UK elections), MPs serve the constituency they campaign in, which makes them much more inclined to tackle important local issues.

    In Britain, the constituency link is a vital aspect of UK politics. MPs representing their local constituencies are directly accountable to those constituencies. If they do not follow the concerns of their constituents, they will not receive votes in the next election.

    Closed list systems are easy to understand

    Advocates of the closed list system point out that it is easy for voters to understand, which may be particularly useful in situations where voter education levels are low.

    Closed list advocates also argue that this system increases accountability. Voters know what they are getting when they support a particular party.

    Closed lists also can allow parties to take explicit steps to elect traditionally under-represented constituencies such as people of colour, women, etc.

    Party-list systems tend to produce more coalition governments

    Because there is more room for multiple political parties, coalition governments are much more common under party-list proportional representation.

    Table 1 – Pros and Cons of the Party-List Proportional Representation.

    Party List Proportional Representation - Key takeaways

    • The party-list system is a proportional election system where the proportion of seats won is as close to the proportion of votes won as is possible.
    • In the long run, a party-list proportional system will ensure that the needs and concerns of diverse groups (workers, farmers, fishers, etc.) will have a voice in Parliament.
    • The two main voting processes in party-list elections are closed and open-list elections.
    • Examples of countries that use the closed list system include Israel, Albania and Turkey. Examples of countries that use the open list system include Brazil and Finland.
    • The main advantages include having an extensive range of parties to choose from, candidates being more responsive to constituents, and closed list systems being easy to understand. The main disadvantages include giving too much power to parties, less of an MP constituency link, and potentially leading to more coalition governments.

    References

    1. Party List Proportional Representation – Electoral Reform Society – ERS
    2. A Brief History of Proportional Representation in the United States - FairVote
    3. Parliamentary constituencies - UK Parliament
    4. European Elections | EU Citizens' Corner | European Parliament Liaison Office in the United Kingdom
    5. Parliament UK
    6. Fig. 1 – Polling Station 2008 (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c9/Polling_Station_2008.jpg) by Man vyi (N/A) licensed by PD (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:public_domain).
    7. Table 1 – Pros and Cons of the Party-List Proportional Representation.
    Party List Proportional Representation Party List Proportional Representation
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Party List Proportional Representation

    Why is the party-list system introduced?

    The party list system is introduced to ensure the representation of minority groups in Congress.

    What is the party-list representative system?

    The party-list representative system is a voting mechanism created to give a proportional representation in Parliament, according to the vote cast.

    Is proportional representation a two-party system?

    No, it is not. The proportional representation system empowers minority parties, giving them a presence in Parliament.

    How does proportional representation work?

    The proportional representation system works under two types: closed-list and open-list. In the closed list, the number of seats filled is contingent on the order of the candidate list the party chooses in advance. In the open-list system, the voter also selects a candidate from the party list.

    What is the purpose of the party-list system?

    The party-list system's primary purpose is to ensure that the needs and concerns of diverse groups (workers, farmers, fishers, etc.) will have a voice in Parliament.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which US state has started to incorporate party-list proportional representation into their elections?

    How many countries use a party-list proportional system to elect their parliament?

    Which of the following democracies does not have a proportional representation system for electing their parliament?

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