Of the 43 countries most often considered to be within Europe, 40 use some form of proportional representation to elect their MPs.
The UK stands almost alone in Europe in using a ‘one-person-takes-all’ disproportionate voting system. If we exclude the authoritarian state of Belarus – “Europe’s only remaining outpost of tyranny” – France is the only other European country to use a ‘one-person-takes-all’ system (the Two-Round System).
Proportional voting systems used for national elections in Europe
|Type of PR or Mixed Voting System
||Countries in which it is used
|Party List Proportional Representation
||31 – Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Moldova, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland
|Single Transferable Vote
Ireland and Malta
|Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP; also known as Additional Member System)
||2 – Germany and Hungary
|Parallel voting/Mixed system
||5 – Andorra, Italy, Lithuania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Ukraine
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union, Parline Database, https://data.ipu.org/
What type of proportional system do European countries use?
Party List PR
Party List proportional representation is the most widely used form of PR in Europe – 31 countries use it to elect their MPs.
In Party List systems, constituencies are bigger than under First Past the Post and voters elect a group of MPs, rather than a single person. In this system, voters get MPs roughly in proportion to how many people voted for each party.
Party List systems differ in the extent to which citizens can choose which individuals get elected. In ‘closed’ list systems, parties decide who their candidates are and voters can only mark their support for a party (some point out that first past the post is a closed party list of one) Parties decide which candidates fill the seats they have won in the election.
In ‘open’ list systems, each party presents a list of candidates, and citizens can choose which candidate to vote for (or – in some systems – they can choose to vote just for the party if they want). A vote for a candidate is counted as a vote for that candidate’s party.
Semi-open list systems are a mix of the above: voters have more choice in who they can vote for, but – generally – parties can decide the order in which candidates are elected.
Single Transferable Vote
Ireland and Malta use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) to elect their representatives.
As with Party Lists, voters elect a small group of representatives in bigger areas, like a small city or county, as opposed to a single MP in small constituencies as we do in Westminster.
STV gives voters maximum choice on who to vote for. Each elector has one vote. Voters number candidates in order of preference, with a number 1 for their favourite – they can rank all candidates or just vote for their preferred candidate.
To get elected, a candidate needs to reach a set amount of votes. This quota based on the number of seats to be filled and the number of votes cast (read our explanation to find out more about how votes are counted).
If your favourite candidate already has enough votes to win or stands no chance of winning, your vote is transferred to your next choice based on how you ranked candidates.
Under STV, voters can choose between candidates from the same or different parties, which incentivises parties to stand candidates who reflect the diversity of society. Electors can also vote for independent candidates, without worrying about ‘wasting’ their vote.
Mixed Member Proportional Representation
Of the seven countries that use a mixed system, two – Germany and Hungary – elect their representatives with Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP), which is also known as the Additional Member System (AMS) in the UK.
MMP is a mix of Westminster’s First Past the Post system and Party List PR – the goal is to provide a proportional parliament but also keep a single local MP. Both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly use this system.
Voters have two ballot papers. On the first is a list of candidates who want to be the local MP. Like a Westminster election, the voter marks their preferred candidate with a cross and the candidate with the most votes wins and gets a seat, even if most people didn’t vote for them.
On the second ballot paper is a list of parties who want seats in parliament. Each party publishes a list of candidates for these elections, a vote for a party is a vote to make more of their list of candidates into MPs. Seats are allocated in proportion to the votes a party received in the election, also taking into account how many ‘first vote’ seats they obtained. Recent reforms in Hungary have made their system considerably less proportional though, while there are calls to increase the number of ‘list’ seats in Wales to make the results fairer and more proportional.
The remaining five countries (Andorra, Italy, Lithuania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the Ukraine) combine a number of voting systems – mainly First Past the Post and List PR. These tend to be less proportional as the distribution of the List PR seats doesn’t take the first past the post seats into account.
In Italy, for example, 37% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies (the Italian House of Commons) are allocated with First Past the Post, while 63% are chosen through List PR.
The UK is unique among European countries in terms of its electoral system – and not in a good way. It’s the only country with a parliamentary system that uses the outdated, one-person-takes-all First Past the Post system.
While the List PR systems commonly used in Europe can create parliaments that closely reflect the opinions of their countries, there is often a weaker constituency link. Plus, closed list systems generally limit voter choice.
This is why the ERS favours the Single Transferable Vote: this system enhances voter choice and guarantees a strong link between MPs and voters, while also distributing seats in parliament in a way that is fair and reflects how people voted. Rather than throwing votes on the electoral scrapheap as ‘wasted’, STV helps ensure every vote counts and people’s voices are heard.
It’s time that we caught up with the rest of the world and changed the way we elect our parliament so it finally reflects public opinion.