Evidence Summary — December 2015

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Why Proportional Representation?

A look at the evidence

This paper summarizes results from comparative research comparing the performance of the two main families of voting systems: winner-take-all and proportional representation (PR). We already know that PR is a way of ensuring that all votes count and delivering more representative election results. The research cited below goes further by demonstrating the impact of PR on the policy choices made by governments. This research shows that PR outperforms winner-take-all systems on measures of democracy, quality of life, income equality, environmental performance, and fiscal policy.

Introduction: Two Families of Voting Systems

There are two basic types, or families, of voting systems:

1) Winner-take-all. Political scientists call these systems “majoritarian”. Winner-take-all systems include among others the First Past the Post and Alternative Vote systems. These systems use single member ridings and yield a winning representative elected by the largest group of voters in each riding. Winner-take-all systems tend to produce singleparty majority governments in which one party normally wins more than half the seats, obtaining a virtual monopoly of decision making power. In many cases, such majorities rest on less than 50% of the popular vote.

All winner-take-all systems share the same basic flaws: a high percentage of wasted votes, distorted results in which the seats earned do not reflect the popular vote, suppression of minority viewpoints, adversarial politics, and legislatures which do not accurately reflect the diversity of the country.

2) Proportional Representation. PR systems include the sort of Party-list systems common in other parts of the world, but also Mixed Member Proportional and Single Transferable Vote systems, with country-specific variations of each. PR systems are based on the principle that the number of seats a party earns in a legislature should closely match the percentage of votes obtained by that party. PR tends to produce legislatures which better reflect the full range of citizens views, including ethnic and gender diversity. Because a single party rarely earns more than 50% of the vote, two or more parties usually govern together in a coalition representing a majority of voters.

Comparing Winner-Take-All to Proportional Systems

Substantial comparative research has been conducted on the impact of winner-take-all systems vs proportional systems on a range of different topics. The following summarizes the main results of that research.

Measures of Democracy

Arend Lijphart (1999 and 2012), a world-renowned political scientist, spent his career studying various features of democratic life in majoritarian and “consensual” (PR) democracies. In his landmark study titled Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in 36 Countries, he compared 36 democracies over 55 years,

Using World Governance Indicators and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Lijphart (2012) found that PR countries outperformed majoritarian ones on 16 out of 17 measures of sounds government and decision making – nine of them at a statistically significant level – including government effectiveness (quality and independence of the public service, quality of policy making), rule of law, and the level and control of corruption (including capture of the state by elite interests).

Looking at a number of specific indicators, Lijphart found that in countries using proportional systems,

  • Voter turnout was higher by 7.5 percentage points, when contextual factors are taken into account.
  • Government policies were closer to the view of the median voter.
  • Citizens were more satisfied with the performance of their countries democratic institutions, even when the party they voted for was not in power.
  • There was a small increase in the number of parties in Parliament.
  • The share of women elected to legislators was 8 percentage points higher.
  • Scores were higher on measures of political participation and civil liberties

Lijphart’s general conclusion is that consensual (PR) democracies are “kinder, gentler democracies” (2012: 293).

Research by other authors has yielded similar results. Lijphart’s finding that proportional systems lead to governments that better reflect the views of the median voter was confirmed by McDonald, Mendes and Budge (2004), who looked at 254 elections producing 471 governments in 20 countries.

Pilon (2007: 154-155) is relatively cautious about the impact of PR on voter turnout, noting that the observed impact varies from study to study and is affected by other considerations than the choice of electoral system, but ends up supporting Lijphart’s conclusion, describing the “typical bonus” of voter turnout under PR to be in the order of 7 to 8% percentage points.

Health, Education, Standards of Living

Investigating the broader impact of PR on society, Carey and Hix (2009) looked at 610 elections over 60 years in 81 countries and found that PR countries garnered higher scores on the United Nations Index of Human Development, which incorporates health, education and standard of living indicators. Carey and Hix consider that the Index of Human Development provides “a reasonable overall indicator of government performance in the delivery of public goods and human welfare.”

Focusing on a health indicator that is of growing importance, Orellana (2014) demonstrates that the predicted obesity rate among adults is considerably lower in countries with fully proportional electoral systems, at 12%, compared to countries with majoritarian systems, where  it is 26 percent.

Lijphart found that countries with PR spent an average of 4.75% more on social expenditures than majoritarian democracies.

Income Inequality

The choice of voting systems also affects the level of income inequality. Lijphart (2012: 282) found that countries with proportional systems had significantly much lower levels of income inequality.

Likewise, Birchfield and Crepaz (1998) found that “consensual political institutions (which use PR) tend to reduce income inequalities whereas majoritarian institutions have the opposite effect” (p. 192). The results of the regression work they present were highly significant, with PR accounting for 51% of the variance in income inequality among countries.

The authors explain this result in terms of the higher degree of political power of people in PR Systems. In their words:

“The more widespread the access to political institutions, and the more representative the political system, the more citizens will take part in the political process to change it in their favour which will manifest itself, among other things, in lower income inequality. Such consensual political institutions make the government more responsive to the demands of a wider range of citizens” (p. 191).

Vincenzo Verardi, in a 2005 study of 28 democracies, also found that when the degree of proportionality of a system increases, inequality decreases. Proportional representation is associated with greater efforts to promote income redistribution (Iversen & Soskice 2006).


Frederiksson (2004) found that countries using proportional systems countries set stricter environmental policies. Darcie Cohen (2010) found that countries with proportional systems were faster to ratify the Kyoto protocol and their share of world total carbon emissions had declined.

Looking at environmental performance, Lijphart (2012) and Orellana (2014) found that countries with proportional systems scored six points higher on the Yale Environmental Performance Index, which measures ten policy areas, including environmental health, air quality, resource management, biodiversity and habitat, forestry, fisheries, agriculture and climate change. 

Using data from the International Energy Agency, Orellana (2014) found that between 1990 and 2007, when carbon emissions were rising everywhere, the statistically predicted increase was significantly lower in countries with fully proportional systems, at 9.5%, compared to 45.5% in countries using winner-take-all systems systems.

Orellana (2014) found that citizens in countries with proportional representation were more supportive of environmental action, more willing to pay the costs associated with environmental protection. He found the use of renewable energy to be approximately 117 percent higher in countries with fully proportional electoral systems.

In sum, countries with proportional systems tend to act more quickly and do more to protect the environment.

Economic Performance and Fiscal Responsibility

Commenting on the economic performance of countries using different systems, Carey and Hix (2009) found that countries with moderately proportional systems were more fiscally responsible and more likely to enjoy fiscal surpluses. Orellana (2014) found that proportional systems tend to have higher surpluses or lower deficits than less proportional systems and lower levels of national debt. Orellana’s regression analysis predicts a surplus of 0.05 percent of GDP for fully proportional countries, against a deficit of 2.9 percent of GDP in majoritarian countries. The predicted national debt is 65.7 percent higher in majoritarian countries compared to those with fully proportional systems, meaning the cost of servicing the debt will be higher.

Turning to the issue of economic performance more generally, the correlation seems to depend upon the sample being used. Lijphart (2012) and Orellana (2014) found no relationship between electoral systems and economic growth. However, when Knutsen (2011) looked at a much longer historical period involving 3,710 country-years of data covering 107 countries from 1820 to 2002, he found that proportional and semi-proportional systems produced an “astonishingly robust” and “quite substantial” increase in economic growth  – a 1 percentage point increase – compared to plurality-majoritarian systems. He suggests this may be because of the tendency for PR to promote broad-interest policies rather than special interest policies; and because PR systems produce more stable and thus more credible economic policies. He concludes that PR and semi-PR systems generate more prosperity than plural-majoritarian systems.

While PR country governments are evidently more interventionist than majoritarian country governments in several ways, as seen in other sections above, the fiscal prudence showed by PR countries and the higher growth rate achieved in such countries seem to have made it possible to limit the tax bite required to finance the public sector. Using data from Reinhart and Rogoff (2009), the World Bank, the IMF and the OECD, Orellana (2014) shows that government revenues as a percentage of GDP are roughly 1.6 percentage points higher in fully proportional countries compared to majoritarian countries, which does not seem a terribly large price to pay for a more democratic, egalitarian and environmentally sound policy framework and higher levels of human development.

Tolerance, Prejudice and Evolution of Attitudes

The impact of electoral systems on society can be extremely far-reaching. For instance, using data from the World Values survey conducted between 1981 and 2010, Orellana (2014) found that citizens in countries with proportional systems tend to show lower levels of prejudice towards minority and marginalized groups. Countries with majoritarian systems scored approximately 44 percent higher on the prejudice scale than countries with fully proportional electoral systems.

He found that citizens in countries with more proportional electoral systems tend to have higher levels of support for environmental protection; higher levels of tolerance for homosexuality, abortion, divorce, euthanasia and prostitution; and a higher level of disagreement with the notion that men make better leaders. Their attitudes towards those issues tended to evolve more quickly than elsewhere. Over a roughly 25-year period, tolerance of homosexuality increased by 0.41 points in countries using proportional systems vs. 0.20 points in single member district systems. Countries with winner-take-all electoral systems were 63% less likely to adopt civil union legislation than countries with proportional representation.

Criminal Justice, Surveillance, Violence and War

Similarly, Orellana (2014) and Lijphart (2012) found that countries with less proportional systems tend to have more public support for punitive solutions to crime, and produce more punitive policy outcomes including higher incarceration rates, greater use of capital punishment, more surveillance of citizens, higher levels of military spending, and more engagement in international conflict. Orellana (2014) found that support for incarceration is approximately 28 percentage points higher in countries with majoritarian systems. Confirming similar results by Lijphart (2012), Orellana found that the statistically-predicted incarceration rate for a countries with fully proportional systems  was 136 per 100,000 people compared to 246 in majoritarian countries.

Relying on an indicator of privacy and surveillance produced by Privacy International (2011) for over 30  countries, Orellana (2014) found that countries with proportional systems had a score that was 58% higher on the privacy index.

Looking at the average military expenditure as a percentage of GDP between 1988 and 2012, and data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Orellana (2014) found that the predicted level of military spending for countries with majoritarian systems was more than twice as high as for countries with fully proportional systems (2.6% vs. 1.1%$ of GDP). Leblang and Chan (2003) found that a country’s electoral system is the most important predictor of a country’s involvement in war, according to three different measures: (1) when a country was the first to enter a war; (2) when it joined a multinational coalition in an ongoing war; and (3) how long it stayed in a war after becoming a party to it.

Lijphart (2012) found that proportional representation is strongly correlated with a lower degree of violent events, more political stability, and lower risk of internal conflict.


One of the biggest debates about PR is whether it leads to political instability. This subject is well discussed by Pilon (2007: 146-154), who finds the arguments and evidence against PR wanting in this regard. He discusses the frequently cited cases of Italy and Israel in particular, and finds the usual analysis both inaccurate and of limited interest to countries facing different political situations. In his view, the experience of Germany and New Zealand would be more relevant in assessing the potential impact of PR in Canada, and neither country has faced the sorts of problems encountered by Italy and Israel.

Pilon comments on existing comparative research on the subject, which shows little difference in matters of political stability between PR and first-past-the-post countries. Using the number of elections between 1945 and 1998 as an indicator, he calculates that countries using First Past the Post averaged 16.7 elections, while countries using proportional systems averaged only 16.0 elections (Pilon, 2007). He points to other data that shows a somewhat shorter government life-span in PR countries (1.8 years as opposed to 2.5 years in first-past-the-post countries), but discounts this result because it is heavily influenced by the Italian experience (48 governments in 46 years) mainly involving what would elsewhere only be considered as cabinet shuffles (p. 147). He concludes that instability is “not a problem for PR systems in western countries” (p. 151).

Is perfect proportionality needed to have an impact?

Also important when considering options for electoral reforms is the degree of proportionality that is required to have an impact. This subject was the primary research question covered by Carey and Hix (2009 and 2011). Their results show that moderately proportional systems involving districts of six to eight seats made it possible to avoid disproportional results to a degree almost matching that of more purely proportional systems (2011: Figure 3). Meanwhile, a moderately proportional approach helped to retain some of the purported advantages of majoritarian systems by limiting party fragmentation and the number of parties represented in government coalitions (2011: Figures 4 and 5). They point to countries such as Costa Rica, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain that appear to have discovered a ‘sweet spot’ of this sort in the design of their electoral systems (2011: 384).


In conclusion, the results from the existing body of comparative research could not be any clearer: In terms of impact on different areas of socio-economic life, PR outperforms winner-take-all systems on measures of democracy, quality of life, income equality, environmental outcomes, and economic growth.


ACE Electoral Knowledge Network (updated regularly on line). Encyclopaedia on Electoral Systems. http://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/es/default

Birchfield, Vicki and Crepaz, Markus (1998).  “The Impact of Constitutional Structures and Collective and Competitive Veto Points on Income Inequality in Industrialized Democracies. European Journal of Political Research 34: 175–200. http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~iversen/PDFfiles/Birchfield&Crepaz1998.pdf

Carey, John M. and Hix, Simon (2009). “The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low-magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems.” PSPE Working Paper 01-2009. Department of Government, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK. http://www.electoralreformforcanada.ca/2009%20Carey%20-%20Electoral%20Sweet%20Spot.pdf

Carey, John M. and Hix, Simon (2011). “The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low-magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems.” American Journal of Political Science 55-2: 383-397. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00495.x/epdf

Cohen, Darcie (2010). “Do Political Preconditions Affect Environmental Outcomes? Exploring the Linkages Between Proportional Representation, Green parties and the Kyoto Protocol.” Simon Fraser University. http://summit.sfu.ca/item/10084

Fredriksson, P. G., & Millimet, D. L. (2004). Electoral rules and environmental policy. Economics Letters, 84(2), 237–44.

Iversen, T., & Soskice, D. (2006). Electoral systems and the politics of coalitions: why some democracies redistribute more than others. American Political Science Review, 100(2), 165–81.

Knutsen, Carl (2011).  “Which Democracies Prosper? Electoral Rules, Forms of Government, and Economic Growth.” Electoral Studies 30: 83-90. http://www.sv.uio.no/esop/english/research/publications/articles/2011/knutsen-2011-which-democracies.html

Lijphart, Arend (2012). Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in 36 Countries. New Haven, CT: Yale Press. Although this book is not available electronically, Fair Vote Canada has produced a summary of the 1999 edition:  http://www.fairvote.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Lijphart-Summary.pdf

Leblang, D., & Chan, S. (2003). Explaining wars fought by established democracies: do institutional constraints matter? Political Research Quarterly, 56(4), 385–400.

McDonald, M., Mendes, S. and Budge, I. (2004). “What are Elections for? Conferring the Median Mandate. British Journal of Political Science 34: 1-26, Cambridge University Press. http://cdp.binghamton.edu/papers/What%20Are%20Elections%20For.pdf

Orellana, Saloman (2014). Electoral Systems and Governance: How Diversity Can Improve Policy Making. New York: Routledge Press.

Pilon, Dennis. (2007). The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System. Toronto: Emond Montgomery.

Verardi, Vincenzo (2005). “Electoral Systems and Income Inequality.”  Economics Letters, 86-1: 7-12, January 2005.