Boundary Delimitation




The term Boundary Delimitation is usually used to refer to the process of drawing electoral district boundaries. However, it can also be used to denote the process of drawing voting areas (also called polling areas, districts or election precincts) for the purposes of assigning voters to polling places.

Because the focus of this project is on election administration, the Boundary Delimitation section of the Administration and Cost of Elections (ACE) Project discusses only the delimitation of electoral districts.


Delimiting Electoral Districts

The periodic delimitation of electoral boundaries, or redistricting, is necessary in any representative system where single-member districts or uniformly small multimember districts are used. If electoral boundaries are not periodically adjusted, population inequities develop across districts.

Adjusting district boundaries can have major consequences not only for the legislators who represent the districts, but also for the individual and community constituents of the districts. Ultimately, election results and the partisan composition of the legislature are affected by the selection of district boundaries. But the importance of the redistricting process is seldom recognised outside of political circles.

Countries have adopted various methods for delimiting districts. In some, the choice of methods is simply a matter of historical tradition. In others, methods for delimiting districts have been borrowed from a colonial power or an influential neighbouring country. In still other countries, conscious decisions were made based on the geographic size of the country, its physical features, or its financial resources. Recently, countries have taken their political and social context into account when making decisions on which redistricting practices to adopt. Clearly, there is a broad range of possibilities. Redistricting practices that work well in some countries will not work in others.

Informed decision-making is the best approach to selecting or reforming a redistricting process.

Electoral Systems that Delimit Electoral Districts

The delimitation of electoral districts is most commonly associated with plurality or majority electoral systems. Both systems rely heavily, if not exclusively, on single-member districts. These districts must be redrawn periodically to reflect changes in the population.

Plurality and majority systems, however, are not the only types of electoral systems that require the periodic delimitation of electoral districts. One proportional representation system, characterised by the single transferable vote, also must delimit electoral districts occasionally. This is because the single transferable vote requires districts that are uniformly small in magnitude. Another electoral system, the "mixed" electoral system, also requires the delimitation of electoral districts. This is because a mixed system combines party list proportional representation with single-member districts.

The importance of the delimitation process varies, depending on the type of electoral system. Because plurality and majority systems can, and do, produce election outcomes that are disproportional with regard to the ratio of legislative seats to partisan votes, the delimitation process is very important. It is less important in mixed systems or proportional representation systems.

Structure and Rules for Delimiting Electoral Districts

Countries that delimit districts must establish a formal structure and a set of rules for carrying out the redistricting process. Because different sets of districts can produce different election outcomes, even if the underlying vote patterns remain constant, the choice of redistricting practices is important. Electoral legislation outlining the formal structure and rules for redistricting should address the following issues:

Redistricting practices vary markedly across countries. In the United States, for example, legislators are usually responsible for drawing electoral district lines. Partisan politics and the protection of incumbent legislators play a large role in the redistricting process. By contrast, politicians in many Commonwealth countries have opted out of the redistricting process. The process is left to independent commissions with neutral redistricting criteria for guidance. The reasons for these differences are best explained by the social, political and cultural norms.

Tasks Involved in Drawing Electoral District Boundaries

Although redistricting rules vary markedly across countries, the tasks involved in drawing districts are generally very similar. Drawing district boundaries entails:

This can be a complex, time-consuming and expensive process.


The Boundary Delimitation section of the Administration and Cost of Elections (ACE) Project discusses the types of electoral systems that require periodic electoral district delimitation and the advantages and disadvantages of various districting alternatives (see Delimiting Electoral Districts). It considers the formal structure and rules that countries use to conduct electoral district delimitation, or redistricting (see Structure and Rules for Delimiting Electoral Districts).

It is hoped that this discussion will help countries to make informed decisions on whether to delimit electoral districts and, if so, which boundary delimitation practices to adopt.





Guiding Principles


Because delimitation, or redistricting, practices vary greatly around the world, there are few universal principles to guide the delimitation process. Countries disagree on fundamental issues, such as how impartial and independent the process can and should be from the legislative and political concerns. But there are three generally accepted principles:

Electoral district boundaries should be drawn such that constituents have an opportunity to elect candidates they feel truly represent them. This usually means that district boundaries should coincide with communities of interest as much as possible. Communities of interest can be defined in a variety of ways. For example, they can be administrative divisions, ethnic or racial neighbourhoods, or natural communities delineated by physical boundaries (such as islands). If districts are not composed of communities of interest, however defined, it may be difficult for a single candidate to represent the entire constituency.

Regardless of a representative's characteristics or political beliefs, however, a representative who performs constituency services and works to protect constituency interests in the legislature may be rewarded with re-election if the constituency views this as effective representation.


Equality of Voting Strength

Electoral district boundaries should be drawn so that districts are relatively equal in population. Equally populous districts allow voters to have an equally weighted vote in the election of representatives. If, for example, a representative is elected from a district that has twice as many voters as another district, voters in the larger district will have half the influence of voters in the smaller district. Electoral districts that vary greatly in population--a condition referred to as "malapportionment"--violate a central tenet of democracy, namely, that all voters should be able to cast a vote of equal weight.


The procedure for delimiting electoral districts should be clearly spelled out in legislation so that the rules regulating the process are the same, regardless of who is drawing the district boundaries. If the redistricting process is to be non-partisan, then all political parties must refrain from attempting to influence the outcome. If political concerns are permitted to play a role in the process, then all political parties must be given access to the process. If the legislature is to draw electoral district boundaries, then any political party that garners a majority in the legislature will have an opportunity to control the process. These rules must be clearly understood and must be acceptable to all major political parties and participants in the redistricting process.




Administrative Considerations


Delimiting electoral districts can be a complex, expensive and time-consuming process. If no legal framework exists, there are many decisions to make before the delimitation process can even begin. For example:

Once these kinds of decisions are made, they should be detailed in legislation to establish the framework for redistricting. Instituting a legal framework for redistricting will make the administration of the process much easier.

The line drawing process itself can be complicated to administer. Information from a wide variety of sources must be collected, verified and synthesised. A redistricting plan, once created, must be evaluated. The evaluation of a plan may have to include some procedure for public input. And after a final redistricting plan is adopted, it must be implemented. Implementation may require a great deal of co-ordination with local and regional governments as well as election officials at the local, regional and federal levels.

Electoral Legislation for Delimiting Districts

If there are no legal provisions to guide the delimitation process, electoral legislation should be enacted to define the districting structure and to set up the machinery for undertaking the delimitation process. This legislation should address the following issues:

The more specific the law, the fewer questions and concerns there will be about procedures for delimiting districts. Administrators of a redistricting project can then focus on collecting the data, drawing district boundaries, and implementing the final redistricting plan.

Administration of the Delimitation Process

The administration of the delimitation process includes supervision and oversight of both the process of drawing district boundaries and the implementation of a redistricting plan. Tasks related to the line drawing phase include the following:


Creation of a database:

Public inquiry process:

The administration of the delimitation process may be challenging. It may be difficult to find and/or train qualified staff, particularly if the process is to be computerised. There may be obstacles to obtaining accurate and up-to-date information, especially maps. And there may be problems co-ordinating the collection and implementation processes with election officials and local government officials. All of these challenges must be met, however, if the delimitation process is to be accurate and timely.



Cost Considerations


Delimiting electoral districts is an expensive endeavour involving many tasks. A large amount of information must be collected, verified, and synthesised into a unified redistricting database. It is often necessary to hire and train a large staff to create the database. Once the line drawers have completed a redistricting plan, the plan must be evaluated and possibly modified. And the new redistricting plan, once adopted, must be implemented. Implementation of a redistricting plan often requires the production of a large number of maps and reports. Changes must be made to voter registration lists, and voters must be notified of new district assignments. In addition, election officials may have to redraw voting areas and relocate polling places. Computerisation, which can make the redistricting process more efficient, can also make the redistricting process more expensive.


The use of temporarily assigned staff may be cost effective, given the relatively short-term nature of a redistricting project. Costs will rise if the staff require a great deal of training. Extensive training will almost certainly be required if computers are to be used for redistricting.

Creating a Redistricting Database

The creation of a redistricting database requires the collection and verification of a great deal of information. This includes population data--either census counts or voter registration data--and detailed and accurate maps of the entire territory to be redistricted. If the database is to include political data, election results must also be collected. Although information for a redistricting database may be stored at a central location, it is more likely that information will have to be collected from many different local or regional governmental offices. Contacts with local and regional officials may also be necessary to verify the information.

The cost of creating the redistricting database will be contingent on the availability and accuracy of the necessary data and maps. It will also depend on the size of the territory to be redistricted and the level of geography chosen as the basic "building block" for creating districts. These building blocks may consist of whole counties, or villages and towns, or they may consist of smaller units of geography such as voting areas or even city blocks. The smaller the building block, the more data there is to collect and verify, and the more expensive the redistricting project becomes. Adding political information to the redistricting database will also increase the costs of database preparation. If election results are not readily available from a single source or if they must be obtained through a separate acquisition process, data collection will be more expensive. If the political data are not reported at the same geographic level for which population data are available, election and population geographic units will have to be matched in order to create comparable geographic units. This matching procedure will add to the costs of preparing the database.


Drawing Electoral District Lines

Although the line drawing phase of a redistricting project involves tasks that can be tedious and time-consuming, the line drawing process itself is not particularly expensive. The only significant costs are those associated with the public inquiry process once a redistricting plan has been proposed.

Implementing a Redistricting Plan

When a final redistricting plan is adopted, maps and descriptive reports of the plan must be produced and disseminated to local and regional government officials and election officers. This activity may be less expensive if computers have been employed to draw the redistricting plan, since computers can generate the maps and reports.

To implement the plan, election officials must adjust registration lists and notify voters of their new district assignments. Election officials may also have to redraw voting areas and relocate voting stations. These tasks may be less expensive if computers have been used for redistricting.

Computerising the Redistricting Process

Computerisation can make the redistricting process far more accurate and efficient, but it can greatly increase the cost of a redistricting project. A wide range of computer technology can be employed for redistricting, but the more sophisticated the technology, the more expensive the process is likely to be. The major costs of computerisation will be the purchase of software, creating a computer readable database, and hiring and training qualified staff.

Computer hardware needed for redistricting is not particularly expensive. Pentium desktop computers can be used for most redistricting projects. Costs can be saved if computers are already available.

The price of computer software ranges widely. The most expensive options are specially designed or customised GIS redistricting software. Less expensive options are commercial spreadsheet or database programs. But these less expensive options are also less efficient.

Hiring and training staff to operate computers can be expensive. Consultants can help by selecting hardware, integrating redistricting software with existing hardware, designing or customising software, and training personnel on computer operations. But consultants can also be expensive.

The most expensive part of computerised redistricting may be the creation of a database. Much depends on whether data can be obtained in a computer readable format. If not available electronically, population data and political data, if used, must be keypunched. Keypunching data to create a computerised database can be expensive. Digitisation of maps for GIS software is especially costly. These costs can be lessened if data and/or maps can be obtained in electronic format on disk, tape, or CD-ROM.



The price tag for redistricting varies enormously. New Zealand, for example, spends relatively little to redistrict every five years--NZ$1.89 million was budgeted for the 1998 redistribution. The latest redistribution in England cost 5 million. In the United States, enormous amounts of money are spent to redraw congressional districts every ten years. Of course, the redistricting process in the United States is very decentralised, and the amount of money each state spends varies considerably. Some states spent more than a million U.S. dollars to draw congressional districts in 1991; other states spent less than a tenth of that amount.




Social and Political Context


The decision whether to delimit electoral districts and by what method should depend, in large part, on the prevailing social and political norms in the country.

Should Districts Be Delimited?

The delimitation of single-member districts has several advantages. The three most often cited are simplicity, stability and strong links between elected representatives and their constituents. Each of these advantages may be important ones, depending on the social and political context in which the districts are adopted.

Elections held in single-member districts tend to be quite easy for voters to understand, especially in conjunction with plurality or majority voting rules. Simplicity may be a significant advantage for countries with high illiteracy rates.

Single-member districts promote stability by facilitating strong, single party government. This is because single-member districts tend to produce election outcomes in which the majority party is over-represented. This may be an important advantage in countries that have reason to fear or have actually experienced a proliferation of small extremist parties or coalition governments that have frequently fallen.

Single-member districts provide voters with strong constituency representation. Voters have a single, easily identifiable district representative to whom they can appeal for constituency service. Voters also have a single district representative whom they can hold accountable for protecting constituency interests. This may have a positive affect on voters' feelings of political efficacy, which may, in turn, increase voter turnout. Political efficacy and turnout are both important ingredients for system legitimacy, which may be important to newly emerging democracies.

Single-member districts, however, have one very serious drawback. They tend to over-represent the majority political party at the expense of the other political parties. Countries that delimit single-member districts must be willing and able to accept disproportional election outcomes. Although it is possible to devise a fair and non-partisan redistricting process, it is not possible to guarantee an unbiased election outcome with single-member districts unless there are provisions for a second, party vote (as is the case with a mixed electoral system).

Disproportional election results may be difficult to accept in a country with many political parties representing widely disparate interests. The results will be virtually impossible to accept if deep divisions exist in the society. For example, if there is a relatively large, politically cohesive ethnic, racial, or religious minority group that has consistently been denied what it perceives as fair representation, elections could lead to conflict, possibly even violence and instability.

Can the Redistricting Process be Reformed?

Once the decision to delimit electoral districts has been made, a procedure for redistricting must be established. Traditionally, legislatures have been responsible for drawing their own districts. Electoral abuses such as malapportioned districts (districts that vary substantially in population) or "gerrymandered" districts (districts intentionally drawn to advantage one political party at the expense of the others) were not uncommon. These abuses led a number of countries to adopt reforms designed to remove politics from the redistricting process. In these countries, non-partisan commissions draw district boundaries following a set of neutral redistricting criteria. The public is encouraged to participate through a public inquiry process. And the legislature is permitted only a limited role, if any role at all, in the redistricting process.

These reforms have been adopted by many Commonwealth countries, where the reforms appear to have been quite successful. Redistricting is rarely viewed as partisan, even when the outcome of an election clearly favours one party at the expense of the other parties. Despite their success in the countries that have adopted them, reforms of the redistricting process have not been embraced everywhere. For example, legislatures still draw congressional districts in most states in the United States.

In the United States, the political system and political institutions were designed on the Madisonian premise of competing factions, or interests. Pluralism continues to flourish. With a decentralised legislative system and weak political parties, special interests and parochial concerns often prevail in the legislature. Americans tend to be cynical, believing that politics and the pursuit of political self-interest are inevitable. Reforms of the redistricting process are unlikely to be adopted anytime in the near future, because many Americans believe it is as impossible to divorce politics from the redistricting process as it is to divorce politics from the legislative process in general.

Only countries that are less pluralistic, more politically ideological and more sensitive to the public accept the proposition that politics can be removed from the redistricting process. Furthermore, strong party organisations and centralised legislative authority are needed to enforce sanctions against legislators who attempt to influence the redistricting process. While these conditions appear to be met in most Commonwealth countries, they are not present everywhere.


The adoption of independent commissions and neutral redistricting criteria can only prevent partisan interests from controlling the process. These reforms can do little to alleviate disproportional election results. If political fairness is defined by outcome, rather than by process--and specifically by a proportional outcome for political parties and/or minority groups--then single-member systems will fail the fairness test more often than not, no matter who draws the districts. Countries that value proportionality over all else--perhaps because of the need to ensure equitable representation to deeply divided groups within the society--are wise to choose some form of proportional representation, which may or may not include provisions for single-member districts. If stability in the form of strong, single party government is more important, however, delimiting single-member districts is a good choice.




Historical Review


The delimitation of electoral districts is a fairly recent phenomenon, dating to the nineteenth century and the adoption of single-member districts in much of Europe. When single-member districts were first endorsed by European democracies a little more than a century ago, they were viewed as providing fairer representation. Individuals--approximately equal numbers of individuals--would be represented rather than communities. Periodic delimitation was required to maintain districts of equal population.

The Movement Towards Single-Member Districts

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, representation was based on communities, not on the number of individuals or voters. Constituencies varied greatly in population. In England, for example, each county, borough, and university, regardless of size, had two representatives in the House of Commons. The composition of the House of Commons, and legislatures throughout Europe, reflected the view that communities or distinct categories of society--e.g., the clergy and the nobility--should be represented, not individuals or voters.

Beginning in the latter part of the eighteenth century, citizens began to demand a broadening of their franchise and fairer representation in the legislature. Single-member districts for the election of legislators was embraced by this movement as a means towards greater democracy. Not only would single-member districts ensure more equal representation for citizens, it was believed that they would produce a more representative legislature. Equality of population could be achieved by varying the numbers of legislators from a territory. The use of administrative divisions such as states, provinces, or counties as multimember districts also provided the additional benefit of community representation. Districts that were relatively equal in population would increase representation for the urban, working class and other traditionally under-represented groups.

In the eighteenth century, single-member districts were first adopted in the British colonies that later became the United States. During the nineteenth century, many European countries gradually followed suit. Denmark adopted single-member districts for elections to its lower chamber in 1849. A newly unified Italy chose single-member districts to elect representatives to the national legislature in 1861. The North German Confederation adopted single-member districts in 1867; Imperial Germany, in 1871. France has used single-member districts intermittently since 1875. Britain adopted single-member districts in 1885, and the Netherlands followed suit in 1887. Norway, one of the last European countries to adopt single-member districts, did so in 1905 when the country gained full independence.

Most of the remaining European countries that continued to use communities, rather than specially delimited electoral districts, for the election of representatives were the less progressive countries, such as Portugal or the Balkan states. Of the more modern European countries, only Switzerland and Belgium used multimember districts throughout the nineteenth century. Belgium used its nine historic provinces as boundaries for its multimember districts, but it recognised the principle of equal representation by varying the number of representatives assigned to a province. When proportional representation was adopted in Belgium in 1899, multimember districts based on provincial boundaries were retained.

In Switzerland, prior to 1848, each canton sent a single representative to the federal assembly. The constitution of 1848 provided for representation based on population; so in 1850, forty-nine electoral districts, or constituencies, were created. The boundaries of these constituencies went unchanged, however, for seventy years. In 1919, Switzerland adopted proportional representation. Since 1919, representatives have been elected from multimember districts that correspond to the canton boundaries.

The Advent of Proportional Representation

The trend towards single-member districts in Europe ebbed with the advent of proportional representation in the late nineteenth century. Between 1899, when Belgium adopted proportional representation, and 1921, when Norway moved to proportional representation, most of the continental European countries adopted one form of proportional representation or another.

Because multimember districts are used with systems of proportional representation, countries that have adopted such systems are no longer required to periodically redraw district boundaries. Instead, administrative divisions such as states, provinces, or counties can be used to elect representatives. Equality of population is achieved by varying the numbers of legislators elected from a district, rather than redrawing district lines. Today, the norm in Europe is multimember districts that correspond to administrative divisions and do not require periodic delimitation.


Although electoral systems that do not require the periodic delimitation of districts are the norm in Europe today, there are notable exceptions to this rule. The United Kingdom has retained single-member districts since adopting them in 1885. France has used single-member districts consistently since 1958, with the exception of a brief restoration of proportional representation in 1985 and 1986. Ireland and Malta, which have adopted proportional representation systems based on the single transferable vote, delimit multimember districts periodically.

Other countries in Europe, such as Germany and some of the newly emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have adopted mixed electoral systems that include single-member districts. In addition, many countries in the rest of the world have chosen electoral systems that employ single-member districts, with or without a balance of seats elected through proportional representation. Clearly the delimitation of single-member districts is a practice that has not lost its appeal and will continue to be with us for some time to come.




Electoral Systems that Delimit Electoral Districts


Traditionally, three broad categories of electoral systems have been described: plurality systems, majority systems, and proportional representation systems. The most important element that differentiates these electoral systems from one another is the means by which seats in the legislature are allocated:

to candidates receiving a plurality of the vote

to candidates obtaining a majority of the vote

proportionally on the basis of votes cast for political parties or candidates

A recent addition to these three broad categories of electoral systems is the mixed electoral system, which combines elements of both proportional representation and plurality or majority voting systems.

Delimiting Districts: Plurality or Majority Systems

The delimitation of electoral districts is most commonly associated with plurality or majority electoral systems. Both systems tend to rely heavily, if not exclusively, on single-member electoral districts. These districts must be redrawn periodically to reflect shifts in the population. Both systems also share one fundamental element because of their reliance on single-member districts--the number of seats that a political party receives depends not only on the proportion of the votes it received, but also on where those votes were cast. Under plurality and majority systems, minority political parties whose supporters are not geographically concentrated usually obtain fewer seats than their proportion of the vote would suggest they are entitled. The multimember districts of proportional systems can rectify this distortion in the equation of seats to votes because the larger the magnitude of the electoral districts, the more proportional the results.

Delimiting Districts: Proportional Representation

There are two major types of proportional representation systems--the party list system and the single transferable vote. (The mixed member proportional system also produces proportional results, but this system will be discussed under the "mixed system" category.) The party list system is the far more common of the two. Under the party list system, electoral districts rarely, if ever, require delimitation. If electoral districts are employed, they are relatively large multimember districts whose boundaries generally correspond to administrative divisions. To accommodate shifts in population, the number of seats allocated to individual multimember districts is adjusted, rather than redrawing the boundaries of the districts.

The single transferable vote, used in Ireland and Malta, is the other type of proportional representation. Because voting is on the basis of candidates, not parties, these countries employ small multimember districts with only three to five members elected per district. Electoral district boundaries must therefore be redrawn periodically in these two countries.

Delimiting Districts: Mixed Electoral Systems

Mixed electoral systems are becoming increasingly popular. They employ both party list proportional representation and single-member electoral districts with plurality or majority vote requirements. The German electoral system is the prototypical mixed electoral system.

Because mixed systems incorporate single-member districts, the delimitation of electoral districts must occur periodically to adjust for shifts in the population. The importance of the delimitation process and the influence that district configurations have on the outcome of elections is dependent on whether party list seats are used to correct any distortions in the relationship between seats to votes produced by the single-member districts. In countries such as Germany, seats allocated under the party list system are used to compensate for any distortions in the seats-to-votes ratio produced at the electoral district level.

In countries such as Russia, party list seats are not used to compensate for any disproportionality arising from elections in single-member districts. Rather, seats allocated to the parties under the party list component of the election are simply added to the seats won at the electoral district level. The partisan seats-to-votes ratio may therefore be distorted. In this type of mixed system, sometimes called a Parallel system, the district delimitation process is more important because it can have a more pronounced effect on the partisan composition of the legislature.





Plurality Electoral Systems


The plurality electoral system is the oldest and the most frequently used voting system. It is used for legislative elections in the United States and India--the world's two largest liberal democracies--as well as the United Kingdom and many former British colonies. Most of these countries also employ single-member districts, which must be redrawn periodically to remain relatively equal in population.

Proponents of plurality electoral systems cite three main advantages--simplicity, stability, and constituency representation. The plurality system is easy to understand; voters simply place a mark next to their preferred candidate. The result of an election under the plurality system is also easy to understand; the candidate receiving the highest number of votes wins. This allocation rule is referred to as "first past the post."

Because of their tendency to produce a disproportionately large number of seats for the majority party, plurality systems usually produce strong single-party governments. This, in turn, produces a stable political system because there is no need to form coalition governments.

Plurality Systems and Single-Member Districts

Plurality electoral systems are most commonly associated with single-member districts and First Past the Post allocation rules. The use of single-member districts creates a strong link between representatives and their constituencies. Because each representative is beholden to a specific geographically defined constituency, legislative accountability and constituency services are both facilitated. For more information on plurality First Past the Post systems (see First Past the Post (FPTP)).



The process of electoral district delimitation in a plurality system is important because the configuration of districts can affect the partisan, and possibly even the racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic composition of the legislature. The effect may be intentional, as in a partisan "gerrymander," or it may be unintentional. Even district boundaries drawn by a neutral boundary commission may unintentionally favour one party over others.




Majority Electoral Systems


Proponents of majority electoral systems claim that these systems have all of the advantages of a plurality system, i.e., simplicity, stability, and constituency representation. A majority system is relatively easy for the voter to understand. It tends to produce strong and stable governments, and each territorial constituency is represented by a single legislator. An additional benefit of a majority system is that each representative has the support of a majority of his or her constituents.

Under a plurality system, a candidate may be elected with less than a majority of the vote. In fact, the percentage of the vote necessary to win can be quite low, depending on the number of candidates competing for office and the spread of votes among candidates on the ballot. To prevent a candidate from winning a seat with less than 50 percent of the vote, allocation rules under a majority electoral system stipulate that the winning candidate must receive an "absolute majority" of the vote, i.e., 50 percent of the vote plus one more vote. Simply requiring a majority of the vote, with no further stipulations, creates the possibility of an election with more than two candidates producing no winner at all. Countries with majority electoral systems have adopted one of two solutions for this problem--a second round election or the alternative vote.

Two Round System

The central feature of the two round system is a requirement for a second election if the first election does not produce a candidate with an absolute majority of the vote. Under a two round system, voting occurs on two separate days, often a week or so apart. The first election is conducted in the same manner as a plurality First Past the Post election. However, if this election does not produce a candidate with more than 50 percent of the vote, a second election is held. The rules on who can participate in the second contest vary depending on the country and whether the election is a legislative or presidential election.

Under a "majority runoff" system, for example, if no candidate receives a majority on the first ballot, a second election is held. The only candidates in the second election are the two candidates who received the highest number of votes in the first election. This system is often used in presidential elections. It is also used in the United States for congressional elections in some southern states.

Under a "majority plurality" system, on the other hand, there is no drastic reduction in the number of candidates on the second ballot. The winner of second ballot in a majority plurality system is the candidate who receives the most votes, whether or not a majority of the votes is obtained. Some threshold may be imposed for candidates to stand at the second ballot.

The two, or second, round system is most commonly associated with France, where the majority plurality system is used for the election of representatives to the National Assembly. Electoral rules for the National Assembly stipulate that only candidates receiving the support of at least 12.5 percent of the registered electorate are entitled to compete in the second ballot the following week. The candidate who receives the highest number of votes in this second election is declared the winner. For more information on the two round system, see Two-Round System.

Alternative Vote

The alternative vote is more accurately referred to as a "majority preferential" system. Under this system, voters not only indicate their first preference among the candidates, but also rank in order alternative preferences. To win, a candidate must receive a majority of the vote. To determine the winner, the number of first preference votes is tallied. If a candidate wins a majority of first preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate receives a majority of first preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated. The second preferences of voters who made this candidate their first choice are then distributed among the other candidates. If this redistribution does not produce a majority for one of the remaining candidates, the process of elimination and transfers continues until a majority is produced for one of the candidates. The alternative vote is used in Australia for elections to the House of Representatives.


Majority electoral systems can, and do, produce election outcomes that are just as disproportional as plurality electoral systems with regard to the ratio of seats to votes. This is not surprising, given that both systems rely almost exclusively on single-member districts. The district delimitation process in a majority system is, therefore, just as important as it is in a plurality electoral system.




Mixed Electoral Systems


Under a mixed electoral system, different formulas are used simultaneously to allocate seats from a single election. One feature all mixed electoral systems have in common is that an elector casts two votes, one for a candidate to serve as an electoral district representative and one for a party list of candidates. Among countries with mixed electoral systems, there are variations in the proportion of seats elected by district and the proportion elected by party list. There are also variations in the voting scheme--majority or plurality--adopted for district elections. And most importantly, there are variations in the relationship between district seats and party list seats.

In some countries, the total allocation of seats is based on the number of party list seats minus the number of district seats. In other countries, the allocation of seats is based on the number of party list seats plus the number of district seats. This distinction is crucial for the proportionality of seats to votes.

Mixed Member Proportional Systems

In countries such as Germany and New Zealand, the final seat tally for each party is calculated by subtracting the number of district seats that each party wins from the total number of party list seats to which it is entitled. The party list seats, therefore, are used to correct any unfairness in the single-member plurality or majority seats. This is sometimes called the Mixed Member Proportional system because the results are proportional, provided that a party exceeds any threshold vote percentage that may have been established.

Parallel Systems

Countries such as Russia do not subtract district seats from party list seats, but rather add the two sets of seats together. Because the district seats and party list seats are independent of the one another, the party list seats do not correct for any seats due to votes distortions created by the single-member district seats. The results in these mixed systems, sometimes referred to as Parallel electoral systems, have tended to be disproportional.


One advantage of a mixed electoral system is that it uses single-member districts and, therefore, retains a strong link between representatives and their constituencies. At the same time, however, a high level of proportionality may be achieved, although the degree of proportionality is dependent on whether or not party list seats are used to correct for distortions produced by the electoral district seats.

The significance attached to the delimitation of electoral districts in a mixed system depends on whether or not party seats are used to rectify any distortions in the seats-to-votes ratio. If party seats are used to correct imbalances, then the process of delimiting districts is not much of an issue. If, however, party seats are not used as a corrective measure and disproportionate results are possible, the delimitation process becomes more important. In fact, the delimitation process may be as important as in a plurality or majority electoral system.




Proportional Systems: The Single Transferable Vote


Most countries with proportional representation systems do not delimit electoral districts. However, two countries that use the single transferable vote, namely Ireland and Malta, do periodically delimit electoral districts.

Districts are redrawn in Ireland and Malta because the single transferable vote operates best with uniformly small multimember constituencies. Votes are cast by ranking candidates in order of preference, and if there are a large number of seats to fill, the number of candidates on the ballot may be overwhelming. Malta employs only five-member electoral districts. In Ireland, electoral districts range in magnitude from three to five members.

Under a proportional system using the single transferable vote, electors rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate has so many votes that an elector's first preference is not needed, or if the candidate has so few votes that there is no chance he or she can win office, the elector's first preference is transferred to a second or subsequent choice. To be elected, a candidate must obtain a quota of the votes. The quota is computed simply by dividing the total number of votes cast by one more than the number of seats to be filled, plus one additional vote. Only the prescribed number of candidates to be elected can reach the quota.

The single transferable vote system differs from majority and plurality electoral systems in that election outcomes are more proportional. The single transferable vote shares two features in common with majority and plurality systems. Voters choose among candidates, rather than between political parties; and the country is divided into relatively small territorial constituencies. These electoral constituencies, or districts, must be redrawn on occasion to accommodate shifts in the population. For example, in Ireland the constitution stipulates that constituencies be revised at least once every twelve years. Prior to 1980 and the establishment of an independent electoral commission, boundary changes and the allocations of seats in the legislature in Ireland were thought likely to benefit the political party in power.




Electoral District Alternatives


Two important factors to be considered when contemplating electoral districting alternatives are: (1) district magnitude and (2) the alignment of electoral district boundaries with existing administrative and/or political boundaries. District magnitude refers to the number of legislative seats assigned to a district. A district can be either a single-member district or a multimember district, where the number of seats may range from two to one hundred or more. With regard to alignment, administrative divisions within a country can be used as electoral districts, or electoral districts can be specially drawn with little regard for administrative divisions, usually to meet equal population criteria.

These two factors form a matrix. The first dimension, district magnitude, focuses on the issue of single-member versus multimember districts. The second dimension focuses on alignment or nonalignment of electoral districts with administrative or political boundaries.

Most single-member districts fall into the nonalignment category. The districts tend to be artificial pieces of geography that have no meaning outside the electoral context. Some single-member districts, however, particularly those in proportional representation countries, are small, highly distinctive communities. For example, a few small cantons in Switzerland form single-member districts.

Countries with multimember districts often use existing administrative divisions as electoral districts. Each district is assigned the appropriate number of legislative seats for its population, with individual districts having as few as two representatives and most districts having far more than two representatives. These countries usually employ some form of proportional representation. The more artificially constructed multimember districts are found in countries such as Ireland and Malta, which use districts that are uniformly small in magnitude because elections are conducted using the single transferable vote.





District Magnitude


District magnitude refers to the number of legislative seats assigned to a district. Countries have adopted electoral rules that range anywhere from the exclusive use of single-member districts to a system where the entire country, in effect, functions as a single district. The United States and the United Kingdom are at one end of the spectrum, in which each and every legislator represents a single district. At the other end of the spectrum are countries such as Israel and the Netherlands, in which the district magnitude is equal to the number of members of the legislature. Most countries are somewhere in the middle of this range; and within a country there is often a wide variation in the magnitude of districts.

Some countries set all their electoral districts at the same magnitude or within some narrow range of magnitudes. District boundaries are then usually drawn according to some voters-per-representative formula. This approach has been adopted in the United States and most other countries with plurality or majority electoral systems, where the district magnitude is set at one. This procedure is also used in Ireland and Malta, both of which employ small multimember districts and the single transferable vote. In Malta, all districts have a magnitude of five. In Ireland, the range in magnitude is from three to five.

Alternatively, some countries use existing regional, administrative or political divisions as electoral districts. Each electoral district is then assigned a given number of seats according to its population. Most countries with electoral systems based on proportional representation use this procedure. The larger the district magnitude, the more proportional the outcome of the election--that is, the more seats per district, the closer the approximation between a political party's percentage of the vote and the number of seats that party receives in the legislature.

Single-member electoral districts must be redrawn periodically to ensure relatively equal populations. Some countries with uniformly small multimember districts must also redistrict periodically in order to comply with equal population standards. Electoral districts with large magnitudes, however, do not need to be redrawn; seats are simply reassigned from one district to another to meet equal population standards.




Single-Member Districts: Advantages and Disadvantages


The debate about the advantages and disadvantages of single-member and multimember districts overlaps, to a large extent, with the debate over plurality or majority systems and proportional representation systems. This is because plurality and majority systems usually employ single-member districts, and proportional representation systems use multimember districts. This discussion will focus solely on the strengths and weaknesses of single-member districts.

Advantages of Single-Member Districts


Disadvantages of Single-Member Districts


The strengths of single-member districts rest in the close ties between representatives and constituents, the accountability of representatives to the voters, and constituency service. Because single-member districts are used in conjunction with plurality or majority voting rules, they are also said to foster strong and stable government.





Multimember Districts: Advantages and Disadvantages


The advantages and disadvantages of multimember districts mirror those of single-member districts and overlap with the debate over plurality or majority systems and proportional representation systems. The focus in this section will be solely on the advantages and disadvantages of multimember districts as compared to single-member districts.

Advantages of Multimember Districts

On the last point, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that women are more likely to be elected from multimember districts. Ethnic, religious and different language groups also tend to be better represented in multimember districts, because political parties strive for an overall balance when selecting candidates. The consequences of multimember districts are less certain, however, for groups that are concentrated within a given territory. In the United States, in particular, blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be elected from single-member districts, in large part because the U.S. Voting Rights Act encourages the creation of districts where these racial or ethnic minorities predominate. For a more detailed discussion of the issue of single-member districts and minority representation in the United States, see US: Ethnic Minorities and Single-Member Districts.

Disadvantages of Multimember Districts


The strength of multimember districts rests in their ability to generate more balanced representation, both for certain groups traditionally under- represented , such as women and ethnic minorities, and for political parties. The degree to which multimember districts are able to do this, however, depends on both the magnitude of the districts and the voting rules employed. The larger the district magnitude, the more proportional the election outcome for political parties. Voting rules, however, also matter. Block voting within multimember districts will actually produce more electoral distortion than plurality first-past-the-post voting in single-member districts. Only multimember districts with large magnitudes and some form of proportional voting will consistently produce proportional election outcomes.




Alignment of Districts with Administrative Boundaries


In many countries, especially those that employ multimember districts, the boundaries of electoral districts follow the boundaries of existing administrative divisions--usually states or provinces. Often these administrative divisions have some historical significance. Some administrative divisions, however, may be of recent vintage and of little relevance to citizens.

There are certain advantages to aligning electoral districts with administrative divisions, in that the districts will then

Correspondence with Governmental Functions

Administrative divisions may be assigned important governmental functions. For example, local government entities may have responsibilities for levying taxes or administering justice, education or public health. Constituents of local government entities can benefit from being able to identify and relate to the elected representatives from districts that correspond to these administrative divisions, especially if constituents need help in dealing with these governmental agencies.

In addition, a country's election machinery may be organised around administrative divisions. If so, it may be easier to conduct elections if electoral district boundaries correspond to administrative boundaries.

Correspondence with Non-Governmental Organisations

Governmental agencies are not the only organisations that operate within specific administrative divisions. Many social, cultural, and political organisations are also arranged according to administrative areas. Such organisations may include political parties, trade unions, professional associations and many other occupational, social, and cultural organisations. Members of these organisations may benefit by being able to identify and relate to elected representatives from the same administrative division. Elected representatives, too, may find it easier to work with and communicate with members of the these non-governmental organisations.

Recognition of Electoral Districts

Long-standing state or provincial boundaries engender a corporate identity that voters can relate to more easily than artificially created electoral districts. Voters may be able to distinguish between their district and other districts and identify their elected representative more easily if electoral districts are defined by administrative boundaries.

Reflection of Communities of Interest

Electoral districts that are composed of long-standing state or provincial territories may reflect geographically concentrated communities of interest based on a common heritage or on shared racial, ethnic, religious or language characteristics. Some of the more modern administrative entities that form the basis of electoral districts, however, may have little in the way of common roots. Consequently, these districts do not bring together constituents with common interests.

Drawbacks to Using Administrative Divisions

Administrative divisions do not have the same level of importance throughout the world. Although they reflect important regional differences in some countries, administrative divisions in other countries have been created very recently. In these countries, the boundaries are artificial and of little significance to citizens. In fact, the boundaries may divide natural communities of interest such as long-standing racial, ethnic, religious, or spoken language communities. Using administrative entities to form electoral districts in this instance may actually conflict with the creation of electoral districts that reflect strong communities of interest.

Single-member Districts and Administrative Divisions

Aligning electoral districts with administrative boundaries is a very common practice in countries with multimember electoral districts. However, correspondence with administrative divisions is more problematic in countries that employ single-member districts exclusively. This is because there is often a conflict between drawing single-member districts that follow existing administrative lines and drawing single-member districts that are relatively equal in population.

This is not to suggest that single-member districts can never correspond to administrative divisions within a country. Many countries that use single-member districts do emphasise the need to respect administrative boundaries. But the weight given to this consideration varies, depending on the importance placed on equality of population and other redistricting criteria that may conflict with respect for administrative divisions. For example, in the United Kingdom, large numerical deviations in population are tolerated in order to accommodate local administrative areas. In the United States, congressional district boundaries never cross state lines; but strict enforcement of equality of numbers, however, is far more important than respect for local administrative boundaries.