Proportional representation

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Proportional Representation

Proportional representation (PR) is an electoral mechanism designed to ensure that the distribution of votes between various interests in an election to a collective body is reflected proportionally in the distribution of seats on that body. In its typical form, in continental Europe "list" systems, it ensures that the share of votes cast for party lists in elections is fairly accurately translated into share of seats.

Under the less common "single transferable vote" (STV) system of PR, voters rank candidates (in practice, party is the most important consideration, but other criteria such as region or gender may also count). These preference votes are then converted into seats on the basis of an electoral quota; "surplus" votes of candidates reaching this quota are redistributed according to lower preferences, and less popular candidates are progressively eliminated and their lower preferences are redistributed until all vacancies have been filled.

The STV form of PR has been the "normal" one in English-speaking countries. First implemented in Tasmania in 1896, it was introduced for local elections in Ireland in 1919 and for elections to the parliaments of Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland in 1920. Election of the Dáil by PR has been a constitutional requirement since 1922 (the 1937 constitution specifies that the STV system be used). Notwithstanding efforts to replace it with the U.K.- and U.S.-style plurality system in 1959 and 1968, this system has survived in the Republic of Ireland. It is also used in elections to the senate, in local elections, and in Irish elections to the European parliament.

In Northern Ireland, PR was abolished for local elections in 1922 and for domestic parliamentary elections in 1929. The reinstituted plurality system helped to preserve unionist hegemony, and when Northern Ireland's institutions were reformed following the outbreak of civil unrest, PR was brought back in 1973 for elections to local authorities and to the Northern Ireland assembly and its successors (apart from the Forum elected in 1996, when a modified "list" system was used).

The primary reason for the introduction of PR in Ireland was to ensure minority representation. One alleged side effect of the STV form is that it promotes intraparty divisions and, by placing a premium on electoral competition within rather than between parties, encourages clientelist politics, with candidates offering to do favors for constituents rather than engaging with issues of national policy; evidence on this issue is inconclusive. A second criticism of PR is that it inhibits strong government by promoting a multiparty system; but its defenders argue that non-PR systems violate basic principles of electoral justice. Since the political stakes are high, this debate is likely to continue.

SEE ALSO Northern Ireland: History since 1920; Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922


Bogdanor, Vernon. What Is Proportional Representation? 1984.

Sinnott, Richard. "The Electoral System." In Politics in the Republic of Ireland, edited by John Coakley and Michael Gallagher. 1999.

John Coakley

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PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION is an electoral device that seeks to make a representative body a faithful image of its electorate. Ideally, the system gives legislative voting strength proportionate to the electoral strength of every shade of societal opinion. Technically, proportional representation is achieved by devising a quota that determines the minimum number of votes required for election. The number of seats a party wins is the number of votes it receives divided by the quota. The simplest quota is the Hare quota, which is found by dividing the total number of votes cast by the number of seats to be filled. Such elections are usually at large or employ multimember districts. The greater the number of seats to be filled, the greater proportionality of representation possible.

Proportional representation dates at least to the French Revolution. Although it is the most common method of election in the Western democracies, the use of proportional representation in the United States has been rare. It has been tried by several cities, notably Cincinnati, Ohio; Boulder, Colorado; and New York City. Debate over the use of proportional representation has focused on the consequences of the system—especially instability of governments—rather than on its inherent logic or principle. Proponents argue that proportional representation prevents excessive centralization of government, strengthens parties by making candidates more dependent on them, and increases voter interest and participation in elections. Opponents contend that the system vitiates democracy on the interparty and intraparty levels.


Barber, Kathleen L. Proportional Representation and Election Reform in Ohio. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1995.

David, Paul T., and James W. Ceasar. Proportional Representation in Presidential Nominating Politics. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

Robert B.Kvavik/t. g.

See alsoApportionment ; Caucus ; Gerrymander ; Majority Rule ; Republic .

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proportional representation (PR) System of electoral representation in which the allocation of seats reflects the proportion of the vote commanded by each candidate or party. In the single transferable vote system, an elector ranks candidates in order of preference. In the list system, an elector votes for a party's entire list of candidates; the number of seats allocated to a party is determined by the number of votes for its list. The main contrast is with a majoritarian system in which representatives are elected for each of numerous single constituencies. Supporters of PR argue that it delivers more representative democracy. Critics contend that it tends to produce coalition governments, and destroys the bond between representatives and constituents. In the UK, PR was first used in elections to the devolved Scottish Assembly and the European Parliament (EP) in 1999.