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Motivations for Change


...we can conclude that the principles of representation have remained unchanged in most countries throughout the last fifty years. Fundamental changes are rare and arise only in extraordinary historical situations.

Dieter Nohlen, 1984 [76]

In order to assess the likelihood that a new voting system might be adopted it is useful to understand the circumstances under which organizations are typically motivated to change their voting systems. Major changes in voting systems are rare: at the national level most consistently democratic countries have used the same basic type of voting system for over half a century. Indeed no consistently democratic countries have changed from a plurality system to a PR system or vice versa since before World War II [65, 76]. However, smaller changes have occurred at the national level and changes of all types have occurred below the national level and in non-governmental organizations.

Many countries have made minor changes to their voting systems. In Lijphart's analysis of 27 democracies, he found that between 1945 and 1990, 70 voting systems were in use for national legislative elections (lower house only for countries with bicameral systems). Eleven countries had voting systems that remained essentially unchanged during that period; the remaining countries averaged two to three changes per country. In recent years the Greek voting system has undergone the most changes, with five different voting systems in use in Greece between 1974 and 1990. France and Germany each used six different voting systems within the study period, but their voting system changes were spread out over a period of more than 40 years [65].

Major change occurs most often at times of great social and political change. Nohlen notes that the last major period of change for national electoral systems -- the early twentieth century introduction of PR systems -- ``occurred in the context of the democratization of voting rights and of the introduction of universal suffrage; and it was connected with the rise of the labor parties and the restructuring of the traditional party systems....'' After major changes occur, minor evolutionary changes may follow as people discover the consequences of the new voting system in practice. Nohlen continues, ``The electoral systems in the Western democracies were not invented theoretically, constructed artificially, and then put into practice; to the contrary, most electoral systems were developed historically in a rather long evolutionary process'' [76].

In the United States, major changes to local voting systems are often part of a package to overhaul city government. These reforms may be proposed in response to political machines and gerrymandered districts. In the first half of the twentieth century, changes in municipal voting systems were common, due to increased awareness of the significance of the choice of voting systems. Barber explains:

Electoral system reform came to the fore because representation was at the fulcrum of controversy. Who would be allowed to vote was still a key issue to the excluded -- primarily to women and African Americans. There was, however, a growing awareness that how votes were translated into power, the reality of representation, profoundly affected the ability of voters to influence public decisions [6].

Recently, changes to U.S. municipal voting systems began occurring as a result of court enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. In districts that contain sufficiently large, geographically compact, and politically cohesive minority groups that are unable to gain representation, courts have ordered that redistricting occur or that systems of proportional or semiproportional representation be instituted [6].

Change may also occur when people perceive a tangible ``problem'' with the current voting system. Often the problem is based on a popular belief that the results of a past election or the predicted results of an upcoming election are unfair or even perverse. Sometimes a voting system will be changed to maintain the power of a ruling majority that is slowly losing its support. By changing the voting system the ruling majority can thus prevent the minority from attaining the votes needed to gain power. In municipal governmental voting in the United States, such a change has often been racially motivated [6].

Change occasionally occurs because people believe a new voting system is inherently superior to the current system or because they are curious about a new system. This generally occurs only in professional societies.

Generally, political circumstances motivate change only in the types of vote aggregation procedures used or the distribution of voting districts. However, as explained in Section gif, such circumstances may motivate change in the vote-collection system used, especially when such a change is likely to have a large impact on voter turnout.

In the remainder of this section, several historical cases in which organizations or governments changed voting systems are presented and discussed.

Proportional Representation in Ireland and the United States

Although theorists tend to favor the single transferable vote system to list PR, list PR is the most widely used system among Western democracies [66]. Ireland, Malta, and Australia are the only democracies that currently use STV at the national level [65]. Over two dozen U.S. municipalities have used STV at one time or another, but only the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts still uses this system.

In 1911, STV was first proposed in Ireland by the British Proportional Representation Society as a means to prevent influential minorities from forming their own governments rather than submitting ``to the jurisdiction of an all-Ireland parliament.'' Following a public lecture on STV, the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland was formed. In 1912, the Irish Home Rule Bill passed with amendments adopting STV for some constituencies to the new Irish House of Commons and, after five years, all seats in the Senate. But ``the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the immediate deferment of the Home Rule Act meant that the new system was never put into operation'' [82].

In 1918, STV was adopted in Sligo, a small borough in western Ireland. Unlike the general election of 1918, which was characterized as ``bitter and ugly,'' Sligo's first STV election resulted in what was generally accepted by all parties as ``fair'' representation. In 1919, STV was adopted for local elections throughout Ireland. Amidst great political turmoil, guerrilla warfare, and disagreement about whether Ireland should remain a part of the United Kingdom, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 established two Irish political systems. Each government was to have a bicameral parliament, the lower house of which was to be elected with STV. The 1921 parliamentary elections resulted in remarkably unproportional representation due in part to the fact that all the constituencies in the south were uncontested [82].

In December 1921, representatives of the Irish and British governments signed a treaty establishing the Irish Free State and giving the Irish counties dominion status. Northern Ireland opted out of the treaty in May 1922. In June 1922, a draft constitution was proposed for the Irish Free State. This constitution provided for a British-style system of government, but called for the legislature to be elected ``upon the principles of Proportional Representation.'' O'Leary attributes the decision to adopt PR to three factors: the fact that PR had been recently adopted in other European democracies, continued campaigning by the PR Society, and ``the necessity for satisfying the fears and susceptibilities of a powerful minority, the southern Protestants.'' Although the draft constitution did not indicate what type of PR system to use, it was interpreted as specifying STV rather than list PR, as STV was the only PR system familiar to most of the Irish representatives. The Constitution came into effect in December 1922. A subsequent constitution adopted in 1938 specified STV explicitly [82].

Since adopting STV, Ireland has had a fairly stable government, a high degree of proportionality in representation, and a high rate of voter participation. Despite the complicated nature of this voting procedure, voters rejected proposed constitutional amendments to replace it with a plurality system in 1959 and 1968 [50, 106].

STV has proven controversial when adopted by American cities. Cincinnati, Ohio adopted the system in 1924 in response to severe gerrymandering of city council districts. Voters rejected referenda to repeal the system in 1936, 1939, 1947, and 1954, but accepted a repeal referendum in 1957 that replaced STV with an at-large plurality election system. It is generally believed that the referendum succeeded due to threats that the STV system would lead to the election of the city's first black mayor. Referendums to reinstate STV failed in 1988 and 1991 [6, 43].

After the 1991 defeat of STV, African-American voters took their case to court. Barber provides the following account:

...fifteen African American voters sued the city in federal court, alleging that the plurality/at-large electoral system for city council was adopted with the intent to discriminate against black voters, and that it indeed caused minority vote dilution in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The remedy they sought was ... a single-member district system. Judge Herman Weber ...delayed the trial to allow the city council itself to present its preferred remedy to the voters.... [T]he council placed on the May 1993 ballot a council election plan retaining the nine at-large members but providing for their election by cumulative voting. A brief but intense campaign led to defeat of the initiative by a 79% majority, and the case went to trial....

In July 1993 Judge Weber issued his decision upholding the city's 9X voting system. Although conceding that a nasty racial ``whisper campaign'' had accompanied the 1957 repeal of PR and the adoption of plurality/at-large voting, the Judge denied that city officials were responsible for it [6].

Promoted by the Proportional Representation League from 1893 to 1932 and later by the National Municipal League, PR has failed to replace plurality voting for state or national elections in the United States. After PR supporters began focusing on local elections, PR systems were adopted by about two dozen American cities during the first half of the twentieth century. As with the Cincinnati, most of these cities adopted PR to combat gerrymandering and party machines. Cities generally adopted PR through referendum efforts led by PR League and often supported by women's organizations. However, state party leaders opposed PR and fought it in the courts and state legislatures. Some state legislatures voted to outlaw PR in all municipalities. In Michigan and California, judges with close ties to party leaders ruled that PR elections violated state laws. But courts in Ohio and New York refused to find PR in violation of state law. Eventually referenda were introduced to repeal PR in the cities where it remained in use. These referenda ultimately succeeded in every US city except Cambridge. The success of these referenda has been attributed to a changing political climate and the fact that counting STV ballots by hand is an extremely time-consuming process. Barber proposes that another ``explanation for repeal seldom recognized in the literature is the fact that PR/STV did what it was supposed to do, that is, facilitate the representation of minorities of various sorts'' [6].

The only other public governing bodies in the United States that currently use the STV system are the 32 community school boards in the City of New York [43]. However, the system is used by other institutions, including the Faculty Senate at Washington University.

Approval Voting in Professional Organizations

There are also several interesting cases involving organizations that switched to approval voting in the 1980s. The Mathematical Association of America, the American Statistical Association, and The Institute of Management Sciences adopted approval voting primarily out of scientific curiosity [21]. ASA and TIMS conducted experimental elections prior to adopting approval voting [19].

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a professional organization with over 300,000 members, adopted approval voting in 1988 in order to prevent the election of a presidential candidate ``who was frequently critical of IEEE and its policies'' [21]. This candidate had come within 242 votes of beating both the Board-nominated candidates in the 1986 election. Irrespective of their motivations in 1988, approval voting was probably a sensible choice for the IEEE Board to select if they wished to continue their practice of nominating two candidates for each position. Many other professional organizations nominate only one candidate for each position. In the absence of self-nominations, all positions are uncontested and there is little interest in the election. By nominating two candidates, the IEEE Board can be assured of interest in the election. However, as the two Board-nominated candidates tend to have similar ideas, they may face difficulties when running against self-nominated candidates who often have quite different ideas about how the organization should be run. Under a plurality voting rule, a self-nominated candidate with only minority support may win the election if the majority splits their votes between the Board-nominated candidates. By adopting approval voting the IEEE Board was assured that their candidates could lose only to a self-nominated candidate preferred by the majority.

The first political organization to use approval voting was the Pennsylvania Democratic party, which used approval voting for a non-binding Presidential preference survey in 1983 [75]. As part of this survey, the Pennsylvania leaders were questioned about their attitudes towards approval voting. Two-thirds of the 201 delegates reported that they were sufficiently informed about approval voting to form an opinion about it. Nearly three-fifths of these delegates reported that they had formed favorable opinions.

Academy Awards Documentary Nominating Committee

The documentary nominating committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences switched from one cardinal utility voting method to another in 1995 after a popular documentary film failed to be nominated. The nomination vote is a key part of the process by which the Academy award winner is selected.

To select its five nominations, the documentary nominating committee first screens all eligible films, turning off the projector before the film is over if more than half the committee members dislike the film. If a film is not screened in its entirety it is eliminated from further consideration. The committee members each rate the remaining films on a scale of 4 to 10. The top five films receive nominations. After the nominations have been made, any Academy member who screens all five films is eligible to vote to select the winner [2].

In 1995, some of the documentary committee members reportedly lobbied their colleagues to give the movie Hoop Dreams the lowest score possible so as to prevent its nomination. They argued that, due to its popularity, if Hoop Dreams was nominated it would likely win, regardless of the other documentaries nominated. At least three of the committee members are believed to have given Hoop Dreams a 4 on this account. There are 47 members of the committee, but the Academy directors would not say how many actually voted [2].

After Hoop Dreams failed to win a nomination, the Academy directors decided to change the voting procedure used in future years. Starting in 1996, the movies will be rated on a scale of 6 to 10 [2]. This change will make it more difficult for a small number of Academy members to manipulate the nomination vote; however, it will not eliminate the possibility of such manipulation.

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Next: Summary Up: Voting Systems Overview Previous: Ballot Collection