A study of voting systems … what gives fair representation?

  • Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A glossary of terms

At-large system: Another term for a multi-member plurality voting system.

Ballot structure: The way in which electoral choices are resented on the ballot paper, in particular whether the ballot is candidate-centered or party-centered.

Boundary Delimitation: The process by which a country or local authority area is divided into electoral districts.

Choice voting: A proportional representation system in which voters rank the candidates on the ballot, putting a 1 next to their first choice and a 2 next to their second, and so on. Candidates receiving votes beyond the quota needed to get elected are declared the winners.

Cumulative vote: A system that uses multimember (at-large) districts in which voters have the same number of votes as there are seats being contested. Voters may assign their votes among the candidates in any way they want, including giving more than one vote to a particular candidate. Considered a semi-proportional system.

Districts: The geographical region into which a city, county, state or country is divided for election purposes. A constituency. Single-member districts elect one member, multi-member districts elect two or more.

District magnitude: For an electoral district, the number of representatives to be elected from it.

Electoral system: That part of the electoral law and regulations, which determines how parties and candidates are elected to a body as representatives. Its three most significant components are the electoral formula, the ballot structure and the district magnitude.

Electoral formula: That part of the electoral system dealing specifically with the translation of votes to seats.

Gerrymandering: The manipulation of district boundary lines in order to unfairly advantage or disadvantage a candidate or group. Typically used to create a district that is favorable to an incumbent or a series of districts that allow a particular group to receive more than it deserves based on its proportion of the vote.

Heterogeneous District: An electoral district in which, either by design or as a result of the operation of other criteria for boundary delimitation, the electorate contains substantial social, ethnic, religious or linguistic (language) diversity.

Homogeneous District: An electoral district in which, either by design or as a result of the operation of other criteria for boundary delimitation, the electorate contains substantial social, ethnic, religious or linguistic uniformity. For example, a district in which most of the voters are Spanish-speaking, or Catholic, or African-American, or very wealthy.

Instant run-off voting: A majority voting system used in single-member district systems. Voters mark their preferences on the ballot by putting a 1 next to their first choice and a 2 next to their second choice. A candidate who gets more than 50 percent of the first choice vote is declared the winner. Otherwise the weakest candidate is eliminated and their votes given to the voters’ second choices. This reallocation process continues until one candidate receives a majority of votes.

Majority system: A single-member district system that tries to ensure the winning candidate receives an absolute majority of the votes. Examples include the two-ballot run-off system and the instant run-off system.

Multimember Plurality Voting System: A system where candidates run in large multimember districts and voters have as many votes as there are candidates to be elected. Also known as at-large voting.

Plurality system: Voting systems which use single- or multi-member districts and in which the winner is the candidate or candidates with the most votes.

Proportional representation: A group of voting systems whose major goal is to ensure that parties and political groups are allocated seats in legislative bodies in proportion to their share of the vote. So a party receiving 30 percent of the vote should receive 30 percent of the seats.

Semi-proportional system: Voting systems that may produce more proportional representation than plurality/majority systems but usually fall short of the fully proportional results produced by proportional representation systems.

Single-member district: A district in which only one member is elected to represent the district.

Single-member plurality voting: A system in which the candidates are elected in single-member districts, with the winner being the one with the most (the plurality of) votes.

Spoiler: A phenomenon of plurality/majority voting systems where an independent or third party candidate takes enough votes away from another candidate to ensure the victory of a third who would not have won otherwise.

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a five-part series on voting systems and fair representation.
Back in May, local activist Louis Smith addressed the Dorchester District Two Board of Trustees expressing distress that the board is elected with an at-large or multimember plurality voting system.
Smith said that votes were determined by race and not issues. He said that minority communities such as Robynwyn and Brownsville were not getting their needs heard.
He gave the board a time limit to change the system to a single-member system before he went to the Justice Dept. under the Voting Rights Act.
A few weeks later the board responded in a letter letting Smith know that it had no control over the system. The system is determined by the congressional delegation, not the trustees.
Curious as to the difference between the two and what other options might be available, the Journal Scene dug into voting systems…not without trepidation … it is a complex subject and there are many.
For the purpose of this series we have focused on just a few: the two that Smith was comparing – at-large and single-district as well as proportional representation and semiproportional representation and the methods of voting these offer such as single transferrable voting, choice voting, cumulative voting, limited voting, etc.
We have used multiple resources including Fair Vote, the Mount Holyoke political science department publications, International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design, Democracy Building, The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics, Stanford University sources, various Supreme Court decisions and College of Charleston political science department chair Gibbs Knotts.
We have tried to simplify the various processes without losing accuracy.
What is representation?
Hannah Pitkin in her 1967 The Concept of Representation made understanding political representation a bit easier.
Pitkin identified four types of representation:
AuthorizedDescriptiveSymbolicSubstantiveAuthorized representation is defined as that where a representative is legally empowered to act for another. For example, someone with Power of Attorney.
Descriptive is defined as being where the representative stands for a group by virtue of sharing similar characteristics such as race, sex, ethnicity, language or residence.
Pitkin defines Symbolic as being where the leader stands for national ideas and Substantive as being where the representative seeks to advance a group's policy preferences and interests. For example, Symbolic might be where a presidential candidate advocates health care reform or change to immigration and Substantive might be the Green Party or the Tea Party.
None are without problems, according to Pitkin. For example, descriptive representation leads to focus on the characteristics at the expense of attention to the action of the representative. In other words, voters might focus on race, sex or geography while ignoring what the representative is actually doing.
(Part 2, at-large and single-member districts.)

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