On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Special terms

Some quick notes on uses of terminology and new concepts on this site …

Assembly is my generic term for all parliaments, congresses, national assemblies, assemblée, assembleia, majlis, -tings, and so on.

I will make the habit of referring to actual national houses of parliament by their correct name in their own native language – for example the Assemblée Nationale of France, the Alþingi of Iceland and the Lok Sabha of India. The catalogue of national electoral systems page provides all these relevant names, and their English translations.

A few nations have multiple official languages, which complicates this a bit.

Unless specifically discussing a national electoral system, the term division will be used as the generic term for what are called districts, constituencies, ridings, seats, and also by other terms. (In Australia, division is actually the technically correct term is, but the term seat is used colloquially.)

SMD means single member division, and similarly MMD mean multi-member division.

I will consistently use the term plurality (or if called for plurality SMD) for the method of electing single members to assemblies more colloquially known as the first-past-the-post system, used in the UK, the US, Canada, India and other nations.

The term participation will be used for what is generally referred to as turnout. Specifically, participation will be used as a reference to the proportion of the electorate eligible to vote which – after filtering through enrolment/registration processes, election day voting opportunities and ballot validation rules – ends up successfully casting a valid vote.

Effective representation and/or actual representation (I’ve yet to decide which term I prefer) is the proportion of the enrolled electorate which is represented in an assembly by representatives which they actually supported through their vote. In preferential voting systems, this means their first preference vote.

The electoral systems generally termed party list systems will be referred to on this site as seat allocation systems, because that is a more precise description of what they actually are. The term ‘party list’ (as well as ‘proportional representation’) is very widely used in political science literature, but it is the linguistic equivalent of calling something a ‘ballot paper system’ just because it uses paper ballots. ‘Seat allocation’ is a better term to refer to the mathematical process being used.

Note that the techniques of seat allocation are used in electoral systems in two ways, one being the allocation of seats in party list systems, and the other being the allotment of seats between states (or other electoral divisions) to match different populations.

I define the term direct election to mean an electoral system in which voters can vote for individual candidates (presumably through those candidates being listed on a ballot paper).

In this sense the seat allocation (‘party list’ – see above) electoral systems are not directly elected. This is still true of ‘open list’ systems, in that the voter cannot secure the election of an individual candidate other than through the mediation of the success of the party in being allocated one or more seats.

In regard to this use of the term there is a potential difference between English-speaking countries and European countries, with many of the latter having used seat allocation for nearly a century and having thus come to regard it as a direct form of election.

The English-speaking electoral regimes, which have rarely been comfortable with party-list systems, will differ in their interpretation of the word ‘direct’, and keep a much stronger sense of voter-candidate connection. For example, the Australian Constitution refers in two places to individual candidates being ‘directly’ chosen to be members of parliament.

By contrast, the German constitutional court has held that the fact that voters cast votes between political parties means that they are by their intentions influencing the results, and this counts as ‘directness’.

It may also be a matter of meaning being lost in translation: in English the word ‘direct’ connotes an unmediated voter-candidate link; translations of ‘direct’ to or from other languages may not carry the same connotation.

At various points the statistical measure known as the co-efficient of variation is used as a measure of the extent of variation between different values (for example, different enrolments in electoral divisions). As such it provides a measure of inequality of voter influence. CofV is a well-defined statistical concept.

For more on this statistical tool see the ‘methods‘ page.






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