Paris School of Economics - École d'Économie de Paris

Economics serving society

Jean-François Laslier: “Other voting systems are possible”

The main parties and candidates are mobilising for the 2017 presidential election, and election in which the participation rate will be crucial. Jean-François Laslier, specialist in "democratic” questions (normative economics, aggregation of individual preferences, theories of the vote) explains that voters are for the most part open to institutional innovations. So, other forms of voting could be introduced - different from those used in particular during presidential and European elections - which would give voters greater freedom.

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Jean-François Laslier is Associate Chair at PSE and director of research at the CNRS


What are your research themes and methods?

I am interested in questions about representation and democracy. My aim is to understand how democratic institutions function, so my focus is on normative economics, preference aggregation, and modelling electoral competition. In particular, I do research about voting procedures. I work in situ at polling stations, but also on internet sites put up during a variety of democratic occasions, and in economic and social science labs. Thus, my approach consists in observing individual behaviour in more or less controlled environments, on the field, in laboratories and on line: that’s what we call experimentation in political science. It is an approach that was inherited from experimental economics and political psychology. (1)

What interests you about voting procedures?

It starts from a simple fact: the democratic machine has broken down, and one of the reasons for that is the exasperation of voters with existing forms of representation. Of course, the elections do not, by themselves, make Democracy, but they have a certain practical importance, and they bear an essential symbolic weight. The current system is weighed down by established personalities and party machines. In the main election in France – the presidential election – as in so-called secondary elections (legislative, European), voters often have the feeling that they cannot express themselves as they would like to, that they literally do not have a say. Voting procedures lack freedom and flexibility of choice. For example, in the European elections, the so-called closed list system, which obliges voters to choose whole lists rather than candidates, in reality, leaves the real power of nomination to the party machines rather than to the voters. It is easy to see why people reject this form of voting, and how it contributes to a growing mistrust of democracy. My goal is to determine what realistic alternatives to the current voting system might suit voters better.

What experiments have you conducted recently?

In the 2012 presidential elections, my co-authors and I mixed testing in the field, online and laboratory work. At several polling stations, including Saint-Etienne, Strasbourg and Louvigny, voters could try various forms of “Vote pas notes » (voting by ranking). Thanks to the Vote au pluriel website (http://voteaupluriel.org), nearly 12,000 people participated in an online study during the three weeks leading up to the first round. On this website, voters were invited to vote four times, under different voting systems : single-candidate vote in one round (Mexican system), single-candidate vote in two rounds (French system), single transferable vote (Irish system), and finally, the approval voting system. The particularity of the approval voting system or”vote by general consent” is that it is not used in any country, while it has been studied and promoted by researchers for fifty years! In this system, each voter indicates whether she approves or not of each of the candidates - this amounts to give to each a grade of either 0 or 1. The candidate who receives the greatest number of voter approvals is elected.

For the 2014 European elections, the EuroVotePlus site (http://eurovoteplus.eu) invited voters across Europe to test three representative voting systems used in the European Union. Among these systems is the French one based on “closed” lists, which ask electors to vote for whole lists. The second system, used in Latvia, is based on “open” lists. In this case, voters can support or reject (vote “negative”) one or more candidates in the same list. Finally, the third system, used in Luxembourg, is based on lists that are “open and mixed, with cumulative vote”. In this procedure, voters casts as many votes as there are members to be elected, attributed to one or several candidates, possibly enrolled on possibly different lists. Thousands of internet users across Europe participated in this experiment.

What did your experiments reveal about the voting systems?

Generally speaking, voters appreciate being able to state their opinion about all candidates, rather than having to vote for single names. In presidential-type elections, additive ranking systems appeal to a familiar logic (of giving more or less weigh to) and thus cause no problems of interpretation. Voters understand them well, including their political consequences. Compared with uni-nominal systems, additive systems are more favourable to consensual candidates – those who, in the electorate, are maybe not the first choice, but whom the majority find acceptable. We also observed that there is no great difference between fine grading systems (for example, 20 points grade scle) and a simple vote by approval, in which a voter declares herself for or against the election of each candidate. What is fundamentally important for the voter, and for the final result, is that each person can express him or herself in relation to all the candidates.

Parliamentary-type elections raise other problems. For example, with the experiments conducted during the 2014 European elections, we wanted to know if the possibility of being able to vote for individual candidates rather than for lists would favour women’s representation. We observed that female voters were particularly satisfied with being able to vote for individuals and used this opportunity to elect female candidates. Analysis of the 2014 data shows that both male and female voters in France prefer voting systems with “open” lists than those with “closed” lists. Voters want the possibility of voting for people rather than for lists. In this study, we observed that above all, they seek a form of expression that gives them the greatest flexibility to make their choice. The results of the 2014 European elections experiment and our observations during the presidential elections agree on this point.

Why is the kind of system you mention not introduced? Is such a system achievable?

Our results show that voters can adapt to these voting systems, which are perfectly realistic and usable. Individually, we are ready to try new things, but collectively, such readiness is rare: the introduction of new forms of voting is a political innovation and thus represents uncertainty, which is always a risk not only for politicians, but also for society. This uncertainty is due to the complexity of the political system: the institutional structures, how parties function, how they are financed, etc. We thus see that our experiment has its limits, as do international comparisons, historical studies and the like: what would the consequences be of such an innovation for partisan structures? This is a speculative question, not a factual one. In order to answer it, we need theoretical reflections, informed by observations of the behaviour of all the actors involved. I will continue to conduct this kind of experiment, with the aim of better understanding voters and their needs. And we are always looking for volunteers: who knows what 2017 will bring!

(1) See, for example, letter n°18 for more details on the work of J-F Laslier.