POLI 426   Electoral Systems and Representation

This course has not been taught recently, and it is not clear when it will next be offered.   The information below was prepared for a Spring 2002 offering as an Honors College course, which was cancelled due to insufficient enrollment.

        Americans tend to believe that the cure for many political problems is to conduct more elections, but at the same time most Americans remain largely unaware of the great variety of alternative democratic electoral methods.  At the same time, because abstract electoral system are amenable to logical analysis and the working of actual systems are amenable to statistical analysis, this is an area in which political science is relatively advanced and political scientists can offer real expertise.  But because no "ideal" electoral system exists and tradeoffs must always be made among competing values and considerations, it is an area of study that exhibits substantial and continuing disagreement and argument.

        The first section of the course will examine "single-winner elections" (e.g., the election of executives and the election of legislators from single-member districts).  We will focus on such problems as "wasted votes" and "spoiler effects" (e.g., Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan in the 2000 election) under simple plurality voting, as well as some aspects of the Electoral College and proposals to reform or abolish it, "double ballot" elections, proposed "instant runoff" elections, "approval voting," "Borda count" voting, etc.

        The second section of the course will examine the allocation of legislative seats to political parties (and demographic groups) resulting from many single-member district elections.  We will examine the effects of district sizes and boundaries, "Duverger's Law," the "cube law," "manufactured majorities," the role of the U.S. Census, apportionment methods, gerrymandering, the U.S. Voting Rights Act, "majority-minority" districts, Shaw v. Reno and subsequent Supreme Court cases, etc.

        The third section of the course will examine alternative (proportional, quasi-proportional, and hybrid) electoral systems for filling seats in legislatures used around the world, including cumulative voting, the single nontransferable vote, the single transferable vote, the many variants of party list proportional representation, and various hybrid systems.

        The final section of the course will evaluate alternative electoral systems in terms of different criteria and review the debates that have taken place in countries that have recently changed their electoral systems (in particular, Italy, Japan, New Zealand) or are giving serious consideration to doing so (in particular, Britain).

        Students will complete (individual or collaborative) research projects.  One such project might be to design an electoral system that might revitalize student government at UMBC.

Basic reading for the course will probably include the following:

Douglas Amy, Real Choices, New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the U.S. (Columbia University Press, 1993)

Michael Dummett, Principles of Electoral Reform (Oxford University Press, 1997)

David Butler and Bruce Cain, Congressional Districting: Comparative and Theoretical Perspectives (Macmillan, 992)

Mark E. Rush and Richard L. Engstrom eds., Fair and Effective Representation? Debating Electoral Reform and Minority Rights (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

The following material is from the last offering of POLI 426 in Spring 1997



Guidelines for Research Project