What’s the difference between open and closed list proportional representation?

Author:
Dylan Difford, guest contributor. This article is part of a series on Dylan's research on elections, party systems and voting methods around the world.

Posted on the 15th November 2021

When discussing proportional voting systems, or voting systems in general, we usually talk about how they allocate seats to political parties. But parliaments are more than parties and it also matters how they decide which individuals are elected and get to become MPs. This is a particularly crucial question with Party List PR systems where there is a clear divide between open and closed systems.

In a List PR election, voters vote for a particular party and its attached list of candidates – usually ordered according to the party’s preferred order of election.

Closed list proportional representation

Under closed list systems, candidates are elected according to their pre-stated position on this list – if a party wins six seats, the first six candidates on that list take the seats. A vote for a particular party is read as an endorsement of their list.

Open list proportional representation

Open list systems, on the other hand, allow voters to cast votes for individual candidates on one party’s list. The exact rules of open lists vary from system to system, but they can usually be classified as either fully- or semi-open. Under fully-open list systems, control over who is elected is entirely in the hands of the voters – the candidates with the most individual votes are elected. But under semi-open systems, candidates are only elected if they cross a set threshold to overrule the party’s ordering. Any remaining seats are awarded as per a closed list election.

Panachage systems

‘Panachage’ systems are also sometimes included alongside open list systems but are really sort of distinct from other Party List PR systems in that voters are given multiple votes for candidates which they can use across party lines.

Party list systems in Europe

Closed lists can be found in a few southern European countries, such as Spain and Portugal, and were previously used to elect British MEPs between 1999 and 2019. But closed lists are more normally found in Party List systems outside of Europe and as part of mixed-member systems, such as those used in Germany, Scotland and Wales. And, despite closed lists being a regular source of criticism of First Past the Post supporters, FPTP itself is effectively a closed list of one – with voters having to accept the candidate the party they support puts forward.

Noted psephologist Professor John Curtice joined us at Conservative Party Conference in 2017 to answer questions about Proportional Representation.

Professor Curtice gets to the bottom of the idea that proportional representation means parties get to pick who gets elected.

Proportional systems like the Single Transferable Vote don't have lists of candidates picked by parties and, conceptually, First Past the Post is a party list of one.

Within Europe, however, semi-open lists are the norm – though the exact thresholds vary from the fairly open systems of Sweden and the Netherlands to the practically closed system of Norway. Fully-open systems are relatively rare – Finland and Latvia being two of the few using it to elect their national parliaments – while panachage is largely the preserve of Luxembourg and Switzerland.

What’s better? Open vs closed list proportional representation

In terms of democratic legitimacy, open lists clearly trump closed lists. A system where voters have a choice over which individuals get to become MPs is undeniably more democratic than a system in which who is elected is determined by their placement on a list created by party leaderships or self-selected party memberships. There will always be a concern that closed lists can be used vindictively to make it harder for internal opponents to get elected, regardless of any personal popularity.

But defenders of closed lists argue that they are simply more practical – claiming that many voters only really care about parties and it is unreasonable to expect them to choose between often fairly long lists of largely unknown candidates from the same party. They point to the fact that in many semi-open systems it is a rarity for any candidate to be elected in spite of their position on a party list, with most voters choosing candidates already at the top of the list. Despite a relatively open system, the Netherlands has never had more than four MPs elected purely because of their individual votes.

However, even if most voters usually choose candidates that would have been elected anyway, does that really invalidate semi-open systems? Supporters would argue that of course list leaders are nearly always the most popular candidates, that is why they have been placed at the top of the list! Surely it is preferable for voters to have a choice to overrule their party, even if they use such an ability sparingly, they would argue.

But while open list and panachage systems can almost reach the level of voter power of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) – the ERS’ preferred electoral system – they still fall a little short. While they allow MPs to win seats on their own merits, the preferential nature of STV combines the voter control of a totally open list with the ability to still be represented if their first choice isn’t able to win a seat.

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