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Political parties are, obviously, very important in democratic systems. Most candidates will be selected by a party. But many systems make it easy for the party to control which specific members end up getting elected.

For example, in the UK's constituency-based first past the post system, every candidate needs to get a plurality in each seat (we casually say "majority" though they only need more votes than any other candidate which can be far from more than half the vote). But the majority of seats are "safe" and rarely change hands so whoever the party selects for those seats, no matter how poor a candidate, will, most likely, be elected. Congressional seats in the USA are similar, with decreasing numbers being genuinely competitive (and many being gerrymandered by both major parties to reduce their competitiveness). So, again, in effect, many representatives are chosen by the party not the voters.

But many proportional systems have similar amounts of party control. In mixed systems, like the Scottish Parliament or The German Bundestag, some seats are directly elected but the proportionality of the full body is ensured by selecting many extra representatives from regional or national lists. These additional members are usually filled in order from lists drawn up by the parties again reducing the ability of voters to choose which, specific, candidates from the party are elected.

The issue with the degree of party control in these systems is that this reduces the ability of voters to choose which party candidates represent them. This allows parties to guarantee the selection of many candidates who are not very good or who represent unpopular factions within a party. In the UK many MPs who are not very competent or diligent in their constituency work are safe as long as they are in a seat unlikely to change hands. In the USA many congressional candidates are selected by a party process that is dominated by highly activist members whose views are often far more radical than the general population, skewing the views away from the majority of the population (or even the majority of party supporters).

The ability of parties to control candidate lists in proportional systems or the makeup of candidates standing in "safe" seats has implications for candidate representativeness and quality. If members face no competition from the general electorate they can be far more polarised and less competent than if the electorate could choose among several members from the same party.

Are there any electoral systems that minimise the extent of safe seats and reduce the extent to which parties can control the majority of candidates who actually get elected?

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4 Answers 4

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The "open list", used (for example) in Finland or Latvia. In this system, voters choose a candidate from a list rather than parties. The number of votes each candidate receives fully determines their position on the list of candidates which will represent that party.

This contrasts with closed-list systems in which the party sets the order on the list and voters choose a party.

A similar system is Panachage, in which voters have multiple votes (often as many as the number of seats to be filled) and may vote for individuals in the same party or in different parties. Again, the parties in both open-list and panachage have no way to ensure that any particular candidate will be at the top of the list. Panachage is used, among others, in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. The latter, in particular, has a very weak party system.

Finally, there is the system of primary elections, used in the USA. In this system, there is an opening round of voting in which voters can choose which candidate should represent each party, followed by a second round in which a single candidate from each party faces off. Although there are a multitude of variations on the primary system in the USA (each state has its own rules), it tends to mean that no candidate is "safe"; even in the most solidly partisan district, a candidate must first beat rivals from their own party.

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    Further reading: Wikipedia has long article on open list voting, which mentions 46 nations that employ such voting systems.
    – meriton
    Jan 2, 2023 at 20:01
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    It's worth noting that even with the US's primary system, party leadership still has a lot of influence in candidate selection via things like superdelegates and control over who gets campaign funding.
    – bta
    Jan 4, 2023 at 1:38
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First, its worth noting that any proportional voting system offers some resistance to misbehaving parties, because any group that feels slighted can start a new party and has a fair chance at achieving representation (in contrast to a first past the post system, where new parties rarely form because minority parties can not achieve representation).

For instance, when Martin Bäumle lost his bid for the presidency of the Green Party of the canton of Zurich in a party internal election, he left the Green Party, and started the Green Liberal Party. In the next national election, the Green Liberal Party got 1.4% of the vote, and therefore 3 seats in national parliament, one of which was occupied by Martin Bäumle, now president of his own party :-)

In addition, some proportional voting schemes are open list, where the preference order of candidates within a party list is determined by the voters, not the parties. For instance, members of Switzerland's National Council are elected by writing candidate names onto ballots. Each candidate name first counts towards his party, for purposes of assigning seats to parties, and then towards the candidate, for purposes of assigning party seats to candidates.

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    Unfortunately this is not the case in the US. The Democrats and Republicans actively try to keep 3rd parties off the ballot. Thats why things don't change in the US.
    – Donny V.
    Jan 3, 2023 at 19:11
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    I know. That's why I write "in contrast to a first past the post system, where new parties rarely form because minority parties can not achieve representation". BTW, that's precisely why Switzland replaced first past the post with proportional voting back in 1919, when social tensions exacerbated by non-representation of factory workers brought Switzerland to the brink of civil war.
    – meriton
    Jan 3, 2023 at 19:58
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The single transferable vote may be exactly what you are looking for. It is a form of proportional representation that does not require formal party lists at all.

One arguable problem with your question's premise is that, no matter what the voting system is, political parties still have lots of money and resources that campaigns can benefit from. For this reason, candidates will still benefit from having the support of a political party.

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    It doesn't require party lists but it also doesn't exclude them either. There are places in the US that use it in partisan elections. Even in the US there are places that have "non-partisan" elections with no party on the ballot but anyone who does a little research knows exactly which party everyone on the ballot belongs to.
    – Joe W
    Jan 2, 2023 at 18:47
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    To me, the major benefit of STV (as used in Ireland for most elections in multi-member constituencies) is that it pitches candidates from a single party against other candidates from the same party, allowing the voters to choose which get elected, preventing the party from putting bad candidates in safe seats.
    – matt_black
    Jan 2, 2023 at 21:00
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    And also against candidates from similar parties! Wanna vote Green? you can do that, and put SPD second, without ensuring that united AfD will beat both of them. (Just an example - Germany doesn't use this system) Jan 2, 2023 at 21:43
  • @JoeW There's also what they did in Australia (detailed in the WP page linked in this answer), where you could vote for either the party (above the line) or individual candidates (below the line). This proved to be unpopular since it devolved into essentially voting by party, and also required at least 6 ranked votes for parties or 12 for candidates. Jan 4, 2023 at 14:46
  • @DarrelHoffman Not sure what you are getting at there as the STV system doesn't care about party or lack of party which appears to be a key point in the answer.
    – Joe W
    Jan 4, 2023 at 14:53
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California's open primary system, which took effect on January 1, 2011, comes close:

How are primary elections conducted in California?

All candidates for voter-nominated offices are listed on one ballot and only the top two vote-getters in the primary election – regardless of party preference - move on to the general election. Write-in candidates for voter-nominated offices can only run in the primary election. A write-in candidate will only move on to the general election if the candidate is one of the top two vote-getters in the primary election.

Prior to the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, the top vote-getter from each qualified political party, as well as any write-in candidate who received a certain percentage of votes, moved on to the general election.

The Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act does not apply to candidates running for U.S. President, county central committee, or local office.

Washington State has a basically identical system. As noted here:

In Louisiana, on the general election date, all candidates run on the same ticket. If no candidate receives over 50% of the vote, then the top two vote-getters face a runoff six weeks later. One way to look at this is to say there is no primary election--just a general election for all candidates, with a runoff when needed.

In Nebraska, legislators are elected on a nonpartisan basis. This means they run without a party designation, and all candidates are on the same nonpartisan primary ballot. (This system is common for local nonpartisan offices throughout the nation).

Alaska has a unique top-four open primary system for state and congressional offices.

Alaska uses ranked choice voting in its general election where the top four primary applies.

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