Do Proportional Electoral Laws Politicize Ethnicity?

A perennial and crucial question—one intimately tied to the national security interests of the United States—is how to design political institutions that can mitigate ethnic conflict.  This issue was front-and-center when the United States worked to establish new Iraqi political institutions after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (see, for example, here).  The conundrum is this: can you design political institutions that enable ethnic groups to be or at least feel represented in government, while not simultaneously exacerbating ethnic divisions?

In this article, political scientist John Huber investigates one important institution: proportional representation.  Here is his summary of what he found:

What is the best electoral law for stable democratic government in ethnically divided societies?  Constitutional engineers have long debated this question, typically focusing on the relative merits of proportional electoral laws (“PR”), which provide representation to parties in proportion to the number of votes that parties receive.  It has been widely believed that PR politicizes ethnicity, with some arguing that this is a good thing (because each ethnic group will have its own party, encouraging them to participate non-violently in the democratic process) and some arguing it is bad (because the goal should be to depoliticize ethnicity, encouraging voters to focus on other factors, such as economic class).  This debate, however, has been plagued by the absence of facts:  we have not had the technology to test the effect of electoral laws on the politicization of ethnicity.

This research develops measures that can be used to assess the degree to which ethnicity is politicized in the electoral politics of a country.   The measures focus on the connection between ethnic identity and voting behavior.  The tighter this connection, the greater the degree of ethnic politicization.  Applying the measure to a wide range of countries, the study demonstrates that in fact PR is associated with lower levels of politicization.   This finding has important implications for constitutional design in divided societies and provides fact-based evidence supporting advocates for PR.

It also helps us to understand racial politics in the US.  If Hispanic Americans want to be influential as a group within the plurality system of the US, they must vote cohesively. If the US operated under proportional representation, then different parties would compete for the Hispanic vote thereby diminishing the salience of race in elections.

[For more in this week’s presentation of NSF-funded research recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, see here and here.]

3 Responses to Do Proportional Electoral Laws Politicize Ethnicity?

  1. Marc Ross May 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    Donald Horowitz has long argued that the best electoral system to mitigate ethnic polarization is one the promotes the formation of PRE-election coaltions between ethnic communities rather than post-electoral ones. This is harder to achieve in true PR systems but in mixed systems it can work.

  2. Wonks Anonymous May 15, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

    “If the US operated under [X], then different parties would compete for the Hispanic vote thereby diminishing the salience of race in elections.”
    Couldn’t you substitute pretty much any representational system for X? The scenario where Hispanics all vote for a Hispanic party, other ethnic parties rely on their own ethnic bloc without bothering to compete where they have comparative disadvantage (precisely what people fear, since it exists in some places), seems as plausible a priori. Presumably there’s empirics supporting the opposite case in the paper, but we don’t know the logic behind why that may be the case.

  3. Lenny May 15, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

    Let’s recognize that analysis of this sorts begins with the axiom that the polity must be preserved and that the question is which method of sacrificing principles held dear by many of the citizens is the best way to deal with a fractured polity.

    The alternative of remaining true to the principles which motivate the lives of many of the citizens and sacrificing the fractured polity are not examined.

    This is the state of affairs in the multiculturalist West. All principles must either be sacrificed or moderated in order to make a multiculturalist society approach funtionality.

    In order to win over Hispanic votes the Republicans have to abandon their principle of race-neutral policies and embrace race-centric policies like the Democrats. The US Supreme Court is considering Fisher vs. Univ. Of Texas and the core issue is that poor whites tend to outcompete middle and upper class blacks and Hispanics for admission and the Univ. of Texas wants to diminish the role of merit and enhance the role of group identity in their admissions process. Such a dilemma becomes moot if there is no Hispanic-White division in society and the principle of merit as the basis for admission can be preserved.

    The salience of race in politics is always going to be high so long as there exists racial disparities and government can be used as a vehicle to address such disparities. Make government an ineffective tool, perhaps by reducing the size of government, and then the salience of race in politics, despite the existing racial disparities diminishes.