Competing Principals? Legislative Representation in List Proportional Representation Systems

The forthcoming article “Competing Principals? Legislative Representation in List Proportional Representation Systems” by Peter Buisseret and Carlo Prato is summarized by the author(s) below.

Over two-thirds of the world’s legislators are elected under list proportional representation (PR). Under closed lists, party leaders control the order in which seats are filled. Under open lists, this order is determined by each candidate’s share of preference votes. The prevailing scholarly wisdom holds that closed list systems encourage cohesive parties, while open list systems promote better representation of local interests.

Many real-world systems, however, combine elements of both: under flexible lists, both a party’s rank assignment and preference votes determine the order in which seats are filled. Our paper conceptualizes list flexibility as a continuum, ranging from the two extremes of closed lists and open lists. Increasing list flexibility—i.e., increasing the relative importance of preference votes for an incumbent’s reelection—transfers electoral control away from party leaders and towards constituency voters.

We develop a new theoretical framework that asks: how does flexibility shape legislators’ incentives to balance the competing interests of their party leaders and their local voters?

We find that higher flexibility may weaken local representation. Higher list flexibility intensifies competition for preference votes, encouraging representatives to demonstrate to their voters that they prioritize local interests over party interests. In an effort to build a reputation, representatives pander by opposing their party’s agenda even when it benefits their local voters. These concerns are more likely to arise in political systems where voters have weak partisan attachments—for example, in contexts where competition is largely personalistic or clientelistic, or in countries with a relatively short experience of democracy.

Our theory identifies a “sweet spot” degree of list flexibility that maximizes the representation of local interests and depends on district magnitude and voters’ ideological heterogeneity and partisanship.

Our analysis also considers how changes in district-level ideological heterogeneity affect party cohesion. The answer depends critically on list flexibility. In high-flexibility contexts, more heterogeneous districts make parties less cohesive. In low-flexibility contexts, they make parties more cohesive.

Finally—and once again contradicting conventional scholarly wisdom—we show that under closed, open and flexible lists, higher district magnitude can reduce the value of cultivating a personal reputation through obstruction. Even when a party’s ranking has no direct consequence for the order in which seats are awarded, district magnitude nonetheless shifts the balance of power from voters towards party leaders.

About the Author(s): Peter Buisseret is assistant professor at Department of Government, Harvard University and Carlo Prato is assistant professor at Department of Political Science, Columbia University. Their research “Competing Principals? Legislative Representation in List Proportional Representation Systems” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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