The Two Democratic Engines
No one may have told you, and you could have grown up and died, never realizing there are two forms of democracy that are truly different.
All democracies in the world have one of the two kinds of engines
here explained, or they make use of a variation based on both engine. They are:
Winner-Takes-All — which is district voting; and
Representation — which is proportional voting.
A quick way to distinguish between both systems is that in district voting the majority gets all the seats, while in proportional voting the majority gets just the majority of all the seats.
Have a look at the following visualization to get an idea of how the two systems differ:
On the left side, you can see how the outcome is based on just a single winner per district. It is therefore more oppositional because the winner gets all, and both sides will do anything to get the win. Meanwhile on the right side, a round-table becomes visible for Proportional Voting. There, the parties do not need to oppose one another; they need to make clear what they stand for to get their votes.
Let's explain better what the differences
are between these two basic democractic forms in an example where both complete boxes show the overall number of people eligible to vote. In the first example, both democratic versions show that
4 out of 10 people (40%) decided to stay home:
To the left, voting in districts with a single winner means your vote is not directly translated into the outcome; your vote is taken into account of all votes to come to an outcome. Not your individual choice, but the collective of votes decide who your single representative is going to be. The winners in district elections are therefore candidates who
win their seat after they received on average about 60% of the votes. This means that just 36% of ALL eligible voters are getting the representative
of their choice. (For the mathematicians among you, 40% of the voters not getting the one they voted for is (40% of 60% =) 24% of the overall eligible voters.) In the end, only 36% (100% - 40% - 24%) of the entire eligible voting population can point to the person they voted for. And that means that the majority (half plus one) of our representatives equals not much more than a little over 18% of all eligible voters.
On the right, in proportional elections, there is no such internally-constrained mechanism. Truly close to all voters (which in general means between 95.0% and 99.9% percent of the voters, depending on the number of seats in the House) are represented
by their very own choice. So, the majority (the ones holding power) is then about half of them
plus one: and that's about 30% of the total eligible voters. As mentioned,
neither delivery makes a difference between voter turnout;
in both cases only 60% of all eligible voters showed up at the voting
The consluion is that in district voting the ones holding power have a majority reflecting 18%+ of all eligible voters. Yet in proportional voting the ones holding power reflect 30%+ of all eligible voters. In Porportional Voting you get almost twice the Democratic bang for your bucks than in Winner-Takes-All.
Let's have another look at the two deliveries, where to the left below a system of winner-takes-all has a minority of voters not receiving a representative. To the right, all (or close to all) voters received the actual representative.
It is understandable that these visuals and the mathematical numbers can be confusing, especially when the specific figures appear to change when more or when fewer people come out to vote.
The general idea is simple though: In district elections only the winner takes the seat — because a large number of voters does not receive the representative they voted for and many voters end up unrepresented. And that is truly a different outcome for voters in proportional elections, where close to all voters actually get the representative they voted for to fully represent their interests.
Now, let's explain the same two democratic engines from another perspective by looking
at what level 50% of the eligible population is actually represented by their
In district elections it takes 83.33% of all eligible voters coming to the voting booth
to have half of the entire eligible population receive their
(limited) choice of representation. In proportional elections only 50% of
the eligible people need to come out to achieve the same mathematical results.
One aspect that was not addressed (but is mentioned here)
is that nations with district elections tend to have fewer people
showing up to vote for their most important election than people in nations with proportional elections. One good reason to stay home in district elections is the limited choice — you picked the winner or you didn't. And another reason seems easily explained that not receiving the representative you want for several elections in a row can quickly lead to voter fatigue. Why go vote, when you received nothing in the last three elections in a row?
So, one more look at the engines
of the two versions of democracy, with also taking the lower voter turnout for restricted democracies
in consideration. On the left side, the graph displays the
results for the average U.S. Senate election. On the right side,
the graph displays the average election results from Sweden's national assembly.
Averaged Outcomes: US Senate vs. Sweden's National Assembly
Where the U.S. Senate majority has for many years been based on the actual votes of only about 18% of the population that is eligible to vote, in Sweden the majority has for many years been backed up by about 40% of the eligible votes. The direct form of representation in Sweden means no funny games are played to win the single essential seat that is going to decide the overall outcome. In Sweden all voters are equally important. In the United States, only the center positions of the voters need to be won over for one of the two parties to be in control; that's how a warped game of money and spin became the backbone of our system — not having full and direct representation in our system led to a fixation on the center of voters that always decides the outcome who wins the seat.
The engine is an important aspect of the dynamics of political systems, but it is not the only aspect. The Dynamics of Political Systems explains how you as a voter influence (or not-influence) the results in your own nation.
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