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Cox: Making votes count

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Cox. 1997. Making votes count. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In Brief

"This is a book about strategic coordination broadly conceived, covering both legislative and executive elections, both strategic entry and strategic voting. It investigates the consequences of strategic coordination and those structural features that determine the nature of the coordination problems that political actors face in differing politics." (4)

See abstract in inside front cover.

MY NOTES (more below):

Ch. 1:

Ch. 2:


Ch. 3:

Ch. 4: Strategic voting in single-member single-ballot systems


Ch. 8: Strategic voting, party labels, and entry (see conclusion)


Ch. 10: Putting constituencies together (e.g. the flawed "link" Duverger makes from a theory about districts to a conclusion about national politics)

Ch. 11: Electoral institutions, cleavage structures, and the number of parties


Ch. 12: Coordination failures and representation


Ch. 15: Conclusion


Cox, Making Votes Count (1997)

Chapter 1: Introduction

The book is concerned with strategic coordination (both strategic entry and strategic voting) in electoral systems. Following Duverger, successful coordination will reduce the number of electoral competitors.

Main IVs are: electoral institutions, political motivations and public expectations. Institutions mostly define the electoral coordination game.

The analogy for electoral systems is the market: a hypothetical equilibrium exists with market clearing expectations which equate the demand of citizens and the supply of candidates. Main point of book is to "explain how different electoral laws affect the nature of market-clearing expectations and electoral coordination" (8).

Chapter 2: Duverger's Propositions

Duverger's Law: simple plurality rule favors a two-party system. Duverger's Hypothesis: simple plurality with second ballot and proportional representation favors multipartyism.

Critiques against Duverger and the institutionalist approach: 1) causal arrow is wrong and party systems actually determine electoral systems 2) from the political sociologists: party systems determined by number and type of social cleavages in society. Cox hopes to synthesize both sociological and institutionalist approaches.

Against the sociological approach, Cox shows that different electoral systems do produce different party systems even within the same country at the same time (between elected upper and lower houses). Important question as to whether Duverger's Law applies to country-wide or district-level elections (Cox deals with district level) and whether applies to pre-entry or post-entry politics (Cox deals with post-entry).

Voters will vote for either one of two candidates because of 1) strategic voting (don't waste vote on unlikely winner) or because 2) political elites only invest resources in serious candidates. Cox believes both explanations are important.

Chapter 3: Electoral Systems

Electoral system is a set of laws and party rules that regulate electoral competition between and within parties (38). Chapter includes lots of terminology on types of voting and districts. Electoral formulas are how votes are translated into seats, and are divided into two main camps: plurality/majority rules and proportional representation. Plurality rules tend to lead towards a majority party in the legislature, while PR leads to more proportional results.

Chapter 4: Strategic Voting in Single-Member Single-Ballot Districts

Duvergerian equilibria: level of strategic voting undercuts support for all but two candidates. Non-Duvergerian equilibria: two or more candidates tied for second, so neither is discounted and more than two significant candidates are left in the field. Duverger law assumes trailing third candidates are reduced to hard core support, all voters are short-term instrumentally rational, identity of front runners and trailers is known. With these assumptions, the model has severe limits.

Chapter 8: Strategic Voting, Party Labels and Entry

Duverger predicts that strategic voting will keep non-viable third-party candidates out of race (strategic entry). Cox adds two restrictions to this: 1) restriction of viability must be clear (or else lots of candidates would enter) and 2) politicians' goals must only concern winning current election. Party labels help a party's candidates and deter non-party candidates from seeking that party's votes (parties serve as coordination mechanisms).

Ch. 10: Linkages between the district and the national level.

The basic question is whether or not single member districts (SMD) encourage the emergence of two parties at the national level. Cox finds that there is nothing in the logic of district-level electoral structure that allows one to conclude that there will be two parties nationally. There may be factors that push toward national bipartism, but these do not depend on district-level electoral structure.

The motivation to form linkages across districts comes from the economies of scale that are necessary to become the president or prime minister. National candidates need support from all over the country, and have a clear incentive to form with legislators in building support. Four factors affect how strong the incentives toward national bi-partisanism will be: 1. strength of the presidency (concentrated vs. divided); 2. strength of the presidential election procedure in presidential systems / strength of the prime minister election procedure in parliamentary systems; 3. executive-legislative electoral linkages; and 4. strength of the legislative electoral system. These variables determine whether SMDs will encourage convergence on two national parties.

The emergence of national parties changes the calculations of strategic voters, who now may use their votes not only to affect the outcome of the district election but also to affect the outcome of national issue (e.g., who will control the national government). When voters engage in nationally-oriented strategic voting, different voting behaviors may occur. Three examples are given:

1.strategic sequencing: voting in order to affect which party gets the first opportunity to form a government.

2.strategic balancing: voting so as to deny a single party control of all branches of government.

3.threshold voting: voting so as to keep a prospective coalition partner's vote above some threshold mandated by the electoral code.

Chs. 12-14: Coordination Failures

These chapters explore how coordination failures affect various aspects of democratic performance.

Representation: If coordination works, strengthening the electoral rules (reducing the number of seats per district) limits the degree of extremism possible / encourages centrism. When voters fail to coordinate, strengthening increases the degree of extremism possible. [Here representation is maximized by centrist policies because they reduce the aggregate distance between each voter's ideal policy point and the actual policy point.]

Dominant Parties: Dominant parties are likely to occur when the ins are better at coordinating than the outs. An example is India where the centrist party gained power. The other parties where arrayed to the left and right of the centrist party, and found it difficult to coordinate with each other.

More generally: some electoral systems create more difficult coordination problems than others. The more difficult the coordination problems are, the more factors other than voters' preferences will matter in determining who gets seats.

Realignment: Realignment can be thought of as a huge coordination game. Realignment is less likely in strong (low number of seats per district) electoral systems because costs of failure are very high. But when realignment does happen, it is more consequential (because only really important issues are big enough to force realignment).

Ch. 15: Conclusion

Vote wasting: Voters that fail to coordinate waste their votes in several ways. One way is voting for a party that has no chance of winning. Another is voting for a party that is guaranteed to win. In order to make votes count, coordination is required.

Upper bound: Typically no more than M+1 candidates can be viable in SMSP or top-M run-off elections; and no more than M+1 lists can be viable in PR elections. The M+1 rule does not specify how many candidates/lists/parties there will be; it merely suggests an upper bound. When the upper bound is exceeded, there will be an incentive for voters to coordinate in reducing the number so as not to waste votes. However, this assumes that voters are instrumentally rational (care about who wins seats in their district at the present time) and voters possess rational expectations (can identify which ones are viable).

Linkages: The number of legislative parties at the national level is best thought of as a joint product of legislative and executive electoral rules, both interacting with social cleavages.


Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Cox, Gary W. (author)Comparative PoliticsElectionsElectoral RulesVotingCoordinationDemocracyParties

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