Electoral Systems and Conceptions of Politics

Electoral Systems and Conceptions of Politics



Published as chapter 8 in Comparative Election Law (James A. Gardner, ed., Edward Elgar Publishing, 2022).

Every democratic society must settle upon some method by which diversity of public opinion may be narrowed and then transformed into concrete, binding, politically legitimate decisions about what the polity should do. In representative democracies, a key step in that process is choosing an electoral system, an institution that plays a critical role in transforming diversity of opinion among the demos into unified, presumptively consensual official policy. Although human ingenuity has devised many possible methods by which a democratic polity can record and calculate public opinion through voting, in today’s world the salient decision tends to boil down to a choice among two families of electoral systems: winner-take-all (WTA) and proportional representation (PR). Today, among the world’s democracies, more than sixty use WTA for elections to at least one national governing institution, and more than forty use PR.

It is tempting to think of electoral systems as little more than alternative methods for tabulating votes, as interchangeable as jam and marmalade, and thus a matter solely of personal taste. This is false in two ways. First, the seemingly trivial methodologies of recording and tabulating votes in WTA and PR systems rest upon profoundly different conceptual foundations encompassing distinct and incompatible beliefs about the nature of the good, the epistemology of the good, and the nature and function of political representation. Second, the choice between the two methodologies has significant consequences for how politics is practiced and experienced by members of the polity, both locally and nationally, and by their elected representatives. To choose between the two systems is thus to choose not merely between electoral methodologies, but between fundamentally distinct conceptions of politics itself.

Publication Date



Edward Elgar Publishing


978 1 78811 901 6

First Page



democracy, electoral system, winner-take-all, first-past-the-post, proportional representation, comparative election law


Comparative and Foreign Law | Election Law | Law


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Electoral Systems and Conceptions of Politics