Núñez, L., Simón, P. and J.-B. Pilet (2017): "Electoral volatility and the dynamics of electoral reform". West European Politics, 40 (2). DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2016.1193800
Analyzing determinants of electoral system change, the authors argue that politicians have an incentive to alter the rules of the game in the light of increasing voter volatility towards existing parties and towards new challenging parties. To test this main argument, Núñez et al. (2017) study electoral system changes in 25 European countries between 1945 and 2012. Employing a broad definition, they consider modifications of five dimensions of electoral systems: district magnitude, the number of districts, electoral formula, assembly size and thresholds. Their binary panel logistic regressions reveal that threat of new parties, which had not received votes in the previous election, indeed fosters the likelihood of electoral reforms. In contrast, voter volatility - measured as votes that go to new parties as well as to parties within the system - does not unfold a clear effect. In line with their expectations but contrary to previous studies, they demonstrate that when threatened by new parties, reformers tend to reduce the electoral system’s inclusiveness, in order to moderate the competitiveness of new parties. Hence, challenged parties will try to restrain their opponents by introducing a less proportional formula, reducing the assembly size, number of districts or district size, or by increasing legal thresholds.
I find the authors rationale that parties, which experience increasing competition, strive for more exclusive electoral reforms convincing, but wonder why it deviates from the findings of earlier studies. In my opinion, the diverging results might, to some degree, stem from the authors’ coding of the dependent variable: Electoral reform. While major changes are certainly disputed political decisions, minor adjustments such as changes in district magnitude might be decided upon during an administrative rather than political process. Finland or Portugal, for instance, adapts district magnitude of regional constituencies regularly according to population changes. Hence, if these cases are currently included, I would like to see whether a robustness check, that excludes those administratively necessary adaptions, produce similar results or whether the number of observations might be inflated.
Author: Sarah C. Dingler in February 2017