Ballot Access Laws and the Effective Number of Political Parties

Many years ago, political scientists faced a dilemma.  How does one measure the effective number of political parties in a legislature?  While I was in Münster researching the political system of West Germany, I found that some authors declared that the country had a two-and-a-half party system.[1] [2] Why would they classify it as such?  Looking at it objectively, ever since the creation of the state after WWII, the nation had two large parties (The CDU/CSU and the SPD) which alternated control of the chancellorship and one smaller party (The FDP) which usually formed a coalition with one of the two larger parties so that the government enjoyed a majority of support in the Bundestag.  Although there were a few other minor parties in the legislature in the early days of the nation, they fell away after the 1961 general election due, in part, to the five percent national vote threshold designed to prevent parties representing fringe ideologies gaining a toehold in the legislature and then building their powerbase from that point.[3]  In the case of West Germany, the measure of a two-and-a-half party system makes sense objectively.  But, what about cases which aren’t so easy to identify, where legislatures include a multitude of parties each with varying levels of strength?  How would we define them? 

One of the first answers to this question came from Blondel in 1968.  He classified countries based upon the disparity in strength (or seats) between the two largest political parties in the legislature.  If, on average, the two largest parties had similar strength, he declared them to be two-party systems.  Examples include the United States and the U.K.  When one political party in a legislature tended to dominate over its rival, such as the CDU-CSU’s success as compared to the SPD, then they were two-and-a-half party systems.  Examples here include Germany and Canada.[4] Although a useful guide, Blondel’s system isn’t particularly precise and ignores the presence or absence of smaller parties.  For example, although it hasn’t wielded power in about a century, the Liberal Party continued to hold a handful of seats in the British Parliament while during the same time period the United States House of Representatives did not have a third party represented.  Given this difference, would it be fair then to classify them in the same category?  

Another, far more well-known, solution to define party systems came in 1979 from an article by Markku Laakso and Rein Taagepera.  In their piece, they sought to explore whether increasing the number of effective political parties in a legislature would correlate to high levels of political instability.  Therefore, they developed a formula, N=1/(Sni=1pi2), where N equals the effective number of political parties and pi2 is the square of each party’s proportion of seats in the legislature.[5] 

One of their first critics, Molinar, devised his own method claiming that if the largest party wins 49% of the seats, then it distorts the number of effective political parties proposed by Laakso and Taagepera.[6]  More recently, Golosov created his own formula, similar to the Laakso-Taagepera index, based on his opinion that the previous method creates “unrealistically high scores for party constellations in which the shares of the largest parties exceed 50 percent”.[7]  However, regardless of which method is correct, political scientists have adopted some form of an index such as Laakso-Taagepera or a variation thereof as a measure to determine the effective number of political parties in a legislative body.  As far as I’ve determined, the Laakso-Taagepera index is the most common and Shugart and Taagepera state in a later work, “This index was first proposed by Laakso and Taagepara (1979).  It has become the industry standard…even as various others have been proposed and used by some scholars.”[8]  Other notable political scientists agree.  “Such an index was developed by Markku Laakso and Rein Taagepara (1979), and it is now the index most commonly used by comparativists in political science.”[9]

There are a multitude of factors which can influence the numbers of effective political parties in a legislature besides the formula calculation.  One important consideration is the allocation of seats through district magnitude.  According to Duverger’s law, “the simple majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system.”[10]  Furthermore, Duverger’s hypothesis states that “the simple-majority system with second ballot and proportional representation favors multi-partyism.”[11]  That’s not to say that all political scientists agree with this “law”.  Some have argued that Duverger “mistook the direction of causality”[12] while others make the claim that “he focused on an unimportant variable…party systems are determined primarily by the number and type of cleavages in society, with electoral structure playing either an inconsequential, or at least a distinctly secondary and variable, role”.[13]  Thus, if one were to accept Duverger’s propositions, one could conclude that legislatures which are completely comprised of districts with a magnitude of one ought to result in number of effective political parties which is no greater than two while increasing the magnitude creates an effective number of parties which is typically equal to the number of seats in the district plus one.[14]  However, there is a growing body of research which disputes this finding such as Benoit[15] and Eggers & Fouirnaies. [16] 

As compared to Lijphart’s first edition of Patterns of Democracy, in the second edition he points to Barbados as an example of a country comprised of single member districts which results in a two-party system.[17]  However, in the island nation’s most recent election, which took place in 2018, the Barbados Labour party won every seat in the legislature.[18] One wonders if, despite this outcome, he would still classify Barbados as a two-party system or even as a democracy any longer.{\displaystyle N={\frac {1}{\sum _{i=1}^{n}p_{i}^{2}}}} N=NNNNN

According to research I have found thus far, there doesn’t seem to be much attention paid to ballot access laws in countries other than the United States.  For example, in order to stand as an independent candidate in England or Wales, a person only needs to fill out the requisite paperwork with The Electoral Commission at least nineteen days before the election and also submit the signatures of ten registered electors from the constituency. [19]  Registering a new political party in England or Wales is fairly straightforward.  They require “your completed application form, a copy of your party’s constitution, a copy of your party’s financial scheme that has been adopted by the party, and a non-refundable application fee of £ 150.[20]  In the general elections, the UK elects their MPs in single-member districts; in the 2017 contest, twenty-three political parties ran candidates with nine of them winning seats in the House of Commons.[21]

Similarly, in the mixed-member electoral system of Germany, a newly created political party only needs to submit documents signed by three members of the party’s national executive committee.  The documents required consist of the party’s platform and a list of any local branches which are associated with it.[22]  Germany explains why it is easy for new political parties to contest elections in their Political Parties Act which states:

Political parties form a constitutionally integral part of a free and democratic system of government.  Their free and continuous participation in the formation of the political will of the people enables them to discharge the public tasks which are incumbent upon them pursuant to the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) and which they undertake to fulfill to the best of their ability.[23]

The UK’s and Germany’s low barriers to political entry are symbolic of a healthy democratic system, where parties can form and contest elections with minimal effort.  These rules help explain the rapid formation and rise of the Brexit Party which was launched in April of 2019, won more seats than any other party in the May 2019 European Parliament elections, and now plans to have its candidates stand in the December 2019 general elections.[24]  Echoing a similar thought to the Germans, in An Economic Theory of Democracy, Downs identifies eight conditions under which a political system should operate in order to be considered democratic.  For our purposes, point seven is of particular interest.  “The party in power never attempts to restrict the political activities of other parties as long as they make no attempt to overthrow the government by force.”[25]

In general, the United States doesn’t hold to a philosophy supporting robust political competition.  In the U.S., there are a myriad of different requirements and regulations as there are no federal rules, each state creates its own election laws.  When it comes to Congressional elections a few states, such as Florida, do not require third-party and independent candidates to collect signatures from voters for ballot access while others, such as Georgia, require over 50,000 signatures.[26]  Why do we observe this phenomenon?  “The coalition of incumbents uses barriers to entry to place challengers at a competitive disadvantage which frees incumbents from having to strictly follow the desires of voters.”[27]  This squelching of democratic competition by the two major parties have led some to declare ballot access laws as “collusion in restraint of democracy.”[28]

For much of America’s history, there were no ballot access requirements.  “There were no ballot access laws in the U.S. before 1888, because there were no government-printed ballots before 1888.”[29] However, starting in 1929, states began to implement ballot access laws as a way to prevent the Communist Party from gaining power.[30]  Prior to this time, third parties performed reasonably well in state elections and even won seats in Congress.[31]  As Winger concludes, “In a normal two-party system, there are still significant third parties…Because of today’s strict ballot access laws, there have not been any substantial nationwide third parties in the U.S. in many decades.”[32]  This lack of competition outside of the two major parties may have disastrous repercussions for the United States as more and more Americans disaffiliate with both parties. 

Our results regarding the deteriorating effects of repeated losing on attitudes toward government suggest that long periods without alternation in power lead to progressively less positive views of the political system among those on the losing side and may well produce a breeding ground for significant change in the political system. [33]

So far in my research, I have yet to find a paper which contrasts the ballot access laws of a state with the effective number of political parties which are represented in that state’s legislature.  Although I have not discovered ballot access laws which act as a meaningful barrier to electoral competition outside of the United States, the idea requires further investigation.  Looking at the various members of the EU regarding the requirements for the formation of new political parties, Belgium has no thresholds, Bulgaria requires only fifty signatures to form a new party, the Czech Republic requires 1,000 signatures for a new party, Demark has a higher threshold for party formation of 19,769 as of 2007, in Estonia a party needs at least 1,000 members, in Ireland, a party simply needs to register without any signature or member requirements, the same holds true in Spain, France, Cyprus, and Austria, Italy requires a monetary deposit and a varying threshold for signatures, Latvia requires at least 200 party members, Lithuania 400 members,  the Netherlands requires a deposit of €450, Poland asks for 1000 signatures, Portugal 7,500, Romania and Slovakia 10,000, Finland 5,000, Sweden 1,500, and Slovenia 200.  The requirements for Hungary are unknown.[34]  All of these conditions in EU countries for ballot access are much easier than the combined requirements of all of the United States.  Given that there doesn’t seem to be any research comparing the differences between these countries, it would be a fruitful endeavor to examine in greater detail.  In addition, there are still other democratic nations to explore such as current and former members of the British Commonwealth, Latin America, and Asia. 

My theory is that the two are related and as ballot access laws become more difficult, especially when it comes to the number of voter signatures a third party or independent candidate needs to collect one in order to be listed on the ballot, one should expect to find a corresponding decline in the effective number of parties.  By contrast, as ballot laws become less restrictive, not only should the number of third party and independent candidates in a given election increase but also the number of parties represented in the legislature should go up as well.  I found evidence for this idea in my previous research regarding changes in signature requirements to the West Virginia General Assembly.[35]  Drometer & Rincke report similar results after Ohio’s ballot access law was struck down by the courts.[36]  Bolstering my findings further, Burden has found that “ballot regulations primarily affect the number of candidates on the ballot but not their vote totals.”[37]  If vote totals for third party candidates are independent of ballot access laws, but fewer restrictions lead to more choices, that increase should also lead to higher numbers of effective political parties as defined by the Laakso-Taagepera index or any sort of related measure. 

References

Anderson, Christopher et al. 2007. Losers Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barbados General Election Results 2018. http://www.caribbeanelections.com/bb/elections/bb_results_2018.asp (November 12, 2019).

Benoit, Kenneth. 2001. “District Magnitude, Electoral Formula, and the Number of Parties.” European Journal of Political Research39(2): 203–24.

Blondel, J. 1968. “Party Systems and Patterns of Government in Western Democracies.” Canadian Journal of Political Science1(2): 180–203.

Burden, Barry C. 2007. “Ballot Regulations and Multiparty Politics in the States.” PS: Political Science & Politics 40(04): 673.

Cox, Gary W. 2007. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the Worlds Electoral Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 15.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Eggers, Andrew C., and Alexander B. Fouirnaies. 2014. “Representation and District Magnitude in Plurality Systems.” Electoral Studies33: 267–77.

Guidance for Candidates and Agents: Part 2a of 6 – Standing as an Independent Candidate. 2018. Guidance for candidates and agents: Part 2a of 6 – Standing as an independent candidate London: Electoral Commission.

Golosov, Grigorii V. 2009. “The Effective Number of Parties.” Party Politics 16(2): 171.

Hall, Oliver. 2005. “Death by a Thousand Signatures: The Rise of Restrictive Ballot Access Laws and the Decline of Electoral Competition in the United States.” Seattle University Law Review 29(2): 408.

Holcombe, Randall G. 1991. “Barriers to Entry and Political Competition.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 3(2): 231.

“Home.” The Brexit Party. https://www.thebrexitparty.org/ (November 13, 2019).

Huffman, Joshua. 2019. “Ballot Access Laws and the Two-Party System.” The Virginia Conservative. http://virginiaconservative.net/ballot-access-laws-and-the-two-party-system/ (November 10, 2019).

Introduction to Registering a Political Party. Introduction to registering a political party London: Electoral Commission.

Laakso, Markku, and Rein Taagepera. 1979. “‘Effective’ Number of Parties: A Measure With Application to Western Europe.” Comparative Political Studies 12(1): 3–27.

Lijphart, Arend. 1999. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lijphart, Arend. 2014. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Molinar, Juan. 1991. “Counting the Number of Parties: An Alternative Index.” American Political Science Review85(4): 1384.

Pilet, Jean-Benoit, and Emilie van. Haute. 2012. Criteria, conditions, and procedures for establishing a political party in the Member States of the European Union Criteria, Conditions, and Procedures for Establishing a Political Party in the Member States of the European Union. Luxembourg: Publications Office.

“Political Parties Act.” German Law Archive. https://germanlawarchive.iuscomp.org/?p=235 (November 13, 2019).

Riker, William H. 1982. “The Two-Party System and Duvergers Law: An Essay on the History of Political Science.” The American Political Science Review76(4): 754.

Rincke, Johannes, and Marcus Drometer. 2008. “The Impact of Ballot Access Restrictions on Electoral Competition: Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” SSRN Electronic Journal.

“Results of the 2017 General Election.” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/election/2017/results (November 13, 2019).

Schönberger, Christoph. 2013. “In Praise of the Five-Percent Hurdle.” Verfassungsblog. https://verfassungsblog.de/in-praise-of-the-five-percent-hurdle/ (November 10, 2019).

Schoonmaker, Donald. 1988. “The Changing Party Scene in West Germany and the Consequences for Stable Democracy.” The Review of Politics 50(1): 49–70.

Shugart, Matthew Soberg, and Rein Taagepera. 2017. Votes from Seats: Logical Models of Electoral Systems. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Siaroff, Alan. 2003. “Two-and-a-Half-Party Systems and the Comparative Role of the `Half.” Party Politics 9(3): 267.

Taagepera, Rein, and Bernard Grofman. 2006. “Rethinking Duvergers Law: Predicting the Effective Number of Parties in Plurality and PR Systems – Parties Minus Issues Equals One*.” European Journal of Political Research13(4): 341–52.

Winger, Richard. 1996. “How Ballot Access Laws Affect the U.S. Party System.” American Review of Politics 16.

Winger, Richard. 2019. Ballot Access News. https://ballot-access.org/ (November 13, 2019).


[1] Siaroff, Alan. 2003. “Two-and-a-Half-Party Systems and the Comparative Role of the `Half.” Party Politics 9(3): 267.

[2] Schoonmaker, Donald. 1988. “The Changing Party Scene in West Germany and the Consequences for Stable Democracy.” The Review of Politics 50(1): 49–70.

[3] Schönberger, Christoph. 2013. “In Praise of the Five-Percent Hurdle.” Verfassungsblog. https://verfassungsblog.de/in-praise-of-the-five-percent-hurdle/ (November 10, 2019).

[4] Blondel, J. 1968. “Party Systems and Patterns of Government in Western Democracies.” Canadian Journal of Political Science1(2): 180–203.

[5] Laakso, Markku, and Rein Taagepera. 1979. “‘Effective’ Number of Parties: A Measure With Application to Western Europe.” Comparative Political Studies 12(1): 3–27.

[6] Molinar, Juan. 1991. “Counting the Number of Parties: An Alternative Index.” American Political Science Review85(4): 1384.

[7] Golosov, Grigorii V. 2009. “The Effective Number of Parties.” Party Politics 16(2): 171.

[8] Shugart, Matthew Soberg, and Rein Taagepera. 2017. Votes from Seats: Logical Models of Electoral Systems. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 63.

[9] Lijphart, Arend. 2014. Patterns of Democracy. Cumberland: Yale University Press. 66.

[10] Riker, William H. 1982. “The Two-Party System and Duvergers Law: An Essay on the History of Political Science.” The American Political Science Review76(4): 754.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cox, Gary W. 2007. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the Worlds Electoral Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Taagepera, Rein, and Bernard Grofman. 2006. “Rethinking Duvergers Law: Predicting the Effective Number of Parties in Plurality and PR Systems – Parties Minus Issues Equals One*.” European Journal of Political Research13(4): 341–52.

[15] Benoit, Kenneth. 2001. “District Magnitude, Electoral Formula, and the Number of Parties.” European Journal of Political Research39(2): 203–24.

[16] Eggers, Andrew C., and Alexander B. Fouirnaies. 2014. “Representation and District Magnitude in Plurality Systems.” Electoral Studies33: 267–77.

[17] Lijphart, Arend. 2014. Patterns of Democracy. Cumberland: Yale University Press.

[18] Barbados General Election Results 2018. http://www.caribbeanelections.com/bb/elections/bb_results_2018.asp (November 12, 2019).

[19] Guidance for Candidates and Agents: Part 2a of 6 – Standing as an Independent Candidate. 2018. Guidance for candidates and agents: Part 2a of 6 – Standing as an independent candidate London: Electoral Commission.

[20] Introduction to Registering a Political Party. Introduction to registering a political party London: Electoral Commission.

[21] “Results of the 2017 General Election.” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/election/2017/results (November 13, 2019).

[22] Pilet, Jean-Benoit, and Emilie van. Haute. 2012. Criteria, conditions, and procedures for establishing a political party in the Member States of the European Union Criteria, Conditions, and Procedures for Establishing a Political Party in the Member States of the European Union. Luxembourg: Publications Office. 24-25.

[23] “Political Parties Act.” German Law Archive. https://germanlawarchive.iuscomp.org/?p=235 (November 13, 2019).

[24] “Home.” The Brexit Party. https://www.thebrexitparty.org/ (November 13, 2019).

[25] Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 24.

[26] Winger, Richard. 2019. Ballot Access News. https://ballot-access.org/ (November 13, 2019).

[27] Holcombe, Randall G. 1991. “Barriers to Entry and Political Competition.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 3(2): 231.

[28] Hall, Oliver. 2005. “Death by a Thousand Signatures: The Rise of Restrictive Ballot Access Laws and the Decline of Electoral Competition in the United States.” Seattle University Law Review 29(2): 408.

[29] Winger, Richard. 1996. “How Ballot Access Laws Affect the U.S. Party System.” American Review of Politics 16: 321.

[30] Ibid. 328.

[31] Ibid. 323.

[32] Ibid. 346.

[33] Anderson, Christopher et al. 2007. Losers Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 187.

[34] Pilet, Jean-Benoit, and Emilie van. Haute. 2012. Criteria, conditions, and procedures for establishing a political party in the Member States of the European Union Criteria, Conditions, and Procedures for Establishing a Political Party in the Member States of the European Union. Luxembourg: Publications Office.

[35] Huffman, Joshua. 2019. “Ballot Access Laws and the Two-Party System.” The Virginia Conservative.

Ballot Access Laws and the Two-Party System
(November 10, 2019).

[36] Rincke, Johannes, and Marcus Drometer. 2008. “The Impact of Ballot Access Restrictions on Electoral Competition: Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” SSRN Electronic Journal.

[37] Burden, Barry C. 2007. “Ballot Regulations and Multiparty Politics in the States.” PS: Political Science & Politics 40(04): 673.

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