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Citizens’ preferences about voting rules: self-interest, ideology, and sincerity


This paper studies the determinants of citizens’ preferences for different electoral systems. We use data collected through a large internet-based quasi-experiment carried out during the 2012 French presidential election where we invited subjects to cast a vote for real candidates according to four voting rules: two-round (the official system), one-round, the alternative vote, and approval voting. After voting with each of the four voting rules, subjects were also asked to report which system they liked the most. We find that voters prefer systems that are beneficial to the candidate they prefer, that their preference for the official two-round system (weakly) depends on how they actually vote under this system, and that right-wing voters are more supportive of voting rules under which one can vote for only one candidate (one-round and two-round).

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  1. For instance, Bowler et al. (2006) conducted a survey of national politicians (both candidates and MPs) at the time of general elections in Australia, the Netherlands and New Zealand, in order to explore their preferences for different electoral institutions. They show that self-interest (whether a politician and his/her party won the election or not) is a key determinant of whether he/she would approve an electoral reform in his/her country. However, they also find that “there are sizeable independent effects of values and ideology” (Bowler et al. 2006, p. 443), as right-wing politicians are more supportive of the status quo, and less supportive of direct democracy.

  2. Note that Weber (2014) uses a laboratory experiment to study subjects’ preferences for different apportionment rules behind the veil of ignorance.

  3. A one round (plurality) system is one in which the candidate with the most votes is elected. A two round system is one in which in which a majority of the votes is required in the first round in order to be elected; if no candidate obtains a majority, there is a second round in which only the two candidates with the most votes in the first round participate. The alternative vote (sometimes called preferential voting) is one in which voters rank order the candidates from their first to last choice. In a first step, only first preferences are counted and a majority of first preferences is required in order to be elected. If no candidate is elected, the weakest candidate is eliminated and the second preferences of those who supported that candidate are taken into account. This process of elimination goes on until one candidate obtains a majority of first or lower preferences. Approval voting is a system in which voters indicate all the candidates that they approve; the candidate with the most votes (approvals) is elected. For a more detailed presentation see Blais and Shugart (2008).

  4. See the Institute for democratic and electoral assistance (

  5. As explained on the website, under approval voting, subjects indicate if they approve each of the candidate. The candidate who is approved by the largest number of subjects is elected.

  6. Note that similar to Aldrich et al. (2014), our definition of citizens’ self-interest does not relate to their preferences over candidates, but to their preferences over voting rules.

  7. For direct evidence pointing into that direction, see Karp (2006). For indirect evidence that French voters have a good understanding of the status quo, one might refer to the substantial amount of strategic voting under this system, as documented, for example, by Blais (2002).

  8. We did not give any information or feedback about the potential electoral outcomes under the different rules when the subjects participated in the mock elections (the results were only made public after the second round of the election; see Sect. 3 for a complete description of the protocol). By contrast, many polls were available regarding the outcome of the two-round system.

  9. These are: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

  10. Note that this left-wing bias in favor of new electoral systems would be consistent with the finding by Aldrich et al. (2014) that Democrats are more likely to support reforms.

  11. Fournier et al. (2011) identify the notion of ‘voter choice’ as one of the key values that were used by citizens to evaluate voting rules in citizen assemblies. This notion refers to the possibility for voters to have a say in the electoral process. They observe that citizens who value the notion of voter choice highly like the possibilities offered by the alternative vote to rank all of the candidates, or by mixed member systems to cast two votes.

  12. For more detailed information about the protocol and the electoral scores of the candidates under the four voting systems, see Van der Straeten et al. (2013).

  13. The website is still active and open to the public. The interested reader can browse through the information sections, and take part in the experimental votes.

  14. A similar internet-based quasi-experiment was conducted at the time of the 2011 election in the province of Ontario, Canada, by Blais et al. (2012), to study the effects of three voting systems: first past the post, alternative voting and proportional representation.

  15. In the questionnaire, subjects were asked to answer the following question: “Do you have the right to vote in the 2012 French presidential election?” Among the 10,621 respondents who did cast their vote under each of the four rules, 2277 did not answer this question about the right to vote, 158 answered that they did not have the right to vote because they were not French citizens, and 142 answered that they were French citizens but did not have the right to vote (over half of them because they were below the legal age requirement, 18 years).

  16. Recall that the data were collected before the first round of the election.

  17. As noted in the previous paragraph, this number in the official election is 52 %, indicating that even after weighting the observations to match first-round votes a still exists bias in favor of the left in the sample.

  18. The approval scores in Table 1 are the percentages of voters who approve each of the candidates; therefore they do not sum up to 100.

  19. Those 8044 respondents constitute the sample used in Van der Straeten et al. (2013).

  20. Eva Joly, the green candidate, received only 2 % of the votes in the official election, but since many participants in our sample report having her as their preferred candidate, we kept her in the analysis.

  21. We coded as left-wing the respondents reporting preferring Europe écologie les verts (EELV), front de gauche (FDG), lutte ouvrière (LO), nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA), parti socialiste (PS), and solidarité et progrès (S&P), as center the respondents reporting preferring the mouvement démocrate (MODEM), and as right the respondents reporting preferring debout la république (DLR), front national (FN), and union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP).

  22. The summary statistics are based on weighted data. Regarding the distribution of socio-demographic variables in our sample, we observe an under-representation of females and an over-representation of highly educated participants.

  23. The model is estimated by maximum likelihood, where sampling weights are applied to each observation.

  24. A multinomial logit model assumes that the property of independence of irrelevant alternatives holds. We performed a Hausman test, which failed to reject the null hypothesis.

  25. We present results based only on a dichotomous variable: right-wing preferred party versus others We explored other specifications of the model, where we used either a three-category (left, center, right), or a five-category variable (extreme-left, moderate left, center, moderate right, extreme right). When estimating the model with the five-category variable, we found no statistical difference between moderate right and extreme right voters. Besides, a Wald test rejected the equality of the marginal effects between extreme left and moderate left on the probability of preferring the 1R system (p value = 0.0059), but for all the other options the equality of the marginal effects between extreme left and moderate left was not rejected (p-value > 0.10). For all of the options the equality of the marginal effects between moderate left and center was not rejected (p-value > 0.10). These results suggest that the main difference is between right-wing voters and all others. We chose to present this most parsimonious model.


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We thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for financial support, Damien Bol and Laura Stephenson for comments on previous drafts, and Henry Milner for careful editing.

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Correspondence to André Blais.

Appendix: A short description of the candidates

Appendix: A short description of the candidates

François Hollande (parti socialiste) was the main challenger to the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, and likely winner (after a runoff) according to the polls.

Nicolas Sarkozy (union pour la majorité présidentielle), a moderate conservative, was the incumbent. According to the pre-election polls Sarkozy was very likely to go to the runoff.

Marine Le Pen (front national), extreme right. According to the polls, she was ranked third, and it would have been a big surprise if she had made it to the second round.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon (front de gauche) led a coalition of extreme left parties. According to the polls it was close to impossible for Mélenchon to go to the runoff.

François Bayrou (mouvement pour la démocratie). This centrist candidate tried to maintain an independent position between the Left and the Right. According to the polls he had no chance of being one of the top two candidates.

Eva Joly (Europe écologie les verts). The Green candidate was allied with the socialist party and had signed an agreement for the legislative elections. She had little support in the polls.

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan is a dissident from the union pour la majorité présidentielle. He had no chance to go to the runoff.

Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud were two Trotskyist candidates, and Jacques Cheminade was an autonomous candidate. These last four candidates obtained very few votes.

See Appendix Tables 6, 7 and 8.

Table 8 Multinomial logit results (marginal effects): support for the different voting rules (unweighted sample)

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Blais, A., Laslier, JF., Poinas, F. et al. Citizens’ preferences about voting rules: self-interest, ideology, and sincerity. Public Choice 164, 423–442 (2015).

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  • Electoral system
  • Quasi-experiment
  • Citizens’ preferences