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Powell: Elections as instruments of democracy

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.

Powell. 2000. Elections as instruments of democracy. New Haven: Yale UP.


Elections are key way for citizens in a democracy to communicate with representatives. Different rules about elections and concentration of assembly power can create either majoritarian or proportional systems of democracy. Theoretically, we expect a tradeoff between majoritarian and proportional aspects of democracy. Empirically, both types of systems seem to do a relatively good job of achieving the goals for which they are designed. However, proportional systems seem to do a better job both representing diverse interests (based on committee power) and aligning government and policy makers with the median voter's ideal point.

What is responsiveness?

PR and majoritarian systems have a different view of the relation between voters and politicians. Majoritarianism encourages legislative mandates and the implementation of majority/plurality will (goal of accountability). Proportionalism is an attempt for policy to be responsive to as large a coalition as possible (goal of representation).

Role of elections

Majoritarian vision

Proportional vision

Two dimensions of voting are relevant.

  1. voting for a representative agent or for collective government
  2. retrospective versus prospective voting

Election threshold and consequences (see Cox 1997)

Concentration vs. dispersion of assembly power

Examine role of committees in legislative process (see Strom 1990)

Dispersion of power outside of assembly: independent executives; separate legislative chamber; federal system; judicial review

Closeness to median citizen

Additional Summary from a contributor: (should be merged with above)

SUMMARY: Powell examines over 150 elections in 20 democracies over 25 years. While both majoritarian democracy and proportional representation have their merits, proportional representation better reflects the populace's needs and better represents the voters' wishes. He concludes PR is more democratic. But also notes that concentration-dispersion involves tradeoffs that make a perfect set of electoral arrangements impossible.

Elections as instruments of democracy

Concentrated power

Dispersed power

Assuming full participation, how do elections influence government? From the voter's perspective:

Different roles of elections under majoritarian control/concentrated power:

Accountability evaluating incumbent government. Conditional requirement is clarity of responsibility.

Electoral mandates not strictly focused on incumbents. What does opposition have to offer?

Conditions for citizen influence/dispersed power:

Test by looking at responsiveness in selecting governments and policymakers:


Majoritarian versus proportional designs determined by looking at election rules and policy-making rules:

Election rules

Read With: Lijphart; Richie; Anderson & Guillory

Critiques: He perhaps does not credibly account for the outlook of the losers (Anderson &Guillory 1997 for example) and does not prove his assumption that one outcome is the best outcome

Research on similar subjects


Powell, G Bingham (author)Comparative PoliticsConsociationalismElectionsVotingMajoritarianismPresidentialismAccountability

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