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Setting the Rules of the Game: The Choice of Electoral Systems in Advanced Democracies


Carles Boix


Princeton University - Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs



Abstract:     
The origins of electoral systems have received scant attention in the literature. Looking at the history of electoral rules in the advanced world in the last century, this paper shows that the existing wide variation in electoral rules across nations can be traced to the strategic decisions that the current ruling parties, anticipating the coordinating consequences of different electoral regimes, make to maximize their representation according to the following conditions. On the one hand, as long as the electoral arena does not change substantially and the current electoral regime serves the ruling parties well, the latter have no incentives to modify the electoral regime. On the other hand, as soon as the electoral arena changes (due to the entry of new voters or a change in their preferences), the ruling parties will entertain changing the electoral system, depending on two main conditions: the emergence of new parties and the coordinating capacities of the old ruling parties. Accordingly, if the new parties are strong, the old parties shift from plurality/ majority rules to proportional representation (PR) only if the latter are locked into a 'non-Duvergerian' equilibrium; i.e. if no old party enjoys a dominant position (the case of most small European states) --conversely, they do not if a Duvergerian equilibrium exists (the case of Great Britain). Similarly, whenever the new entrants are weak, a non-PR system is maintained, regardless of the structure of the old party system (the case of the USA). The paper discusses as well the role of trade and ethnic and religious heterogeneity in the adoption of PR rules.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 47

Keywords: Electoral systems, political parties, instutions

JEL Classification: D71

working papers series


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Date posted: March 20, 2000  

Suggested Citation

Boix, Carles, Setting the Rules of the Game: The Choice of Electoral Systems in Advanced Democracies. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=159213 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.159213

Contact Information

Carles Boix (Contact Author)
Princeton University - Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs ( email )
Corwin Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544-1012
United States
609-258-2139 (Phone)
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