The turn of the 20th century marked a critical phase of intense reform of electoral systems. Almost all countries that introduced proportional representation (PR) then still use it; those that did not have largely retained majoritarian systems.
Leonardo’s 20-month-long British Academy-backed project, conducted in partnership with DPIR alumna Klaudia Wegschaider (University of Vienna) proposes a fresh interpretation of this ‘PR wave’. Contrary to the mainstream interpretation that electoral reform was implemented by liberal and conservative parties to stem the tide of working-class parties, the project develops the argument that PR appealed to political elites because it was functional to build the disciplined and cohesive parties required for the age of mass politics.
The research project employs a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, drawing on original data of electoral reform initiatives in 34 countries between 1860 and 1930 as well as detailed case studies on electoral reform in Belgium, Italy and Britain.
It is hoped that the findings will contribute to rethinking a core issue in comparative democratic institution through thorough engagement with historical sources and methods. Moreover, the project can inform our understanding of the forces at play in the process of electoral system reform in ways that can be relevant to contemporary advocacy for proportional representation.