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The Ethnic Implications of Preferential Voting

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 March 2017


Around the turn of the century, political developments in Northern Ireland, Fiji and Papua New Guinea encouraged claims that preferential voting systems could steer polities in the direction of ‘moderate’ multi-ethnic government. Sixteen years later, we have a longer time period and larger volume of data to reassess these verdicts. This article investigates ballot transfer and party vote–seat share patterns in the seven deeply divided polities with some experience of preferential voting for legislative elections or direct presidential elections (Northern Ireland, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Estonia, Sri Lanka, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Southern Rhodesia). We find little support for centripetalist claims that such systems encourage ‘moderate’ parties. We argue that where district magnitude is low, where voters are required to rank preferences and where ticket voting prevails, departures from vote–seat proportionality may favour ‘moderate’ parties, but such heavily engineered systems may simply advantage the larger parties or yield erratic outcomes.

Copyright © The Author(s). Published by Government and Opposition Limited and Cambridge University Press 2017 

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John Coakley is a Professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast, and Professor Emeritus, University College Dublin. Contact email:

John Fraenkel is a Professor in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington. Contact email:


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