Representation, Accountability and Electoral Systems

Article 6 / 13 , Vol 39 No 4 (Winter)

Representation, Accountability and Electoral Systems

When promoting certain electoral systems over others, proponents tend to make claims that one system may be “fairer”, “more democratic, “representative” or “effective” than others. In this article, the author suggests the fundamental problem in evaluating electoral systems in terms of these criteria is not necessarily that there exists an unyielding trade-off between representation and accountability. Rather, it is that there is no strong normative basis that allows us to distinguish representative from unrepresentative electoral outcomes, either because these outcomes are products of a voting cycle or because our measures of representation are ambiguous.

Ideally, government is representative and accountable; representative in the sense that its policies align with citizens’ interests, and accountable in the sense that it is answerable to citizens for its conduct and responsive to their demands. The electoral system plays an important role in determining how representative and accountable a government is in practice. Yet, it is tremendously difficult to identify an optimal electoral system, that is, one that maximizes both representation and accountability. This is because much research shows that electoral systems that advance representation tend to do so at the expense of accountability, and vice versa.1