The Constitution Unit


Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems in Europe

This short film introduces Faces on the Ballot through interviews with Alan Renwick and other leading experts on electoral systems and the personalisation of politics.

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Alan Renwick’s book – Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems in Europe, co-authored with Jean-Benoit Pilet – examines the forgotten dimension of electoral systems.

Most studies look at whether those systems are proportional or majoritarian – that is at how they distribute power across parties.  Far fewer look at the impact different electoral systems have on whether parties or, rather, individual candidates are dominant in elections.  This books seeks to fill that gap. It has three key findings:

  • First, a clear trend has emerged over the last quarter century towards the adoption of more ‘personalised’ electoral systems: systems that give voters more of a say over which individual candidates are elected.  The book traces electoral reforms in 31 European democracies since the end of the nineteenth century and finds that this pattern is apparent both in old democracies – such as Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden – and in newer democracies, such as Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Croatia.
  • Second, this trend is the product of a marked underlying shift in the nature of electoral reform processes. In the past, such processes were dominated by politicians seeking to maximise their power; public opinion was barely mentioned. Since the late 1980s, however, most reforms have reflected, at least in part, a perceived need to respond to public disaffection with traditional politics and disengagement from political parties. Politicians have felt they have to respond to the popular mood with reforms. Sometimes it seems they just want to look like they are listening to public concerns without making substantive changes. But in others they appear genuinely to hope that electoral reforms could arrest the decline in satisfaction with democracy.
  • Third, however, there is no evidence that these reforms have had such effects. Many reforms have genuinely increased voters’ ability to influence which individuals are elected.  But there is no evidence that these have led to higher turnout in elections or higher satisfaction with democracy more generally. That may partly be because some of the reforms have been rather timid. But it also likely reflects the fact that voters pay little attention to the details of political institutions. Wider reforms to politics and deeper change in society are likely to be needed before popular attitudes to the state of democracy will shift substantially.

Faces on the ballot
Praise for the book

Professor Justin Fisher (Brunel University):

“The key contribution of Faces on the Ballot is to really give us a good sense of how electoral systems have changed in European countries in the post-war period.  I think what it shows very clearly – which many of us hadn’t realised before – is how systems have moved towards a more personalised system and away from a more party-based system.”

Professor Roger Scully (Cardiff University):

“I think there are at least two key contributions of this book.  The first is simply as a huge exercise in data gathering and in meticulous documentation of often very subtle, nuanced changes in electoral systems, from which we can start to see a pattern emerging.  It has created a huge data resource for future scholars to use.  I think the other is showing there has been this tendency towards greater personalisation of electoral system, trying to see the causes of that, and also looking for evidence of the consequences.”

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