The Electoral System : The Cornerstone Of Electoral Laws


Bernard Owen
We have written this in French and in English, and are sorry not to be able to write it in Russian. So this will be another English text, but though the idea is quite similar, it cannot be exactly the same. So here we go.

Human beings are full of bright ideas. It is a strength in itself and it is marvelous the way we have learned to express ourselves by writing and publishing our thoughts, build cars, trains, airplanes or go to the moon. As an example of this, our families have worked on missiles.
Let us rejoice about this type of progress. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is ( just witness all the fighting that has gone on throughout the world for centuries) underlines the fact that one has to find institutional ways of dealing with conflict.

You may ask why should we go this far when we are supposedly working on electoral laws ? We shall start with the most important part of electoral laws : the electoral system. Why is it the most important part of any electoral law ?

A danger becomes evident immediately. All inventors of electoral systems consider voters as abstract numbers. When you read their work, you can see that they have forgotten that they are dealing with human beings. Let us pause a minute. Many human beings like power but, of course, not all. But those who are willing to take power do not always have the ability to lead their citizens on the path of wellbeing or as the Americans say : “ the research of happiness”.

Another element, which has to be taken into account, is the dangers that result from the research of an equality between the percentage of voters and the percentage of seats in proportional representation (P.R.) This appears ideal but not when the subject of the research are human beings. Let us be practical by looking at Europe.

The quest for leadership found in some men and women will have consequences which can be good or even tragic. The happy aspect is that one puts together coalition governments. The flip side can be tragic as when a crisis occurs, whatever may be the reason for it, political, personal, or economic. The danger occurs if the government collapses and the nation is without government at a time when it badly needs one. We have written on this subject as we have had and have many tragic situations in Europe and there could be more.

The actual electoral system in use in Germany has been put forward by some authors as an alternative to the Russian system. We have worked on the 2009-2013 period in Germany. We note that the mathematical result of the German method is approximately proportional. It is often said that the majority part of the election is considered by the voters as a way of choosing a political figure while the proportional part is essential in the political outlook of the voters. Nevertheless, when one looks a little closer at the mechanism of the electoral system, one sees that it is not the case:
– The candidates elected in the 299 one-member constituencies are elected once and for all.

– The number of candidates elected on the proportional lists are not obtained by the vote but they are inversely linked to the level obtained by their party in the majority part of the election.

– In order to simplify the explanation of a complex system let us say that the larger the number of votes a party obtains in the majority part of the election, the less number of seats it will have in the proportional part.

The result is that the proportional part is only there to reduce or eliminate the bias of the parties that have the larger number of votes in the majority part. It can also work in the opposite way by bringing a larger number of seats to the smaller parties. The parties did not take a long time to understand how to deal with the 2 parts of the electoral system. For example : the F.D.P., the small liberal party, does not win any seats in the majority part of the election. All the majority seats go to the right-wing party C.D.U.-C.S.U. (they act as one party), and the S.P.D. (Socialist Party). The F.D.P. only obtains seats in the proportional part.

Let us look at the 2009 numbers:
– The C.D.U. only obtains 21 seats at the proportional level.
– The F.D.P. obtains 93 seats at the P.R. level.

If we consider the percentage of votes obtained at the PR level, we obtain :
For the C.D.U. 27.3 % at PR level
For the F.D.P. 14.6 % at PR level.

If we go further by looking at the number of votes at PR level :
C.D.U.- C.S.U. 11,824,794 votes which gives hem 21 seats
F.D.P. 6 313 023 votes which gives them 93 seats.

The F.D.P. has found the way to win the largest number of votes. The « compensation part » of the electoral system means that the lesser amount of seats a party obtains in the majority part the more seats it obtains the proportional part. Although the F.D.P. know that they will not get a candidate elected in the majority part they chose a well-known political figure as a boost to the F.D.P. Its candidate will stand in both parts of the election to act as a boost to the F.D.P. in the PR part. The law allows it.

The mathematical result of majority systems is the opposite to that which is looked for by those that support proportional systems. The party that has more votes as a result of the election has a surplus of seats. This would not be acceptable when one goes shopping but one is electing one’s representative things are quite different for the whole voting process works on different attitudes of the voter. First-past-the-post is best when you are voting in a one-member constituency. In this case, one is voting for one person whom one likes or one might even dislike; or vote for the person who represents the party or community in which one lives and in most cases the two go together.

The process for a voter when he or she votes is similar to other aspects of his or her social life. He or she chooses friends not unlike the way he or she chooses for whom he or she will vote. That is something that is deeply ingrained in human nature. This psychological aspect was hidden in the argument used before the 1913 elections by some members of the Italian parliament who did not wish to grant the right to vote to illiterates.

The large coalitions that may result from PR systems are not easy going. They produce side effects that can have unforeseen consequences. Let us go back to the 2009 parliamentary elections. These elections were the follow-up to a large coalition government that had existed since 2005. The two main parties that had formed this government were the C.D.U.-C.S.U.; which behave as one party, the C.D.U. being present in the north of Germany, while the C.S.U. is in the south. They are a moderate Christian right-wing party. The S.P.D. is socialist and works hand-in-hand with the trade unions. During that time the chancellor was Gerhard Schröder who was a socialist while his cabinet was C.D.U.- C.S.U.-S.P.D.

One should never forget that however efficient is a government there will always be a number of voters who are not satisfied. The question is : who will these dissatisfied people vote for ? What will be the welcome structure for the protest vote?

Prior to that election the polls had shown that political affiliation had dropped. This was clearly the case for some leaders of the S.P.D. During the regional elections the N.P.D. (neo- Nazi party) had fielded a number of candidates. For Germany, this was embarrassing. The law courts intervened and it appeared that the police special services had become members. When this was known. Public opinion was relieved. But a new party had already made its way through. It was a far-left party called “Die Linke”. It had been the party of the ex RDA so that it can be considered as communist. It had already obtained 3 seats in the majority part of the election. The presence of the S.P.D. in the government, and the very practical attitude of previous Chancellor Schröder had displeased some members of the S.P.D. and a number of trade union leaders then joined “die Linke”.

This new party became the welcome structure for the vote against the government. It obtained 16 seats in the majority part of the election and 60 seats in the proportional part.

The F.D.P. (Liberal Party) obtained no direct majority seat but 93 seats in the proportional part ( + 32 in comparison to the previous election).

The Green Party won 1 majority seat and 68 on the proportional part (a gain of 17 seats compared to previous elections).

A more logical electoral system that takes into account the continuity of a stable democracy would be to introduce majority single or two-member constituencies. The argument against this proposal is that in Bavaria the C.S.U. would win all seats. This is not true as the doing away with the proportional part of the election would reduce considerably the size of the majority constituencies. There would be twice as many, and we know that small majority constituencies make it much easier for small parties to obtain seats.

Italy and the Weimar Republic.
Predictions are often wrong. After the first World War, Italy changed electoral systems. It put aside the majority system and wanted to go with the tendency of the time and the first two post-war elections were proportional.

As a result, Italy, which had been a constitutional monarchy for years, found itself with weak unstable governments and no police force. Mussolini just walked in and restored order. The Italian people were relieved, and so was the international press that considered that once Mussolini had restored order he would move out.

The Weimar Republic (or the new Germany as it was called at the time) should not be considered only from the point of view of a historian. The institutions and especially the electoral system played the main role in the rise of the Nazi Party. We have written on this point a number of times and the last time in November 2013 (in English although the editor stressed that it had to be in American). Right up to 1928, the Nazis had no electoral success: 2.6% of the vote. Its only successes were in the 1930-1932 elections, when Germany, which had in 1928 a five-party coalition government that collapsed as a consequence the Wall Street crash.

From 1930 to 1932, the Chancellor (prime minister) Brunig had only 10 members of parliament on his side, and had to ask President Hindenburg to write into a decree the proposed law for which the prime minister could not obtain the approval of the Reichstag. Weimar Germany was ruled by presidential decree.


To conclude, we must say that institutions and electoral systems, which are technical in nature but which have an effect on political life, are far more important than ideology and economics. Because these technical aspects of our political life can have a tremendously positive or negative influence on our nation we have chosen to research and write about it.