Behind the Ballot Box

Behind the Ballot Box: Citizen’s Guide to Voting Systems

Interest in voting systems and voting system reform is growing in the United States. This book is a complete and easy-to-use guide for citizens, government officials, political activists, students and anyone else who wants to learn more about voting systems and their political implications.

Voting systems--the procedures by which we cast votes and elect our public officials--are a crucial part of the democratic election process. The decision to use one kind of voting system rather than another has far reaching political consequences.

This book gives readers all the information and analytical tools they need to make an intelligent choice among voting systems. It provides a set of political criteria that can be used to judge voting systems. It gives detailed descriptions of all the common voting systems used in the United States and other Western democracies, including winner-take-all systems as well as proportional representation systems. It also provides an analysis of the various political advantages and disadvantages associated with each type of system.

For more information on Behind the Ballot Box, read the Table of Contents and the Introduction from the book, sampled below.

Ordering Information

The paperback edition of this book is $19.95 (ISBN 0-275-96586-4).  It can be ordered at any local bookstore, or you can call Praeger Publishing at 1-800-225-5800, or order it from Praeger over the Web by clicking here.

Table of Contents



1. What are Voting Systems and Why are They Important?

2. Criteria for Evaluating Voting Systems

3. Plurality-Majority Voting Systems

Single-Member District Plurality

Two-Round System

Instant Run-Off Voting

At-Large Voting

Combined At-Large and Single-Member District

4. Proportional Representation Voting Systems

Party List System

Mixed-Member System

Single Transferable Vote/Choice Voting

5. Semi-Proportional Voting Systems

Cumulative Voting

Limited Voting

Parallel Voting

6. Voting Systems for Single-Office Elections

Plurality Voting

Two-Round System

Instant Run-Off Voting

7. Making Your Final Choice


  1. Seat Allocation Formulas in Proportional Representation
  2. A Brief History of Proportional Representation in the United States
  3. Lesser-Used Voting Systems: Approval Voting, Fusion Voting, Single Non-Transferable Vote, Condorcet Voting
  4. Statutory Language for Choice Voting, Cumulative Voting and Instant Run-Off Voting
  5. Vote Transfers in Choice Voting
  6. Blank Grid for Comparing Voting Systems


Selected Bibliography

Additional Resources



Voting systems--the procedures by which we cast votes and elect our public officials--are a crucial part of the democratic election process. The decision to use one kind of voting system rather than another has far reaching political consequences. Among other things, voting systems help to determine which officials are elected to run our governments, the variety of parties that voters have to choose from at the polls, how many citizens will turnout to vote, which citizens will or will not be represented in our legislatures, and whether the majority will rule. Ultimately, the choice of voting system not only has a profound effect on the process of elections, but also on the degree to which a political system is fair, representative, and democratic.

This book is designed to serve as a guide for people interested in learning more about voting systems and voting system reform in the United States. It will help you to evaluate your current voting system and compare it to other systems. Whether you are a government official considering changes to your voting system, a local citizen wanting to make your school board more representative of the community, a political activist concerned about improving American elections, a student studying voting procedures in a course, or a simply someone curious about this topic--this book will help you develop a better understanding of this important political issue.

One goal of this book is to acquaint Americans with the various options available in the world of voting systems. In many other Western democracies, voting system reform has been a hot topic and so citizens and politicians in these countries have learned a great deal about these competing systems. But for many people in the United States, voting system reform is a new idea, and discussion has often been hampered by a lack of adequate information. In particular, many people are simply unfamiliar with the variety of possible voting systems. It is hard to have a good public debate over voting systems options if most people are unaware of their choices.

This book aims to remedy that problem. It will acquaint you with the three basic types of voting systems: plurality-majority systems, proportional representation systems, and semi-proportional systems. It describes the workings of over 10 different voting systems, and it explains what the ballots look like, how votes are cast, and how the winners are determined. All the common voting systems used in the United States and other Western democracies are included, along with an appendix that describes some of lesser-used systems.

The primary aim of this book, however, goes beyond simply teaching you to recognize different voting systems, or enabling you to nod knowingly the next time someone mentions "cumulative voting." The main purpose is to help you find the best voting system based on your political values. The book is designed to give you all the basic information and analytical tools you need to search out the best system from among the alternatives. Unfortunately, finding the best set of voting procedures is not easy--it is certainly not something you can do over lunch. There are a confusing variety of systems to examine and a large number of political considerations that you must take into account. If you take a haphazard approach to this choice, you are very likely to make an ill-informed and misguided decision.

On the other hand, choosing a good voting system is not brain surgery either. You certainly don’t have to be a trained psephologist – a scholar of electoral systems. All you need is a modest amount of time and energy to devote to the task, a source of reliable information about these systems, and a systematic approach to analyzing that information. If you provide the first of these, this book will furnish the second two. It will summarize all of the important political characteristics of voting systems, and it will guide you through a series of analytical steps that will help you to organize this information and to make an intelligent choice among these voting methods.



The four steps involved in investigating and selecting a good voting system--and around which this book is organized--are the following:

Step One: Develop political criteria for judging voting systems. Before you begin to look at specific systems, you should first think about what makes for a good voting system. How will you know a good system when you see one? To answer that question, you need to develop your own set of criteria that you can use to evaluate these systems.

Step Two: Compile a broad range of alternative voting systems to consider. You won’t be able to find the best voting system if you aren’t considering all the options. So you need to cast a wide net and examine a variety of voting methods.

Step Three: Examine the alternatives and identify their political advantages and disadvantages. To choose the best system, you need to know what the political effects of each system are. What are the political advantages and disadvantages of a particular voting system?

Step Four: Determine which voting system best meets your political criteria. Once you know the political effects of the various options, you can compare them in a systematic way and decide which one best meets the criteria you set in the first step of your analysis.

This book is arranged to help you to go through these steps in order. The first chapter has introductory material intended especially for people who haven’t thought much about voting procedures. It explains what voting systems are, why they are important, and why they have become the center of an increasing amount of political activity, both here and abroad. With these preliminaries out of the way, the book then turns to the process of helping you to analyze different voting systems. Chapter two covers the first step in this process: the need to develop criteria for judging voting systems. It gives you an extensive list of criteria that many scholars and reformers use to evaluate voting systems. These include such things as ensuring majority rule, producing fair representation for parties, encouraging voter turnout, being easy to use, and contributing to stable government. You are encouraged to use this chapter to decide which of these criteria are the most important. Several exercises are included to help you prioritize these criteria. By completing them, you will develop your own political yardstick for assessing voting system options.

Chapters three through six are where you will become acquainted with the actual voting systems themselves. All the most common and popular voting systems as well as some uncommon ones are included, so you should have no problem accomplishing the second step of the choice process: gathering a wide variety of voting system options to consider. Chapters three through five cover the various ways to elect legislative bodies: town councils, state legislatures, Congress, etc. To make the analytic process easier, these voting systems are divided into three "families" of systems with a chapter devoted to each. Chapter three describes several kinds of plurality-majority voting systems, which include the systems most often used in United States elections. Chapter four addresses proportional representation voting systems, which are commonly used in most of the other advanced Western democracies. Finally, chapter five describes a somewhat less common variety of voting systems: semi-proportional systems.

Each of these chapters explains the basic mechanics of these voting systems--how votes are cast, ballots are counted, and seats awarded to winners. But to make a good decision you need to know more than just how these systems work. You also need to know what their political consequences are--the third step in the choice process. Does a voting system encourage or discourage voter participation? Does it facilitate or hinder representation of political minorities? Does it maintain or undermine political stability? Does it invite or discourage gerrymandering and other forms of political manipulation?

To answer these kind of questions, each section on a particular voting system contains a description of its main political advantages and disadvantages. Fortunately, we don't have to merely speculate about these political effects. Nearly all of the voting systems covered in this book have been in use in the United States or some other Western country for many decades. This long track record has allowed political scientists to study these systems for years, and this book will include many of their findings. The existence of a great deal of historical evidence and a scholarly literature on this subject means that we can predict with some confidence many of the political advantages and disadvantages produced by each voting system.

Naturally, disagreements sometimes do arise over the alleged advantages or disadvantages of specific systems, even among political scientists, and these disputes will be covered as well. For example, there is some disagreement over such things as whether proportional representation governments tend to be more unstable than those produced by plurality voting, and whether plurality systems really encourage close representative-constituent relationships. In such instances, I will describe the arguments and evidence offered by both the critics and the defenders of a particular system--so that you may decide for yourself which view seems most valid. Where appropriate, I will also try to give you an idea of where most experts come down on a particular issue. I will also highlight some of these disagreements in special sections of the text entitled "Spotlights on the Debate." These are designed to give you a better sense of the give and take of the arguments surrounding a particular issue.

Please keep in mind that just because I include a claim or criticism about a particular system does not necessarily mean it is valid. That is for you to decide. I have tried to include all the common claims made about each voting system, even if some of those may be based largely on myth or misinformation. I assume that people make the best decisions when they are exposed to all the arguments surrounding an issue--both the good and the bad arguments. I believe that if you have enough information and analysis available, you will be able to figure out for yourself which claims are dubious and which are sound.

Chapter six is somewhat of a special case. Most of the current discussion over competing voting systems concerns legislative elections, and the analysis of these systems form the heart of the book. But we also hold elections for single offices such as mayor and governor, and how we do that is the topic of this chapter. In the United States, there is beginning to be debate about the voting systems used in fill these executive positions. In these elections, there are fewer options than with legislative elections. Obviously systems that require multimember districts, such as proportional and semi-proportional systems, cannot be used to elect a single official. So we are left with several forms of plurality and majority voting. But even here there are significant enough differences between these options to merit a careful choice among them. However, if you are primarily interested in reforming your city council or state legislature, you can skip over this chapter and go on to the final chapter.

Chapter seven, the last chapter, addresses the fourth and final step in the choice process: selecting the best system. When you have learned about all the alternatives and their political consequences, it is time to choose the best one. To do this, you must decide which system best meets the criteria you developed in the first step of the analytic process. This chapter guides you through a method of organizing your criteria and all of the information you have collected about these systems, so that your final choice is easier. The chapter also contains a discussion of the some of the common pitfalls encountered in trying to choose a system and explains how to avoid them.

Following these chapters is a selected bibliography of books and articles on this topic. In an effort to keep this book to a reasonable length, I sometimes have been forced to summarize many of the arguments for and against each system and to leave out some of the finer points of the analysis. Similarly, I have also omitted some of the more esoteric details about the workings of some systems. If you want to go into some of these issues in more depth and detail--which I would encourage you to do if you have the time--then the works in this bibliography are the place to start. Following the bibliography is a section identifying some additional resources: web sites with additional information on voting systems, and a list of organizations that are involved in voting system reform.

Additional information on various aspects of voting systems can also be found in a number of appendixes. One contains brief descriptions of little used voting systems, ones that are so uncommon that I felt that they did not merit prolonged analysis in the text--but which may be of interest to some readers. Another appendix contains a description of the history of proportional representation elections in the United States. On the more practical side, another appendix contains sample statutory language for alternative systems like instant run-off voting, choice voting, and cumulative voting.

At first, the large amount of material in this book might seem to be a bit overwhelming. You certainly should not feel that you must plow through it all in one sitting. Instead, feel free to dip into various parts and use them as they seem appropriate in whatever stage of the choice process you are in. In the end, my hope is that all the information and analysis in this book will enable you to think more clearly and critically about voting systems; allow you to engage in more intelligent discussions and debates about these systems; and ultimately, if you choose, help you to change what goes on "behind the ballot box."

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