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The Paradox of Proportional Representation: The Effect of Party Systems and Coalitions on Individuals’ Electoral Participation

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Empirical findings based on aggregate data have found that proportional representation (PR) has a mixed relationship with electoral participation. Large party systems, thought to be one of the benefits of PR in increasing turnout, instead depress turnout. This article examines two theories that seek to account for this paradox – that coalition governments resulting from larger party systems serve to depress turnout, and that larger party systems increase the complexity of the decision environment for voters. By combining individual-level data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems with contextual measures of effective number of parties, coalition structure and disproportionality, this article tests for interactions between the characteristics and attitudes of individuals and the contextual influences on electoral participation. The frequency of coalitions that violate the minimal-winning rule depresses turnout, especially among supporters of major parties. By accounting for variations in coalition governments, larger party systems appear, on balance, to enhance, rather than depress, individuals’ propensity to vote. Limited evidence is reported that indicates that this participation-enhancing role of larger party systems is not evenly distributed across the electorate, as those lacking a university degree may find the decision environment created by larger party systems more complex.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Plymouth

Publication date: October 1, 2004

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