Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Strategic Voting and Coordination Problems in Proportional Systems: An Experimental Study

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Strategic Voting and Coordination Problems in Proportional Systems: An Experimental Study

Article excerpt

The once discounted idea that proportional representation (PR) triggers strategic voting has now become widely accepted in the discipline (see, for instance, Abramson et al. 2010; Bowler, Karp, and Donovan 2010; Hobolt and Karp 2010; Lago 2012; Viñuela and Artés 2012). Nonetheless, we argue that the mechanisms driving strategic voting under PR are not completely understood. This article focuses on one specific form of tactical voting- the strategic desertion of non-viable parties in the presence of a threshold-that we believe is fundamental in many PR systems. Our experimental design reproduces repeated rounds of PR elections with pre-electoral coalitions and a varying vote threshold, which allows us to examine the evolution of strategic behavior over time. Our findings help to understand the mechanism behind the occurrence and evolution of tactical voting in PR systems, which in turn leads to a rich set of implications for the study of party systems.

Specifically, we are interested in PR systems where party coalitions are formed before elections and where a vote threshold is required for a party to obtain seats. We consider instances in which voters have strict preferences over coalitions but disagree about which party should lead a given coalition (assuming that the party with the most votes within a winning coalition will lead the government). The idea that voters form preferences over coalitions has found strong support in recent empirical studies (see, for example, ; Blais et al. 2006; Bowler, Karp, and Donovan 2010; Duch, May, and Armstrong 2010; Gschwend 2007; Shikano, Herrmann, and Thurner 2009), justifying our decision to focus on this specific structure of preferences. We show below that in this context, the presence of a vote threshold leads to a coordination game between the supporters of a coalition-that is, voters from a specific camp have incentives to coordinate their vote on viable parties to increase the chances that their preferred coalition forms the government. In fact, the problem becomes analogous to a familiar "Bach or Stravinsky" game.1

We should point out that our experimental design rules out other forms of strategic voting sometimes associated with PR systems. First, we impose the existence of predetermined coalitions, which means that our setup excludes the possibility of tactical coalition voting, that is, strategic voting aimed at influencing the formation of postelectoral government coalitions (Austen-Smith and Banks 1988; McCuen and Morton 2010). Second, our design is not suited to explore threshold insurance voting (or coalition insurance strategy), that is, voting strategically for a smaller member of a pre-electoral coalition at risk of not reaching the threshold (Cox 1997, 197-98; Fredén, forthcoming; Meffert and Gschwend , 2010). This form of strategic voting has been examined particularly in Germany where supporters of the major parties (the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or the Social Democratic Party (SPD)) sometimes cast a list vote for the smaller coalition partner (the Free Democratic Party (FDP) or the Greens) to help that party reach the 5 percent vote threshold and, in the process, ensure that their preferred coalition obtain a majority of the seats and form the government (Gschwend 2004, 33). The type of strategic voting that we are studying here is sometimes called coalition-targeted Duvergerian voting (Bargsted and Kedar 2009; Hobolt and Karp 2010, 304), which simply means the strategic desertion of non-viable parties. This concept is close to familiar forms of strategic voting in plurality systems and should be the most intuitive to political scientists.2

Put simply, our argument is that supporters of party coalitions face a problem similar to that depicted in other games of coordination. Namely, many vote choices are strategically sound, although voters lack a reference point (or "focal point") to coordinate their efforts successfully. This sort of problem has been the object of extensive research, in particular within the field of experimental game theory (see, for example, Blume and Gneezy 2000; Crawford and Haller 1990; Duffy and Hopkins 2005; Kim 1996; Mehta, Starmer, and Sugden 1994; Meyer et al. …

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