On behalf of the people. Ukraine requires electoral system reform

20 May 2019

A proportional electoral system with open party lists would increase political inclusion and help to  solve another major problem of Ukrainian politics – lack of parties based on ideas.

A proportional representation system is more inclusive than the single-mandate district system, i.e. it leaves fewer voters behind. At the same time, open party lists would prevent trading of spots in the voting ballot. They would create incentives for parties to involve those who already have popular support on the local level. Political parties centered on ideas rather than personalities can emerge as a result. Hence, we believe that the proportional system with open lists should be adopted in Ukraine.

Theoretical considerations

The central element of a representative democracy is a parliament. It determines legislation, i.e. the ‘rules of the game’ which the society must adhere to.

In many countries the parliament also appoints an executive branch (the government). Thus, parliamentary elections essentially determine the course of the country for the next few years, and their outcome affects all the citizens – regardless of their voting or non-voting. At the same time, electoral outcomes are influenced not only by beliefs and preferences of people but also by the voting system design [1]. A prominent example is the last US elections where Clinton received almost 3 million more popular votes and yet lost to Trump.

Obviously, there is no ideal electoral system – each one has its benefits and drawbacks. The most often cited electoral system tradeoff is between representativeness and accountability of the government. The proportional representation system (when voters cast their votes for a party presumably supporting its ideology or program) is more representative, while the single-member-district (SMD) system (when voters of a certain region select one candidate from a list) provides more accountability [2]. Indeed, under the SMD (also called majoritarian) system voters can immediately observe which legislation ‘their’ MP did or did not support. At the same time, this MP may have been elected by the minority of voters in a district [3].

From Theory to the Real World

In practice one rarely observes purely representative or purely majoritarian systems. Representative systems usually have thresholds that a party must exceed to get any seats at all – thus leaving  minor parties behind. Votes cast for those parties can be considered ‘lost’. This lowers representativeness but at the same time makes it easier for the parliament to form a coalition, to appoint the government and to pass legislation.

There are SMD systems in which candidates clearly associate themselves with one of the political parties (e.g. Great Britain). Some countries have mixed electoral systems. For example, the recently adopted electoral law in Italy provides ⅓ of seats to MPs elected via single-mandate districts and the rest of the seats are filled by the proportional representation voting.

A few dozen of countries in the world have electoral systems with open party lists (i.e. when voters not only determine the preferred party but also can influence the order in which candidates are listed by a party and thus the probability of a particular candidate to be elected). These systems vary in their openness, i.e. they have different rules determining how candidates can move up the party list. Some studies [4] suggest that an open list system leads to higher voter satisfaction stemming from a higher sense of fairness.

One important reservation should be made here. Theoretical models are based on two assumptions. The first one is that political parties are ‘classic’ parties, i.e.that  they are based on some set of ideas. Thus representativeness implies that a party speaks on behalf of a certain number of citizens who share its ideas and would like to see these ideas on the national political agenda. Accountability is based on the assumption that voters really care about the laws which an MP elected from their district supported and bother to review her legislative activity. At the same time such accountability may not necessarily be a good thing – it creates incentives for MPs to support populistic draft laws rather than necessary but painful reforms.

Unfortunately, in Ukraine these assumptions do not hold.  In our country, unlike in developed democracies, there are very few ‘genuine parties’ (i.e. those based on ideas for a country development). Ukrainian parties are rather political projects run by people willing to use their parliamentary seats for lobbying [5]. Many parties are just empty “licences” which can be purchased by whoever has interest in this. Thus, as of January 1st 2019, Ukraine had 352 registered parties, although only 3.5% of Ukrainians (or about 1.2 million people aged 18+) were members of some political party. Of 29 parties which participated in the last elections in November 2014, only 6 made it into the parliament.

Besides, we have doubts that many Ukrainian voters closely follow their elected MPs [6] – otherwise the practice of ‘bribing voters’ before the elections would not be so successful.

Ukrainian electoral system(s): a historical perspective

Ukraine has changed the electoral system several times – from a completely majoritarian to fully proportional and then to half-proportional.

In 1993, soon after Ukraine became independent, it adopted a completely majoritarian system.  In 1997 the system was changed to mixed – 50% single-mandate districts and 50% proportional. The 2006 and early 2007 elections were conducted under fully proportional system, which was reversed back to mixed in 2010. Thus, since 1991 Ukraine had elected its parliament once completely by majoritarian system (1994), two times by completely proportional (2006, 2007) and four times by 50/50 system (1998, 2002, 2012, 2014).

The electoral barrier has also changed: in 1998 and 2002 elections it was 4%, 2006 and 2007 elections were held with 3% barrier, and since 2012 the barrier is 5%.

Currently, the majoritarian part of the electoral system resembles that of the Great Britain, i.e. a candidate can associate herself with a political party but can also run for elections independently.

After the 2014 parliamentary elections many political players declared the need to adjust the electoral system to make it more representative. In particular, the President of Ukraine in 2014 called for switching to the proportional system with open candidates lists. The same clause was included into the coalition agreement of the parliament. The respective draft  of the new election code has been introduced into the parliament in 2015 and adopted in the first reading in 2017.

Drawbacks of Ukraine’s current electoral system

Since 2010 Ukraine has a mixed electoral system where half of the 450-strong Parliament is elected by proportional system with “closed” party lists and 5% entrance threshold and another half is elected in SMDs (see Box 1 for historical perspective).

We believe that at the current stage of Ukraine’s democratic development, such system poorly fits our country needs due to important drawbacks of both proportional and SMD components.

While enabling for good representation of voters, the proportional component with closed party lists  paves the wave for political trading. Since Ukrainian parties are often consolidated not around values but around their leaders, proportional system with  ‘closed’ party lists enables party leaders to trade spots on the lists and hence seats in the parliament. MPs who ‘bought their ticket’ to the parliament tend to focus on their own agendas (trying to ‘recover’ their contributions) rather than develop policies foreseen by a party program. Often these MPs don’t vote [7] along with their party or leave the faction altogether. During 2000s party-switching has become so common  that even a special term (literally translated as ‘carcasses’) to define party-switchers emerged in the Ukrainian politics. And although today formal party-switching is problematic since a switcher can lose the mandate, trading or exchange of votes is still in place.

However, even more drawbacks are associated with the SMD component. Candidates in single-mandate districts quite often focus not on systemic problems of their region or the country but try to ‘bribe’ voters either by making minor amenities such as park benches or children playgrounds, by providing food or money to voters just before the elections or by channeling state subsidies to their districts and snipping ribbons on the objects constructed for the central budget funds. Thus, a better funded candidate or someone with better connections in the central government is more likely to win. Then she may use the position in the parliament to ‘recover’ money spent on elections. Sometimes it is unclear which parliamentary faction this candidate will join when elected.

Also, powerful candidates from single-mandate districts may have administrative power over local election committee members who often are public employees (teachers, librarians, etc.), which increases the probability of violations during elections in favour of such candidates.

Finally, the key argument used to establish an SMD component in the first place no longer holds. Initially, a single-district component was included into the electoral system in order to ‘give voice to regions’. The analogy was the Senate in the US. Indeed, people used to complain to ‘their’ MPs about local issues, and those MPs used to lobby higher budget spending for respective districts. However, with the decentralization reform progressing since early 2014, regions are becoming much less dependent on the central government, and local governments have obtained both more resources and powers to take care of local issues (schools, roads etc). This allows the parliament to concentrate on the national issues. It also sets the scene for growth of ‘grassroot’ leaders from local into national politics.

To sum up, current system encourages trading of seats in the Parliament and makes it  very difficult to get into politics without substantial investment, close connections to incumbents or sponsorship. Clearly MPs who somehow paid their way into the parliament would represent not their voters but rather those people who provided them with resources to cover the ‘entry fee’.

Which system would fit Ukraine better?

What would be the desirable features of an electoral system besides representativeness, accountability and government efficiency discussed above? Simplicity for voters is also good. However in today’s Ukraine perhaps the most important is creating incentives for formation of ideas-based as opposed to personality-based parties. We argue that a completely proportional system with open party lists fits this goal best. In addition, it preserves the benefits of a current mixed system and enables to avoid its major drawbacks.

First, proportional system with open party list increases representativeness. Using 2014 elections as an example, we demonstrate in Box 2 that the number of “lost” votes may have reduced to 27% under fully proportional system, from actual 43%. At the same time, when a voter gets to choose not only the party but also a specific representative of this party, parties have incentives to promote popular candidates (those who served their communities well either within local government or in the non-governmental sector) rather than candidates who can pay to the party leader either with their loyalty or with cash.

Second, this system preserves the MPs accountability imminent in the SMD system. Voters would still have an opportunity to track legislative and other activity of an MP elected from their region. However, knowing in advance the party which this candidate belongs to, voters can form expectations about the agenda which this person would pursue if elected. This would reduce incentives for MPs to vote for populistic laws in order to get reelected.

Finally, open list system would create incentives for parties to recruit local politicians or civil activists popular in specific regions. In their turn, these people would have incentives to promote not only themselves but also their parties. This synergy will lower the ‘entrance fee’ from local to the national politics and create competition within parties. Intra-party competition requires a stronger foundation for a party which is ideology rather than a leader’s personality since in the presence of the intra-party competition party leader may eventually be replaced. It will also raise the institutional quality and sustainability of parties.

Moreover, if a person is clearly associated with some party and publicly supports its ideas, party-switching would damage her reputation and reduce incentives of other parties to recruit this person. Thus we expect reduced party-switching under the proposed electoral system.

In fact, Ukraine has already experimented with a modification of an open list system. In elections to local (city, rayon, oblast) councils political parties must nominate no more than one candidate per each voting district. This resembles the British system (only that self-nomination is not allowed) which can be considered an extreme case of an open list proportional system – with only one candidate on a party list in each region.

In the last local elections there were cases when parties successfully cooperated with local activists to get the representation in local councils. As an illustration, consider elections in Irpin, a town near Kyiv. On the last elections to the municipal council in 2015 Svoboda party attracted local activists respected in the community and managed to get 4 of 36 seats (11%) in the town council whereas its main electoral base is in the West of Ukraine, and in 2014 parliamentary elections it received 6.25% of votes in electoral district #95 to which Irpin belongs. Thus, the party improved its image in the region while the activists received organizational support of the party in their local activities. This is exactly the kind of synergy one would expect from the open list electoral system.

Analysis of ‘lost’ votes in 2014 parliamentary elections

The analysis of 2014 election data  shows that the share of lost votes in the proportional part of the system is much lower than in its SMD part (we define as ‘lost’ votes cast for a party or a candidate who did not win). That year, 15.8 million people voted. In 198 [8] electoral districts about 5.5 million votes were cast for the winning candidates, while 9.7 million votes (61% of those who voted) were cast for the ‘losers’. In the proportional part of the system only 3.5 m votes (22%) were lost. One of the reasons for that is the “winner takes all” principle of the SMD, while under the proportional system all voters whose parties passed the threshold get representation in the parliament.

Besides, 84% (166 out of 198) of MPs elected via single-mandate districts had made it to the parliament with less than 50% of votes of their districts. In 37 districts the winners got less than 25% of votes – so they can be safely called minority candidates.

For the ease of perception we present our reasoning in the Table 1. Note that under the current system we can assume that each voter casts ½ of her vote for a party and another half for a single-district candidate. Under the current system 43% of votes are lost (22% in proportional part and 61% in SMD part – column 3).

If the last elections were held under fully proportional system, holding everything else equal the results would repeat column (1) from the Table 1, i.e. 22% of votes would be lost.

However, in the last elections 2.6m votes were cast for 96 self-nominated candidates who won. Probably, under 100% proportional system many of these candidates would have joined existing parties. But let’s imagine the extreme case when none of these candidates runs for elections and 2.6 million of their supporters stay home as well. In this case 26.7% of votes are lost (see column 4 of the table), which is still lower than 43% lost under the current system.

Table 1. Comparison of the shares of lost votes under different electoral systems

proportional part of the system (50% of the parliament) single-district part of the system (50% of the parliament) Total (50% proportional & 50% single-district) 100% proportional system (hypothetically)
1 2 3 4
votes cast for winning candidates or parties, million 12.2 5.5 (12.2+5.5)*0.5=8.85 12.2-2.6=9.6
‘lost’ votes (cast for candidates or parties who did not enter the parliament), million 3.5 9.7 (9.7+3.5)*0.5=6.6 3.5
total number of votes, million 15.7 15.2 15.45 13.1
share of ‘lost’ votes, % of total votes 22% 61% 43% 26.7%

Recent changes of networks in the society provide an additional argument in favor of the completely proportional system. Some twenty years ago, with low Internet penetration, intraregional ties where extremely powerful and important. Today, many people have much stronger interregional connections. In the pre-Internet era people would mostly communicate with friends living next door, while now they often spend more time in social networks talking to people who physically are hundreds kilometers away. As a result, today many people have more in common with their social network community than with their neighbours. These people would rather have a deputy in the parliament representing their facebook community (which is possible under a representative election system) than somebody who promises to defend the interests of their region before the central government.

As a hypothetical example, if 10% of voters are highly dispersed geographically (say, 0.4% of them live in each of the 25 regions of Ukraine) but share some common values, a political party representing these values would get 10% of parliamentary seats under the proportional system and zero under the SMD system.

Concluding remarks

Existing open list proportional systems have different designs. They differ in the number of candidates a voter can select from a party list, the share of votes a candidate has to get in order to move up the list, and other parameters. The electoral system design currently passed in the first reading (Box 3) is quite simple. And although it differs from the system suggested by Dr. Myerson in his recent interview, we believe it can create incentives for political parties to recruit local leaders – those mayors, hromada, raion or oblast heads or civic activists who have served their communities well. This recruiting would strengthen between-party competition. And presence of ‘grassroot’ politicians willing to advance their careers among party members would boost within-party competition. This would raise overall quality of political parties in Ukraine.

A proportional representation electoral system with open party lists would also raise political inclusion – fewer votes would be lost, while the interests of minorities would be better represented in the parliament.

Design of the electoral system passed in the first reading

There will be no self-nominated candidates, all candidates will have to be nominated by parties. All parties will have to roll out one national list of candidates and 27 ‘regional’ lists of no less than 5 people. Regions are defined by the draft law, and the majority of them coincide with administrative oblasts, except for a few urban agglomerations.

Each candidate can be included into only one regional list. Moreover, there should be no less than 2 candidates of one gender on a list for a better gender balance.

A voter will have to write into the bulletin two numbers – the number of her preferred party (these numbers are assigned to parties via a lottery) and the number of the preferred candidate from the regional list of this party. If the voter does not enter the candidate number, the vote is considered to be cast for the entire party list. If the voter enters only the candidate number, the bulletin is considered void.

A party can enter the parliament if it obtained no less than 4% of votes nationwide. The consequent seats distribution is best illustrated with a numerical example. Suppose 20 million people voted. Party A received 10 million votes, party B got 8  million votes, party C – 1 million votes, and the remaining 1 million votes is distributed equally between 10 fringe parties. Then the number called ‘quota’ is calculated as

Q = [(10m + 8m + 1m)/450] = 42 222 votes – this is the ‘price’ of one parliamentary seat

Suppose in the first region, region 1, 500 thousand people voted for the party A.

Then party A will get [500 000/42 222] = 11 parliamentary seats from that region.

It will also have (500 000 – 42 222*11) = 35 558 ‘leftover’ votes in region 1.

11 mandates will be allocated to candidates who were on the regional list of this party in region 1. If party A had more than 11 candidates in this region, 11 candidates with the highest number of votes will get the parliamentary seats. Then they will be excluded from the national party list.

In a similar way seats will be allocated for all candidates on regional lists of parties A, B, and C. After that the remaining unallocated seats will be distributed proportionally among the three parties. Let’s assume that 430 seats were allocated on the basis of the regional party lists – so that there are 20 ‘leftover’ seats.

Then ‘leftover’ votes for parties A, B, and C are summed up across the regions (remember that party A has 35 558 leftover votes in the first region).

Suppose party A has 300 thousand ‘leftover’ votes nationwide, party B – 100 thousand, and party C – 50 thousand.


  • party A will get [300 000/42 222]=7 seats (and 0.1 is the fraction that is left),
  • party B will get [100 000/42 222]=2 seats (and 0.37 is the fraction that is left),
  • party C will get [50 000/42 222]=1 seat (with 0.18 the leftover fraction).

Thus, 10 of the 20 seats are allocated according to these formulae.

The remaining 10 seats will be allocated one by one starting from the party with the largest leftover fraction. In our example, the order is BCA, so that party B ends up with 4 of the last 10 seats, and parties A and C get 3 seats each. Candidates for these ‘leftover’ seats are drawn from the national party list.

P.S. Is the adoption of the new electoral system likely?

Usually, changes in the electoral system are driven by the desire of incumbents to retain their political power rather than to improve voters’ representation. A rational MP would vote for an electoral system which at least does not worsen her chances to get into the next parliament. In the current parliament, 51% of MPs elected via SMDs were nominated by some party. We expect that they would like to repeat this experience and run for elections again – either with the same party or with a different one. Many of self-nominated deputies probably can be recruited by some party which would also provide them with organizational support during the campaign. Thus, somewhat counterintuitively, we expect the majority of SMD members of parliament to support the reform since they are likely to win from it. Some MPs were recruited into party lists in 2014 from the pool of well-known civil activists. Many of them genuinely support the proposed reform. They are also likely to win from it if ‘their’ parties include them into their regional lists. Unambiguous losers in case of the proposed electoral system reform are those who were included into party lists either for monetary contributions or for their loyalty to  party leaders. The latter would probably not favor the change either. Overall, the chances of the reform adoption are rather low but non-zero.


  • Oleksandra Betliy
  • Olena Bilan
  • Volodymyr Bilotkach
  • Tymofii Brik
  • Kateryna Dronova
  • Yuriy Gorodnichenko
  • Veronika Movchan
  • Zoya Mylovanova
  • Alex Nikolsko-Rzhevskyy
  • Oleg Nivievskyi
  • Olena Nizalova
  • Denys Nizalov
  • Nataliia Shapoval
  • Ilona Sologoub
  • Oleksandr Talavera
  • Dmytro Yablonovskyi
  • Oleksandr Zholud


[1] See e.g. Michael Dummett. Voting Procedures. Oxford University Press UK (1984) for an overview of voting theories and voting procedure results. See also Misa Nishikawa and Eric Herron “Mixed electoral rules’ impact on party systems”. Electoral Studies Volume 23, Issue 4, December 2004, Pages 753-768 for another perspective. As a further illustration of this statement, consider the study of Joanne M. Miller and Jon A. Krosnick “ The Impact of Candidate Name Order on Election Outcomes” The Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 62, No. 3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 291-330 which shows that order of candidates’ names on the list impacts voting results.

[2] John M Carey, Simon Hix (2011). The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low‐Magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems. American Journal of Political Science.

[3] As a simple numerical example, imagine that there are four candidates in a district. Candidate A gets 30% of votes, candidates B and C each get 25% of votes, and candidate D – 20% of votes. In this case candidate A is elected, however, 70% of voters in the district did not support her.

[4] Farrell, David M and McAllister, Ian. Voter satisfaction and electoral systems: Does preferential voting in candidate‐centred systems make a difference? European Journal of Political Research (2006)

[5] One of the causes of this situation is absence of legislative framework for ‘civilized’ lobbying despite multiple attempts to introduce one. However, this topic is beyond the scope of this article.

[6] According to a survey (slides 18-20), 21% of citizens know something about discussion of draft laws, and only 8% of those who know something took part in such discussions, while 47% of citizens do not participate in such discussions and have no interest in participation.

[7] VoxUkraine has performed quite an extensive analysis of ‘real’ coalition (as opposed to the formal one) in the current Ukrainian parliament based on the voting data: April 2015, December 2015, July 2016, July 2017.

[8] Normally there would have been 225 SMD deputies but the elections were not held in the occupied territories.



The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations