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Our Electoral Exceptionalism

90 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2012 Last revised: 19 Aug 2015

Nicholas Stephanopoulos

University of Chicago Law School

Date Written: August 30, 2012


Election law suffers from a comparative blind spot. Scholars in the field have devoted almost no attention to how other countries organize their electoral systems, let alone to the lessons that can be drawn from foreign experiences. This Article begins to fill this gap by carrying out the first systematic analysis of redistricting practices around the world. The Article initially separates district design into its three constituent components: institutions, criteria, and minority representation. For each component, the Article then describes the approaches used in America and abroad, introduces a new conceptual framework for classifying different policies, and challenges the exceptional American model.

First, redistricting institutions can be categorized based on their levels of politicization and judicialization. The United States is an outlier along both dimensions because it relies on the elected branches rather than on independent commissions and because its courts are extraordinarily active. Unfortunately, the American approach is linked to higher partisan bias, lower electoral responsiveness, and reduced public confidence in the electoral system.

Second, redistricting criteria can be assessed based on whether they tend to make districts more heterogeneous or homogeneous. Most of the usual American criteria (such as equal population, compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and the pursuit of political advantage) are diversifying. In contrast, almost all foreign requirements (such as respect for political subdivisions, respect for communities of interest, and attention to geographic features) are homogenizing. Homogenizing requirements are generally preferable because they give rise to higher voter participation, more effective representation, and lower legislative polarization.

Lastly, models of minority representation can be classified based on the geographic concentration of the groups they benefit and the explicitness of the means they use to allocate legislative influence. Once again, the United States is nearly unique in its reliance on implicit mechanisms that only assist concentrated groups. Implicit mechanisms that also assist diffuse groups — in particular, multimember districts with limited, cumulative, or preferential voting rules — are typically superior because they result in higher levels of minority representation at a fraction of the social and legal cost.

Suggested Citation

Stephanopoulos, Nicholas, Our Electoral Exceptionalism (August 30, 2012). 80 University of Chicago Law Review 769 (2013). Available at SSRN:

Nicholas Stephanopoulos (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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