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Is proportional representation a cure for democratic discontent? ǀ View

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French president Emmanuel Macron and a body of political science research suggest that reform of the electoral system in favor of a “significant” component of proportional representation can contribute to a more responsive democracy.

But the introduction of PR to address popular discontent with government is a trade-off that presents a dilemma: improving policy responsiveness but undermining another important dimension of democratic governance.

Resolving this dilemma requires a value judgement.

Public dissatisfaction with politicians and representative democracy is widespread in Europe and should not be taken lightly. The enduring protest of the ‘Yellow Vests’ in France is just one prominent example of the popular view that elections regularly fail to select governments that are reliably responsive to the preferences of a large part of the population.

Legislation may be the obvious solution to the current malaise of democracy and can address at least some public grievances. But it would be naïve to think that governments are able – or willing – to do so.

The constraints are well-known: aging societies, slow economic growth, and European fiscal rules, among others. Resolving fiscal policy conflicts is part of the job for government. Beyond economic constraints, however, the incentive to respond to broad-based citizen demand can be limited - especially once most protesters have gone back home.

Incumbent parties can try to win re-election simply by distributing favors to a narrow but influential segment of the electorate or whipping up nationalism rather than dealing with the effects of globalization, technological change, and economic inequality.

A more fundamental approach is to reform political institutions to make politicians more responsive on a systematic basis. Electoral rules are frequently singled out as a potential remedy, a tactic deployed by the French government in the face of ongoing protests.

After two months of national debate about how to respond to people's anxieties about the state of France and its democracy, President Macron reiterated his campaign proposal in favor of PR for the national assembly as a key institutional measure. But electoral reform often comes with unpleasant side effects.

The arguments for and against PR have been refined and rehearsed for more than 150 years. As summarized in an extensive Task Force Report led by two leading scholars of electoral system design, in post-war Europe the ideological congruence between citizens and governments has indeed tended to be closer in countries with more proportional electoral systems. But correlation does not prove causation, and there is no scientific consensus on two key questions: Does increasing electoral system proportionally actually cause more responsive policymaking? If it does, do the benefits of a reform outweigh possible side effects?

Democratic trade-offs

The evidence from my research strengthens the position that introducing PR has a positive impact on the link between the public and MPs. A higher dosage of PR increases the probability that MPs will vote in line with popular preferences.

The evidence is based on a historical reform in the Swiss canton of Zürich in 1917, which provides an unusually controlled test case, and the adoption of PR for British members of the European Parliament in 1999. Theoretically, our finding can be explained by electoral geography. In majoritarian electoral systems, such as first-past-the-post in Britain or two-round ballots in France, an unequal distribution of voter preferences across space entails a significantly biased translation of votes to parliamentary seats. PR, by virtue of using multi-member districts and a proportional electoral formula, mitigates this problem.

However, we also uncover a hidden side effect of PR. In the reforms we study, higher proportionality is associated with lower legislative effort by MPs. Lower parliamentary attendance is one example. This negative impact on MPs’ work ethic matters because the collective functioning of parliament relies on the diligence and integrity of its members. Our finding in this respect differs from the older concern that PR undermines government stability. The adverse impact on MPs’ work ethic can be understood as the flip side of higher policy responsiveness.

Drawing causal conclusions about the effects of constitutional design is inherently difficult. Conducting large-scale randomized experiments, considered the gold standard for the empirical evaluation of policies and institutions, is usually unfeasible or undesirable for electoral systems.

Instead, our study builds on a recent wave of research that tries to identify what scholars call natural experiments. In this approach, careful case selection complements the use of statistical methods. By studying variation in the intensity of an isolated electoral reform within a single country, we can rule out that the effects we attribute to the electoral reform are actually caused by one of the many differences between countries. By studying two very different cases, we demonstrate that the trade-off exists more broadly.

It remains to be seen how this trade-off is resolved in the French government’s plan for constitutional reform (to be unveiled this summer). The known proposal is a partial introduction of PR that would create a mixed electoral system. If the PR element turns out to be too small (not more than one fifth of all seats), the trade-off should be limited - but so will improvements in policy responsiveness.

Michael Becher is a researcher in the EconPol Europe network and political scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. His research examines political institutions, elections, and political representation in Europe and the United States.

He is co-author of the paper Electoral Reform and Trade-Offs in Representation, upcoming in the American Political Science Review.

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