It is conventional political science wisdom that electoral systems have political consequences. In order to systematically examine these consequences, we focus on the effects of electoral reforms in Central and Eastern European democracies. By analysing the consequences of electoral system changes for party systems and disproportionality, we make use of a quasi-experimental approach by isolating a single treatment – the electoral law change – and controlling for all other variables. Along the lines of classical electoral research, we argue that the introduction of more permissive rules will result in an increase of electoral and legislative fragmentation and a reduction of disproportionality while more restrictive rules will have the opposite effects. The article’s genuine contribution to the debate in the field of electoral research is the introduction of a dynamic perspective. Once we clearly distinguish between mechanical and psychological consequences of electoral systems and analyse them simultaneously, we can develop different hypotheses on the temporal patterning of these effects and hypothesise on the variations of electoral rule change effects over time. While mechanical effects set in immediately and quickly wear off, psychological effects, which are based on learning processes and strategic coordination, develop over time.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Andrews, J.T. and Jackman, R.W. (2004) Strategic fools: Electoral rule choice under extreme uncertainty. Electoral Studies 24(1): 65–84.
Ashworth, T.R. and Ashworth, H.P.C. (1901) Proportional Representation Applied to Party Government. A New Electoral System. London: Swan Sonnenschein.
Banducci, S.A., Donovan, T. and Karp, J.A. (1999) Proportional representation and attitudes about politics: Results from New Zealand. Electoral Studies 18(4): 533–555.
Barker, F., Boston, J., Levine, S., McLeay, E. and Roberts, N.S. (2003) An initial assessment of the consequences of MMP in New Zealand. In: M.S. Shugart and M.P. Wattenberg (eds.) Mixed-Member Electoral Systems. The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 297–322.
Bartolini, S. and D’Alimonte, R. (1996) Plurality competition and party realignment in Italy: The 1994 parliamentary elections. European Journal of Political Research 29(1): 105–142.
Benoit, K. (2002) The endogeneity problem in electoral studies: A critical re-examination of Duverger’s mechanical effect. Electoral Studies 21(1): 35–46.
Benoit, K. (2004) Models of electoral system change. Electoral Studies 23(3): 363–389.
Benoit, K. (2007) Electoral laws as political consequences: Explaining the origins and changes of electoral institutions. Annual Review of Political Science 10: 363–390.
Best, R.E. (2012) The long and the short of it: Electoral institutions and the dynamics of party system size, 1950–2005. European Journal of Political Research 51(2): 141–165.
Birch, S., Millard, F., Popescu, M. and Williams, K. (2002) Embodying Democracy. Electoral System Design in Post-Communist Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Blais, A. and Bodet, M.A. (2006) How do voters form expectations about the parties’ chances of winning the election? Social Science Quarterly 87(3): 477–493.
Blais, A. and Carty, R.K. (1991) The psychological impact of electoral laws: Measuring Duverger’s elusive factor. British Journal of Political Science 93: 203–224.
Blais, A, Gidengil, E., Fournier, P., Nevitte, N. and Hicks, B.M. (2008) Measuring expectations: Comparing alternative approaches. Electoral Studies 27(2): 337–343.
Blais, A, Lachat, R., Hino, A. and Doray-Demers, P. (2011) The mechanical and psychological effects of electoral systems. Comparative Political Studies 44(12): 1599–1621.
Blais, A. and Turgeon, M. (2004) How good are voters at sorting out the weakest candidate in their constituency? Electoral Studies 23(3): 455–461.
Boix, C. (1999) Setting the rules of the game: The choice of electoral systems in advanced democracies. American Political Science Review 93(3): 609–624.
Bowler, S. and Donovan, T. (2013) The Limits of Electoral Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brechtel, T. and Kaiser, A. (1999) Party system and coalition formation in post-reform New Zealand. Political Science 51(1): 3–26.
Clark, W.R. and Golder, M. (2006) Rehabilitating Duverger’s theory: Testing the mechanical and strategic modifying effects of electoral laws. Comparative Political Studies 39(6): 679–708.
Colomer, J.M. (2004) The strategy and history of electoral system choice. In: J.M. Colomer (ed.) Handbook of Electoral System Choice. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 3–78.
Colomer, J.M. (2005) It’s parties that choose electoral systems (or, Duverger’s laws upside down). Political Studies 53(1): 1–21.
Coppedge, M. (1997) District magnitude, economic performance, and party-system fragmentation in five Latin American countries. Comparative Political Studies 30(2): 156–185.
Cox, G.W. (1997) Making Votes Count. Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
D’Alimonte, R. (2003) Mixed electoral rules, partisan realignment, and party system change in Italy. In: M.S. Shugart and M.P. Wattenberg (eds.) Mixed-Member Electoral Systems. The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 323–350.
D’Alimonte, R. and Bartolini, S. (1997) ‘Electoral transition’ and party system change in Italy. West European Politics 20(1): 110–134.
Döring, H. and Manow, P. (2012) Parliament and Government Composition Database (ParlGov): An Infrastructure for Empirical Information on Parties, Elections and Governments in Modern Democracies, Version 12/10, 15 October 2012, http://www.parlgov.org/.
Duch, R.M. and Palmer, H.D. (2002) Strategic voting in post-communist democracy? British Journal of Political Science 32(1): 63–91.
Duverger, M. (1951) Les partis politiques. Paris: Armand Colin.
Eckstein, H. (1963) The impact of electoral systems on representative government. In: H. Eckstein and D. Apter (eds.) Comparative Politics. A Reader. New York: Free Press, pp. 247–254.
Farrell, D.M. (2011) Electoral Systems. A Comparative Introduction, 2nd ed. Houndmills: Palgrave.
Finer, H. (1935) The Case Against Proportional Representation, 2nd ed. London: Fabian Society.
Fiva, J.H. and Folke, O. (2016) Mechanical and psychological effects of electoral reform. British Journal of Political Science 46(2): 265–279.
Friedrich, C.J. (1937) Constitutional Government and Politics. Nature and Development. New York: Harper & Bros.
Gallagher, M. (1991) Proportionality, disproportionality and electoral systems. Electoral Studies 10(1): 33–51.
Gallagher, M. (1998) The political impact of electoral system change in Japan and New Zealand, 1996. Party Politics 4(2): 203–228.
Gallagher, M. and Mitchell, P. (eds.) (2005) The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Giannetti, D. and Grofman, B. (2011) A Natural Experiment on Electoral Law Reform. Evaluating the Long Run Consequences of 1990s Electoral Reform in Italy and Japan. New York: Springer.
Grumm, J.G. (1958) Theories of electoral systems. Midwest Journal of Political Science 2(4): 357–376.
Harfst, P. (2007) Wahlsystemwandel in Mittelosteuropa: Strategisches Design einer politischen Institution. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.
Harfst, P. (2013) Changing the rules of the game: Determinants of successful electoral system change in Central and Eastern Europe. International Political Science Review 34(4): 427–443.
Hermens, F.A. (1933) Demokratie und Wahlrecht. Eine wahlrechtssoziologische Untersuchung zur Krise der parlamentarischen Regierungsbildung. Paderborn: Schöningh.
Hermens, F.A. (1941) Democracy or Anarchy? A Study of Proportional Representation. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame.
Horiuchi, Y. and Saito, J. (2003) Reapportionment and redistribution: Consequences of electoral reform in Japan. American Journal of Political Science 47(4): 669–682.
Iversen, T. and Soskice, D. (2006) Electoral institutions and the politics of coalitions: Why some democracies redistribute more than others. American Political Science Review 100(2): 165–181.
Jesse, E. (1985) Wahlrecht zwischen Kontinuität und Reform: Eine Analyse der Wahlsystemdiskussion und der Wahlrechtsänderungen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1949–1983. Düsseldorf: Droste.
Johnston, R.J. and Pattie, C.J. (2002) Campaigning and split-ticket voting in new electoral systems: The first MMP elections in New Zealand, Scotland and Wales. Electoral Studies 21(4): 583–600.
Jou, W. (2010) Toward a two-party system or two party systems? Party Politics 16(3): 370–393.
Karp, J.A. and Banducci, S.A. (1999) The impact of proportional representation on turnout: Evidence from New Zealand. Australian Journal of Political Science 34(3): 363–377.
Katz, R.S. (1980) A Theory of Parties and Electoral Systems. Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Katz, R.S. (1996) Electoral reform and the transformation of party politics in Italy. Party Politics 2(1): 31–53.
Katz, R.S. (2005) Why are there so many (or so few) electoral reforms? In: M. Gallagher and P. Mitchell (eds.) The Politics of Electoral Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 57–76.
Laakso, M. and Taagepera, R. (1979) ‘Effective’ number of parties. A measure with application to West Europe. Comparative Political Studies 12(1): 2–27.
Lachat, R., Blais, A. and Lago, I. (2015) Assessing the mechanical and psychological effects of district magnitude. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties: 1–16.
Levine, R. (2007) Sources of bias in voter expectations under proportional representation. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties 17(3): 215–234.
Lijphart, A. (1994) Electoral Systems and Party Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lijphart, A. (1999) Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.
Lipson, L. (1959) Party systems in the United Kingdom and the older Commonwealth: Causes, resemblances, and variations. Political Studies 7(1): 12–31.
Lundell, K. (2010) The Origin of Electoral Systems in the Post-war Era. A Worldwide Approach. London: Routledge.
McKean, M. and Scheiner, E. (2000) Japan’s new electoral system: la plus ça change. Electoral Studies 19(4): 447–477.
Meffert, M.F., Huber, S., Gschwend, T. and Pappi, F.U. (2011) More than wishful thinking: Causes and consequences of voters’ electoral expectations about parties and coalitions. Electoral Studies 30(4): 804–815.
Morlino, L. (1996) Crisis of parties and change of party system in Italy. Party Politics 2(1): 5–30.
Nagel, J. (1994) What political scientists can learn from the 1993 electoral reform in New Zealand. PS: Political Science and Politics 27(3): 525–529.
Neto, O.A. and Cox, G.W. (1997) Electoral institutions, cleavage structures, and the number of parties. American Journal of Political Science 41(1): 149–174.
Nohlen, D. (1984) Changes and choices in electoral systems. In: A. Lijphart and B.N. Grofman (eds.) Choosing an Electoral System: Issues and Alternatives. New York: Praeger, pp. 217–224.
Nohlen, D. and Kasapovic, M. (1996) Wahlsysteme und Systemwechsel in Osteuropa: Genese, Auswirkungen und Reform politischer Institutionen. Opladen: Leske + Budrich.
Norris, P. (2004) Electoral Engineering. Voting Rules and Electoral Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O’Donnell, G. and Schmitter, P.C. (1986) Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ordeshook, P.C. and Shvetsova, O.V. (1994) Ethnic heterogeneity, district magnitude, and the number of parties. American Journal of Political Science 38(1): 100–123.
Park, C.H. (2001) Factional dynamics in Japan’s LDP since political reform. Asian Survey 41: 429–461.
Pilet, J.-B. and Bol, D. (2011) Party preferences and electoral reform: How time in government affects the likelihood of supporting electoral change. West European Politics 34(3): 568–586.
Rae, D.W. (1967) The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws, Revised ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Reed, S.R. and Thies, M.F. (2003) The consequences of electoral reform in Japan. In: M.S. Shugart and M.P. Wattenberg (eds.) Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 380–403.
Remmer, K.L. (2008) The politics of institutional change: Electoral reform in Latin America, 1978-2002. Party Politics 14(1): 5–30.
Renwick, A. (2010) The Politics of Electoral Reform. Changing the Rules of the Game. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Riker, W.H. (1982) The two-party system and Duverger’s law: An essay on the history of political science. American Political Science Review 76(4): 753–766.
Rustow, D.A. (1950) Some observations on proportional representation. Journal of Politics 12(1): 107–127.
Sakamoto, T. (1999) Explaining electoral reform: Japan versus Italy and New Zealand. Party Politics 5(4): 419–438.
Scheiner, E. (2008) Does electoral system reform work? Electoral system lessons from reforms of the 1990s. Annual Review of Political Science 11(1): 161–181.
Selb, P. and Pituctin, S. (2010) Methodological issues in the study of new parties’ entry and electoral success. Party Politics 16(2): 147–170.
Shamir, M. (1985) Changes in electoral systems as ‘interventions’: Another test of Duverger’s hypothesis. European Journal of Political Research 13(1): 1–10.
Shugart, M.S. (2003) “Extreme” electoral systems and the appeal of the mixed-member alternative. In: M.S. Shugart and M.P. Wattenberg (eds.) Mixed-Member Electoral Systems. The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 25–51.
Shugart, M.S. and Wattenberg, M.P. (eds.) (2003) Mixed-Member Electoral Systems. The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taagepera, R. (1998a) Effective magnitude and effective threshold. Electoral Studies 17(4): 393–404.
Taagepera, R. (1998b) Nationwide inclusion and exclusion thresholds of representation. Electoral Studies 17(4): 404–417.
Taagepera, R. (2002) Nationwide threshold of representation. Electoral Studies 21: 383–401.
Taagepera, R. and Shugart, M.S. (1989) Seats and Votes. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.
Tavits, M. and Annus, T. (2006) Learning to make votes count: The role of democratic experience. Electoral Studies 25(1): 72–90.
Vowles, J. (2010) Electoral system change, generations, competitiveness and turnout in New Zealand, 1963-2005. British Journal of Political Science 40(4): 875–895.
Research for this article has been supported by a travel grant of Fritz Thyssen Foundation (Az. 50.13.0.003) and a research stay at Sciences Po Paris, Centre for European Studies and LIEPP. I thank the two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments, the members of the Canada Research Chair in Electoral Studies at Université de Montréal for fruitful discussions of earlier versions of this article and Jessia Flanke (Sciences Po Paris, LIEPP) for language editing.
About this article
Cite this article
Harfst, P. The political consequences of changes in district magnitude. Acta Polit 52, 406–427 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41269-016-0022-0
- electoral institutions
- electoral reform
- party systems
- mechanical and psychological effects
- temporal patternings