Why do electoral systems change? A new Harvard research paper, to be discussed in mid-April in the Lisbon ECPR workshops, provides fresh insights into this issue.
Cultural accounts, based on many case studies, suggest that political legitimacy plays a critical role. During the early 1990s, for example, Italian electoral reform was widely regarded as a reaction to the Tangentopoli scandal, while public anger about government corruption was also seen as one of the main triggers for Japanese reforms. Where the public sees the regime as legitimate, this provides little pressure for change to the status quo. Where citizens are dissatisfied, especially when performance is evaluated against democratic aspirations, this heightens demands for institutional reform on the policy agenda.
Although many scholars have often suggested this connection, systematic cross-national evidence establishing this relationship has not been examined. Moreover this assumption is challenged by rational choice accounts which regard electoral reform as an elite-level issue, where the public plays only a marginal role. These accounts have emphasized the paramount importance of the calculation of partisan interests in a two-stage game, where parties have preferences for alternative institutions based on expectations about the payoffs these rules will have for them in future.
Understanding the policy cycle model of electoral reform
The rational choice and the cultural approaches are often regarded as offering competing perspectives but of course these are not necessarily either/or explanations; if understood more comprehensively as a cyclical process, public disaffection and lack of political legitimacy could plausibly serve as the long-term context generating political pressures for change, getting the issue of reform onto the policy agenda, while elite-level bargaining among parties could determine the formulation of policy proposals and the negotiated outcome of the decision-making process.
A policy cycle model helps to explain how this process works, identifying multiple actors as players in a sequential policymaking process, with four distinct steps:
(i) The agenda-setting stage in the public sphere (at t1), engaging the public, political parties, the media and NGOs, which heightens the salience of institutional reform as a key problem to be addressed on the policy agenda;
(ii) The policy-making stage in the state, where policy options are formulated, coalitions are built, and regulatory policies are adopted to address these perceived problems, directly engaging decisions by political parties in the legislature and the executive, as well as, indirectly, the influence of public referendums and international diffusion;
(iii) The implementation stage (at t2), where the revised regulatory framework is put into practice in subsequent elections, involving election management bodies and the courts; and finally,
(iv) The feedback evaluation loop (at t3), when learning about the consequences of the new regulatory framework shapes either satisfaction with the status quo or further demands for subsequent revisions.
All this activity occurs within a broader environment in each country, including the role of historical traditions, the type of regime, and the socio-economic structure. This cycle regards the policymaking process as a series of activities – involving problem identification, agenda-setting, formulation, legitimation, implementation, evaluation and feedback. The cyclical model is sufficiently flexible to apply to any major dimension of public policymaking, rather than generating sui generis explanations of electoral reform, while recognizing significant factors common to diverse reform efforts in a wide variety of contexts. It also has the advantage of identifying a more comprehensive range of actors and a broader series of stages than rational choice accounts, which focus only upon the role of partisan interests within the legislature. The model remains agnostic, however, about the precise impact of each type of actor in the policy process.
Does the public set the electoral reform agenda?
What evidence helps us to understand the first step, and how far the public sets the agenda concerning electoral reform? The most effective comparative research design ideally requires evidence about public opinion at t1 across a broad range of independent nation states, as well as subsequent patterns of electoral reform at t2, and any subsequent changes in public attitudes at t3.
The broadest comparative analysis of public opinion is available from the World Values Survey (WVS), a global investigation of socio-cultural and political change carried out from 1981 to 2007. We can use this survey to compare democratic aspirations, measured by support for democratic ideals; democratic performance, measured by the public's perception of the performance of democracy in each country; and institutional confidence, especially trust in parties and parliaments. Attitudes are measured in fifty countries using the 2nd and 3rd waves of the survey conducted in the early to mid-1990s.
Institutional changes are monitored according to changes to the electoral system which occurred in the following decade, from 1993 to 2004, in all countries worldwide, based on classifications contained in successive editions of the International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design. This comparison identifies almost four dozen cases of major changes to electoral systems during this period, for example from First-Past-the-Post (Single Member Plurality) to Party List Proportional Representation, mostly occurring in developing countries and in transitional regimes and electoral democracies. Among these, almost half (21 cases) are in countries contained in the WVS survey.
The key conclusion of the new research is that among all cultural factors, democratic aspirations are the strongest and most significant predictors of the subsequent adoption of electoral reforms. In a series of multivariate regression models, democracy aspirations proved stronger predictors of reform than levels of economic or human development, the historical record of democracy in each country, as well as cultural indictors such as satisfaction with democratic performance and institutional confidence. In particular, where democratic aspirations among the public were high, but the country had a poor record of democratic performance, this combination proved strongly to predict subsequent electoral reforms.
The research shows that the public does indeed play an important role in electoral reform, as cultural theories suggest. In particular, democratic aspirations help to drive institutional changes, even in transitional regimes with a poor record of civil liberties and political rights. The news is encouraging for reform movements and democratic forces around the globe.
For more details, see Pippa Norris. 'Public disaffection and electoral reform: Pressures from below?' Paper for the European Consortium of Political Research Joint Workshops, Lisbon, 14-19 April 2009. Available for download from: www.pippanorris.com under 'What's New?'