21 February, 2010

Electoral Reform in Ireland – Part 3: The magic of mixed-member systems

In the last post I made a case for electoral reform in Ireland, but then argued that a number of electoral systems people sometimes talk about moving to are a bit problematic. Astute readers may have noticed that I omitted any discussion of mixed-member systems, the subject of today's post.

Mixed-member systems are so called because they mix up how parliamentarians are elected, typically electing some of the MPs in local constituencies and some nationally by list. Germany is the great mixed-member poster child, with its adoption of the system in the Federal Republic's Basic Law often seen as one of the things that embedded democracy in (West) Germany after the Second World War. Germany elects half its MPs in constituencies, using Westminster-style plurality voting. The other half is elected from closed national lists. The list seats are allocated so as to ensure the overall proportionality of the Bundestag. There is also the 5% threshold – if a party wins less than 5% of the list vote then it wins no list seats.

The German Federal Republic has proved to be a rather successful country, especially given the travails it experienced under previous regimes. This means that people are always talking about borrowing aspects of its institutional setup. Advocates of electoral reform often talk about introducing mixed-member systems in their country. The advantages of the system are seen as being that it allows people to keep voting for a local representative while ensuring a proportional overall result. In Ireland's case, the list side of the election offers the possibility of voters' minds being focussed on national issues, while letting them continue to vote for individual politicians.

As it happens, a move to a mixed-member system here was considered not too long ago. Following a 1996 report by the Constitution Review Group that suggested mixed-member systems were worth looking at, an Oireachtas Committee commissioned further research on the issue, bringing forth a report in 2002. The research was not particularly favourable. Looking at how an exact replica of the German system in Ireland would operate, the report found that it would produce a very skewed allocation of seats between list and constituency members – basically, Fianna Fáil would win all (or almost all) of the constituency seats, with almost all of the list seats then going to the other parties*. The committee recommended against adopting a mixed-member system.

So is that it for mixed-member systems? Come back next time for the FINAL EPISODE and see.

*This was based on the relative levels of party support then applying. Fianna Fáil's support is currently much lower, and if a general election were to be conducted right now using the German system then it might not produce such a skewed result.

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