Make Votes Matter is the national movement for Proportional Representation

What are Open Lists - the Swiss and Luxembourgish examples

Party List PR voting systems come in all shapes and sizes, with the exact rules of how the system works varying quite a bit from country to country. One of the main points of difference arrives in determining which candidates get elected once seats have been allocated to parties, with lists either being ‘closed’ – where the order in which candidates get elected, i.e., their relative position on the list, is decided solely by the parties – or some degree of ‘open’ – where a party’s candidates’ positioning on the lists is partially or wholly determined by voters.

Perhaps the most open list systems in the world are found in Luxembourg and Switzerland, where voters are practically given free rein to express their views on which candidates should be elected to parliament. But how do their systems work and are they better than closed lists?

Luxembourg and Switzerland both use simple constituency versions of List PR: voting and seat allocation takes place in multi-member constituencies corresponding to the cantons (regions) in Switzerland and four groups of cantons in Luxembourg. Parties present a list in each constituency containing as many candidates as there are seats to fill, ranging from seven to 23 in Luxembourg, and up to 36 in Switzerland. 

Similarly, voters have the same number of votes as there are seats to fill and can choose simply to cast them all for one list, in which case their votes are split equally between all the candidates on that list, or to express preferences between candidates in several ways. They can cast up to two votes for a candidate they particularly like (known as cumulative voting); can vote for candidates from multiple lists, if they’d rather split their votes between parties (this is called panachage); and, in Switzerland, can cross out the names of candidates they dislike, removing them from the list. 

Seats are first proportionally allocated to parties based on the total number of votes cast for candidates from that party. The seats are then awarded to candidates from that party in order of the number of ‘preferences’ they received.

Control or Confusion?

Open lists, as used in Luxembourg and Switzerland, hand voters genuine control over who is elected, with both the partisan composition of parliament and who actually sits in it entirely decided by their votes. Unlike in the case of closed list systems – or, for that matter, First Past the Post (FPTP) – if voters disagree with a party’s preferred candidate, they can overrule them and help elect somebody they feel is more suitable. Of course, parties do still control who goes on the ballot in the first place, but such is the case in any election based on party affiliation. 

The flexibility offered by these two particular voting systems – in terms of cumulative, negative and panachage voting – only enhances the control that open lists afford voters. 

However, whether all voters utilise this control is another matter. Around half of Swiss voters simply cast all their votes for an unmodified party list, though there is clear regional variation – voters in French-speaking cantons are more likely to vote for an unchanged list than those in German-speaking areas. Among voters that do show preferences, many will take their cue from interest groups – such as unions or businesses – who produce ‘how to vote’ leaflets in line with which candidates they view as favourable. 

There is also a suggestion that, whereas closed lists can help parties elect a demographically balanced set of candidates, this is harder under open list systems. Although Switzerland today has a relatively high proportion of women MPs (42%), as recently as 1999, some parties were seeing women candidates elected at a third of the rate they should have been given their overall gender balance of candidates. 

Additionally, there is a worry that open lists can also lead to lower rates of party discipline as candidates from the same party have to compete with each other, often through differentiating themselves from their colleagues and party leadership. Less unified parties increase the risk of unstable governments. 

The debate between open and closed lists is ultimately over what to prioritise in an electoral system. Open lists, as in Switzerland and Luxembourg, do give voters more choice and control, which, even if voters don’t always utilise it, does allow them to directly decide who their MPs are. Closed lists might put this power in the parties’ control, but that enables them to actively make parliament more representative in more ways than one. 

With thanks to Dylan Difford for compiling this explainer. Dylan is a researcher specialising in elections and voting systems.