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Electoral Systems and Roles in the Legislative Arena

Abstract and Keywords

Do electoral systems impact the roles that elected representatives play in the legislative arena? Despite the concept’s long pedigree in legislative studies, evidence of an association between the electoral institutions and the role orientations adopted by legislators is hard to come by. After detailing what are roles in the legislative arena and reviewing the state of the literature, we explore three possible reasons—critically re-examining the utility of the role concept. After approaching representational roles from the common perspective of the representatives, we turn to the perspective of their principals in the chain of delegation. Only very recently has a literature on citizens’ expectations regarding the representative relationship started to develop, albeit in isolation.

Keywords: electoral systems, representational roles, focus of representation, style of representation, citizens’ preferences for representation

Do electoral systems impact the roles that elected representatives play in the legislative arena? The simple answer, Bogdanor (1985, 299) concluded early on, is no: “The electoral system is not a fundamental cause of variations in the focus of representation.” For the longest time, electoral systems did not feature very prominently in the scholarly inquiry into the sources of legislative roles. In spite of recent, neo-institutionalist efforts (Blomgren and Rozenberg 2012) to revive interest in whether electoral institutions bring about particular foci or styles of representation (to name the most influential operational definition of roles, see Wahlke et al. 1962), evidence today continues to be as “fragmentary and sometimes contradictory” (Jewell 1970, 483).

Still, the roles of parliamentarians are important because they are thought to underpin their behavior in the legislative arena and thereby policy outcomes. Elections, and specifically electoral systems, are instrumental in translating the public’s preferences into the selection of representatives who, in turn, will set policy (Powell 2000). Many view the electoral system as the single most important lever to engineer democratic decision making (Norris 2004). Even though scholars’ understanding of roles has varied over time (see later), the implicit reasoning in the literature, depicted in Figure 16.1, is that the electoral institutions generate incentives to cater to either broad or narrow constituencies to which parliamentarians’ role orientations will strategically respond. Once in office, their role orientations will in turn inform their behavior in the legislative arena (see Mansbridge 2009).

Whereas a burgeoning literature demonstrates that policies as different as the redistribution of wealth, public goods spending, and protectionism vary systematically across different electoral systems (see André, Depauw, and Shugart 2014; Carey and Hix 2013; Persson and Tabellini 2003), evidence with regard to legislative roles is hard to come by. After detailing what are roles in the legislative arena and reviewing the state of the (p. 322) literature, we explore three possible reasons. One is the perplexing dearth of comparative research in this field; another is that the causal mechanisms thought to underpin observed correlations continue to be undertheorized. Finally, the very nature of electoral rules and the causal chain linking legislators’ roles to them involves human discretion, allowing contextual factors to have a strong mediating impact. In this manner we critically re-examine the utility of the role concept.

Electoral Systems and Roles in the Legislative ArenaClick to view larger

Figure 16.1. A conceptual model for studying representational roles.

After approaching representational roles from the common perspective of the representatives, we turn to the perspective of their principals in the chain of delegation. Only very recently has a literature on citizens’ expectations regarding the representative relationship started to develop, albeit in isolation. Given that popular democratic beliefs hinge on the notion of responsiveness to the preferences of citizens, it is especially puzzling how little we know about voter expectations vis-à-vis the roles performed in the legislative arena (see Figure 16.1). Nonetheless, insofar as variations in the gap between voter expectations and their representatives’ role orientations originate in the electoral system, this knowledge may significantly further our understanding of growing popular disenchantment with representative government and political disengagement.

Institutions and Roles in the Legislative Arena

What is a role—other than the means to relate individuals’ behavior to the institution they are part of? In the legislative arena, Wahlke et al. (1962, 8) argue, roles constitute coherent sets of norms and expectations of behavior associated with being a legislator. Together, they identify the behaviors “that make the legislature an institution” (Wahlke et al. 1962, 20). Even though the interactionist tradition, by contrast, has emphasized that individuals—complete with individual career goals and idiosyncratic motivations (Searing 1994)—participate in defining their roles, they can hardly be expected to do so in a vacuum (see Fenno 1978). This particular debate is largely settled (Searing 2012):1 that is, following the neo-institutionalist turn, most would agree that institutional (p. 323) rules condition and constrain the role orientations adopted by legislators in their effort to satisfy their individual aims (see Strøm 1997; Blomgren and Rozenberg 2012; Andeweg 2014).

Despite the many misgivings about their meaning (see Blomgren and Rozenberg 2012), there is a recent neo-institutionalist revival in the scholarly interest to trace back to the electoral system the sources of legislators’ role orientations. Most of the attention has concentrated on what legislators regard as their focus of representation and its counterpart, their style of representation (Wahlke et al. 1962). The focus of representation denotes whose opinions and interests legislators think to represent primarily, whereas their style of representation refers to the degree of leeway they feel they have in interpreting said interests. Both are thought to underpin, but ultimately to be distinct from, behavior in the legislative arena (Andeweg 2012).2

The style of representation separates delegates, who act upon their principals’ instructions, from trustees, who act upon their own mature judgment to determine their principals’ interest, to take the two extremes of the continuum. In their study of representation in France, Converse and Pierce (1986) added the distinction between district and party delegates, thereby conflating focus and style (Andeweg 2014), in an effort to better account for the political parties that throughout the world “make the constitutional chain of delegation and accountability work in practice” (Müller 2000, 309). Truly, in most—especially European—countries, the style of representation is biased toward party delegates. The 2014 Participation and Representation study (Deschouwer, Depauw, and André 2014), for instance, finds that while just under half of the legislators indicate to toe the party line in case of conflicting opinions, trustees tend to outnumber the constituency delegates almost three to one (see Table 16.1).

In addition, different foci of representation can be meaningfully described using two dimensions, Wessels (1999) argued (see Figure 16.2). Along the regional dimension, legislators may focus—adopting an ever wider view of their principal—on the people residing in the constituency (or district), in the nation, or even, in the particular case of Members of the European Parliament, in Europe. Across European democracies, legislators narrowly favor the district over the nation by about 10 percent (see Table 16.1, Deschouwer et al. 2014; but see Kielhorn 2001). MEPs, the 1996 European Representation Study (Wessels 1999) found, overwhelmingly adopt a national, rather than a European, outlook.

Along the group dimension, legislators may focus on representing a specific functional group defined by a common social, economic, or cultural interest (e.g., women, ethnic minorities, trade unions). Increasingly, interests may also extend, far beyond the electoral connection, to include the disenfranchised, or even animals and nonsentient nature (see Urbinati and Warren 2008). Alternatively, legislators may defer to the party, which typically combines and aggregates different group interests. Again, Deschouwer et al. (2014) found, the party electorate is the predominant focus across European democracies (see Table 16.1). Mirroring earlier surveys (see also Esaiasson 2000; Kielhorn 2001; Thomassen and Andeweg 2004), only a minority attributes great importance to representing a specific functional group. (p. 324)

Table 16.1 Foci and Styles of Representation across Europe

Focus of Representation

Style of Representation


Party Voters

Functional Group


District Delegate

Party Delegate


Closed-list PR

















































Flexible-list PR

































Open-list PR

































Mixed-member systems

























Majoritarian systems

























(p. 325)

Electoral Systems and Roles in the Legislative ArenaClick to view larger

Figure 16.2. Disentangling the dimensions in legislators’ focus of representation.

Source: Wessels (1999, 214).

Literature Review: Electoral System Effects on Roles from the Perspective of the Representatives

Despite roles’ long pedigree in political science, evidence of electoral systems bringing about particular foci and styles of representation continues to be “fragmentary and sometimes contradictory” (see also Wessels 1999; Searing 1994; Jewell 1970). The observation is all the more startling given the role concept’s intricate association with the institution wherein the roles are performed and the rules that govern it (see Wahlke et al. 1962). Table 16.2 maps recent efforts to unearth evidence of electoral system effects on the roles played in the legislative arena. Taken together, the summary in the table clearly demonstrates that (1) despite revived interest, truly comparative efforts are few; (2) the literature’s propensity, moreover, to cherry-pick, reporting on only a small number of the possible foci and styles, has yielded at least as many “empty cells” as meaningful results; and (3) nonetheless, the number of reported nonfindings is considerable.

Styles of Representation

Studies of electoral systems have concentrated on differences in electoral formula, ballot structure, and district magnitude, and role studies are no different. Solid evidence of such system effects is hard to come by, however. Theoretically, Wahlke et al. (1962; see also Rehfeld 2005) tied the existence of district delegates to the specific electoral incentive generated by the US first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, whereas the trustee orientation, they claim, is rooted in the heterogeneity of districts—which is also thought to vary across different electoral systems. Yet, scholars continue to disagree whether a legislator (p. 326) (p. 327) (p. 328) acts as a Burkean trustee because on most issues heterogeneous districts are unable to agree on clear instructions (Wahlke et al. 1962) or, alternatively, because he or she feels confident about knowing district opinion (Alpert 1979; see also Pitkin 1967). Trustees, it seems, are at least as good at assessing district opinion as delegates (Andeweg 2012; Erikson, Luttbeg, and Holloway 1975; Hedlund and Friesema 1972), calling into question the behavioral consequences of different styles (see also Jewell 1970).

Table 16.2 A Summary of the Literature Addressing Electoral System Effects on Legislators’ Focus and Style of Representation

Focus on Representation

Style of Representation





District Delegate

Party Delegate



District magnitude

André et al. (2016a)





Dudzińska et al. (2014)








Farrell and Scully (2010)


Pilet et al. (2012)




Wessels (1999)





Ballot structure: Preferential system

André et al. (2016a)





Dudzińska et al. (2014)








Farrell and Scully (2010)


Önnudóttir (2016)




Pilet et al. (2012)




District magnitude* Preferential system

André et al. (2015)


André et al. (2016b)




Farrell and Scully (2010)


Pilet et al. (2012)




Electoral formula: Majoritarian system

Cooper and Richardson (2006)



Dudzińska et al. (2014)








Pilet et al. (2012)





District vs. List Members

Chiru and Enyedi (2015)




Ilonszki (1998)




Klingemann and Wessels (2001)



Lundberg (2007)






Zittel (2012)




Empirically, neither the electoral formula, nor the ballot structure, nor district magnitude is a major determinant of the degree of discretion a legislator sees in interpreting citizens’ opinions (see Table 16.2). One exception is Cooper and Richardson (2006), who note that, among US state legislators, single-seat districts breed district delegates, whereas trustees are more numerous in multiseat districts. In the mixed-member system of Germany, Klingemann and Wessels (2001) also noted a clear mandate divide, district delegates being more numerous among the district members and trustees among those elected from the party list. Other studies either fail to find such system effects (André, Depauw, and Deschouwer 2016a; Lundberg 2007) or report findings that are at the least counterintuitive, if not contradictory (see Önnudóttir 2016; Dudzińska et al. 2014).

Focus of Representation

The one consistent finding in the literature thus far is that, along the regional dimension, a strong district focus is closely associated with FPTP and two-round majoritarian systems (see Table 16.2). Yet scholars disagree whether the electoral formula or district magnitude is the relevant component driving the observed relation. Apparently, the ballot structure has neither a direct nor a mediating effect in this regard.

Some have found a legislator’s district focus to be shaped by the binary distinction across different countries between single-seat and multiseat districts (Dudzińska et al. 2014; Pilet, Freire, and Costa 2012). Such evidence has also been found among Canadian city councillors—elected either by single-seat wards or at large (Koop and Kraemer 2016)—and in the context of mixed-member systems. Relative to the members elected by the party-list proportional representation (PR) tier, members elected in a single-seat district have a markedly stronger district focus (notwithstanding list members’ efforts to shadow district members of competing parties, see Carman and Shephard 2007). The effect is consistent across different national cultures (in Germany: Klingemann and Wessels 2001; Zittel 2012; Hungary: Chiru and Enyedi 2015; Ilonszki 1998; and Romania: Chiru and Enyedi 2015) and in both mixed-member proportional and mixed-member majoritarian systems.

Others have reported a similar impact of district magnitude as a metric property. National legislators elected by single-seat districts favor a district focus, Wessels (1999) found; as district magnitude grows larger, by contrast, legislators tend to trade in their district focus. The 2014 Participation and Representation study provided further firm evidence, across over sixty national and regional legislatures, of district (p. 329) magnitude’s negative effect on adopting a district focus (André et al. 2016a; Dudzińska et al. 2014). Wessels (1999) also found that the district focus becomes increasingly rare among MEPs, as district magnitude grows larger. Since then, however, the variation in district magnitude in European Parliament elections, and thereby its impact, is sharply reduced (Farrell and Scully 2010): following the 2002 change in EU legislation, the effect pertains more to districted versus at-large PR systems, as well as to the size of the country (Farrell and Scully 2005). Within countries, MEPs tend to put less emphasis on the district than the members of the national parliament—which is roughly in line with differences in district size (Wessels 1999).

However, these seemingly contrasting interpretations are easily reconciled. On the one hand, the contrast between single-seat and two-seat districts may well be greater than at any other district magnitude. Certainly, there are additional normative expectations of legislators being the sole defendant of the district associated with single-seat district systems (Mitchell 2000). Similar normative expectations are probably present in at-large systems, urging legislators to focus on representing the nation (Thomassen and Andeweg 2004). On the other hand, different modeling strategies (including both electoral formula and district magnitude as predictors, Dudzińska et al. 2014; or excluding single-seat districts as an additional robustness check, André et al. 2016a) strongly suggest that, even beyond the binary distinction, district magnitude continues to impact legislators’ district focus.

What is less clear is which focus legislators trade in their district focus for as district magnitude increases. Along the regional dimension, one could argue legislators will increasingly adopt a national focus. But neither Wessels (1999) nor Dudzińska et al. (2014) found evidence supporting this contention. Nor is there consistent evidence of ballot structure effects in this regard. Only Pilet et al. (2012) found national orientations to be more important in the closed-list PR system of Portugal, compared to Belgium and France. Alternatively, legislators may put more emphasis on the group dimension as district magnitude grows. Certainly, there is some evidence that, as district magnitude increases, legislators trade in their district focus for a more partisan focus (André et al. 2016a; Pilet et al. 2012; Wessels 1999). In mixed-member systems as well, list members tend to have a stronger partisan orientation than district members, in line with theoretical expectations (in Germany and the United Kingdom: Lundberg 2007; Hungary: Chiru and Enyedi 2015; Ilonszki 1998; and Romania: Chiru and Enyedi 2015). But the effect has not been observable in all cases (see Table 16.2). Ballot structure, again, largely has no impact. As to legislators representing functional social groups, other individual and contextual factors pertaining to the interest group structure in the country are more relevant (Wessels 1999): only in mixed-member systems is there some indication that list members may be more likely to adopt a functional focus of representation (in Germany and the United Kingdom: Lundberg 2007; Hungary: Ilonszki 1998).

Finding a correlation between the electoral system in the country and a particular focus of representation is but the first condition, however. The causal mechanism underpinning the impact of electoral systems in this regard continues to be undertheorized. (p. 330) The impact of district magnitude is a case in point. Three possible causal mechanisms for the negative effect have been put forward in this literature.3

One is the incentive generated by the electoral system to cultivate a personal vote. Legislators in small-magnitude districts are expected to favor a district focus because the smaller the district magnitude, the more personalized the electoral competition between candidates (Wessels 1999, 222) and the easier it is for voters to monitor and sanction their behavior (Bowler and Farrell 1993; Mitchell 2000).

The second mechanism hinges on legislators’ uncertainty about district opinion. The relative homogeneity of small-magnitude districts will make it possible for legislators to discern and represent the district’s opinion (Wessels 1999; Alpert 1979). Greater population size, by contrast, increases the heterogeneity of constituents’ interests and preferences, and in an attempt to reduce uncertainty, legislators can be expected to trade in their district focus for a partisan focus.

The third causal argument pertains to the size of a legislator’s re-election constituency (Grofman 2005): single-seat districts typically set a high threshold in this regard, necessitating a relatively large proportion of the vote to carry the district (see Lijphart 1994). Consequently, a legislator may be expected to focus on the entire district. Yet, as district magnitude increases, a legislator may be returned to parliament by winning a much smaller proportion of the vote (Myerson 1993), and he or she is not similarly constrained. He or she may well court sufficient support in a geographical, functional, or even partisan subpart of the district.

All three causal mechanisms can plausibly provide a theoretical explanation for the observed negative impact of district magnitude on legislators’ district orientations, and therefore, as long as we cannot discriminate between them, our understanding of the consequences of electoral systems falls short. That research to date has been unsuccessful in demonstrating that district magnitude has a differential effect on legislators’ focus of representation in open-list and closed-list systems might at least be taken as evidence against the plausibility of the “personal vote” mechanism.

Why So Little Solid Evidence?

The poor performance of electoral systems as a source of legislative role orientations could be the result of three shortcomings. One stems from limited data availability, another results from the contested specification of the role concept, and the third is tied to the very nature of electoral systems and the endogeneity bias they present.

Data Availability

One important reason is simply the dearth of widely comparative data: in recent years, there have only been a handful of projects surveying legislators across different countries (p. 331) on their roles (see Bailer 2014). They are further limited in geographical scope, concentrating on the European continent (see Andeweg 2014; Wessels 1999). Almost by design, by contrast, the single-country studies, which (continue to) predominate the literature on this topic, fail to consider the consequences of different electoral systems. Rarely do they take into account within-district variation in electoral incentives (for instance, in vulnerability). In addition, differences in the operational definition of roles raise serious doubts as to whether the shares of trustees and delegates, for instance, can be meaningfully compared across different legislatures (Jewell 1983). Yet, insofar as role orientations are distinct from the behavior they instigate, we have only surveys and interviews to unearth them.

The Role Concept

From the perspective of electoral systems, the study of roles in the legislative arena presents an uneasy paradox. If roles are defined in terms of norms and expectations (in the structuralist tradition), we lack a convincing causal mechanism tying them to the electoral system. By contrast, if roles are taken to denote behavioral strategies in response to electoral incentives (in the neo-institutionalist tradition), we have no need for roles independent from these patterns of behavior (see also Andeweg 2012).

Additionally, the role concept, and its predominant operational definition, is contested primarily for three reasons (see Andeweg 2014). Theoretically, the mandate-independence controversy that underlies the trustee–delegate distinction cannot be resolved, for representation by definition entails both in equal measure (Pitkin 1967). Empirically, early on, the trustee–delegate distinction was heavily criticized for ignoring the central position of the party in the legislative arena (see Thomassen 1994; Converse and Pierce 1986). Trustee or delegate orientations, finally, bore little resemblance to the behavior, especially in roll-call voting, of elected representatives. The normative question wording, what should the representative do, may well have contributed to the gap separating norms and real-life behavior. The set of attitudes and motivations, Searing (1994) asserted, associated with a full-blown role can hardly be captured by a single survey item.

Regarding the focus of representation, moreover, the regional and group dimensions similarly fail to exhaust the many options open to politicians, thereby biasing our measurements. Evidence from fifteen countries, for instance, indicates that a sizeable number of legislators primarily represent some geographical subpart of the district—a possibility that is not captured by standard survey questions (André and Depauw 2016). Additionally, we cannot be sure thus far these foci constitute clear and distinct alternatives between which a legislator must choose: Is the opposite of a district orientation by necessity a national outlook? Is a functional group orientation by definition more national in focus? Clearly, the group in question may be concentrated geographically too. Can a partisan focus, furthermore, not be both district and nationally oriented?4 Insofar as legislators in practice may combine different foci to build winning coalitions (p. 332) of supporters (see Bishin 2009), system effects will be diluted. Moreover, Andeweg (1997) argued that, just as actors play different parts in succession, legislators can adopt different foci and styles in different circumstances. Just as congress members’ roll-calls are most responsive to the constituency on highly salient issues (see Kingdon 1977), legislators’ focus may well vary across different policy areas.

The Nature of Electoral Systems

Electoral systems are intricate configurations of the rules governing the act of voting and the translation of votes into seats. As such, they create an environment in which different behavioral strategies on the part of legislators likely become more, or less, successful at the polls. But electoral systems seldom force onto legislators a particular strategy (see Morgenstern and Vázquez-D’Elía 2007). Their strategic response entails human discretion, filtering the electoral incentives through their motivations and beliefs. Moreover, pushing beyond the simple notion that “it depends,” we argue that, as noted before, a greater variety of role orientations are open to legislators especially in high-magnitude districts as just who their winning coalitions of supporters are is not forced by the electoral system.

Moreover, the argument that electoral systems bring about particular role orientations may well suffer from an endogeneity bias. Institutions matter, Przeworski (2004, 528) noted, only if they “prevent people from doing what they would otherwise have done or induce them to do what they otherwise would not have done.” Electoral institutions are a case in point. We cannot comfortably think that legislators are assigned to different electoral systems by chance for two reasons. One is that particular electoral institutions emerge only in particular conditions; the other is that politicians self-sort into different systems in the sense that the electoral system is a consideration in their decision to stand for office in the first place.

Political parties choose electoral systems, Colomer (2005) observed.5 PR systems emerge where multiple parties compete, rather than the electoral system generating a new party system (see also Benoit 2002). Where, taken together, niche parties poll significant support, they are likely instrumental in deciding on more proportional systems. It would probably overstate individual legislators’ influence to argue that, because electoral systems are set by law, legislators with particular role orientations can decide on the rules that govern electoral competition. But, clearly, values—including values with regard to the relationship between elected representatives and constituents—enter the decision making on electoral system design and electoral reform (see Renwick and Pilet 2015).

Individuals may also self-select in another regard: there is a vast literature indicating that strategic considerations loom large in individuals’ decision whether, and when, to run for public office (Maisel and Stone 1997; Maestas et al. 2006). Individuals enter races they think they can win. In conditions that put more emphasis on district (p. 333) representation, individuals lacking firm local roots and/or the appropriate focus of representation can be expected to withdraw. Of course, most elections also feature great numbers of candidates who have little to no hope of gaining election. But the (self-)selection may further be reinforced by voters’ differential support for candidates advertising various role orientations (see Mansbridge 2009).

Nonetheless, despite recent misgivings about the endogeneity bias, one recent study found electoral system effects on legislators’ district orientation to be strongest among trustees and weakest among those who are through their delegate role orientation already positively predisposed toward a strong district orientation, tentatively suggesting that electoral institutions may get them “to do what they otherwise would not have done” after all (André, Gallagher, and Sandri 2014, 180).

Literature Review: Electoral Systems and Public Expectations

The representational roles that legislators perform in the legislative arena have been studied almost exclusively from the perspective of how legislators themselves define their task (Blomgren and Rozenberg 2012, 9). Focusing on role orientations as they can be found in the minds of politicians, Searing (1994) argued, we are in the best position to explain their behavioral consequences. Yet, despite representational roles ultimately being about the manner in which politicians are responsive to the preferences of the public, relatively few efforts have been made to unearth citizens’ preferences regarding their focus or style. Consequently, we have only a very patched understanding of what roles constituents expect their representatives to perform.

Individuals, Carman (2006, 2007) has demonstrated, have (latent) preferences for the style of representation their representative should adopt: some favor trustees who lead, while others want someone who listens and acts upon their instructions (see also André and Depauw 2016; Bengtsson and Wass 2010; Andeweg and Thomassen 2005; Converse and Pierce 1986). Their preferences have real consequences, moreover, for their voting behavior and incumbents’ job approval (Barker and Carman 2012). Individuals also have meaningful preferences with regard to legislators’ district versus national focus (André, Depauw and Andeweg 2017; Lapinski et al. 2016; Vivyan and Wagner 2016; Doherty 2013; Bengtsson and Wass 2011; Griffin and Flavin 2011; Grant and Rudolph 2004). Where there is a clear gap between citizen expectations and legislators’ roles, the empirical evidence indicates, citizen satisfaction not just with individual legislators but with democracy suffers (André and Depauw 2017) and political disengagement ensues (André et al. 2017).

A natural conjecture, which thus far has not been studied, is that this gap varies across electoral systems. Just as levels of policy congruence are shaped by the (p. 334) institutional context (Curini, Jou, and Memoli 2012; Kim 2009), so too electoral systems likely affect the correspondence between individuals’ expectations and legislators’ role orientations. Yet, without exception, the extant studies have focused on a single country, and the variety, moreover, of survey question wordings and experimental designs used has further hampered the systematic comparison of voter expectations across institutional contexts. At least three competing expectations may be put forward for empirical testing.

The first expectation is simply that whereas politicians’ roles mirror the incentives generated by the electoral system, citizens’ expectations do not and may well reflect a general human tendency toward self-interest. This is what von Schoultz and Wass (2016) found with regard to district magnitude: in low-magnitude districts, politicians put a lot more emphasis on district representation than citizens do. Yet, as district magnitude increases, their district focus grows weaker—narrowing the gap with citizens’ preferences that are more constant across districts.

Second, we might also expect ballot structure to have an impact, reducing the gap in strong preferential systems where voters can purposely select candidates with particular role orientations (see Mansbridge 2009) without having to change their partisan affiliation. In FPTP voters can similarly reward particular role orientations, but (possibly) only if they are prepared to vote for another party (Mitchell 2000). In closed-list systems, by contrast, because their vote for the party will benefit the candidates in the order they appear on the ballot, voters have no leverage toward the role orientations returned to parliament. As such, given the gap’s negative impact on citizen satisfaction, this pattern may well underpin Farrell and McAllister’s (2006) finding that preferential voting increases citizen satisfaction with democracy.

The third expectation builds on Shugart’s (2001) notion of systems’ electoral efficiency. Inefficiencies on the intraparty dimension come in two guises: deviations toward party centeredness leave politicians responsive to the party, not the electorate, whereas deviations toward candidate centeredness will squander public funds to narrow, local interests. In inefficient systems, citizens can be expected to stress in the survey setting the perceived flaws of the electoral system and have in such circumstances been known to actively pressure for electoral “reform from below” (see Norris 2011). As such, the gap is likely widest in inefficient systems of every ilk and smallest in efficient systems. Mixed-member systems, most notably, have been argued to effectively balance different role orientations, district members focusing on constituency interests and list members on representing citizens on the big national issues of the day (Shugart and Wattenberg 2001).

As such, as long as we ignore what voters want from their representatives and how their preferences vary across electoral systems, the “electoral sweet spot” (Carey and Hix 2011) will continue to elude us. Consequently, efforts to increase satisfaction with representative democracy through electoral engineering are very likely to miss their mark. (p. 335)

Conclusion and Future Directions

The utility of the role concept is that it constitutes the linking pin between the institutions and behavior in the legislative arena (Andeweg 2014). But despite the concept’s long pedigree in legislative studies, evidence of even the first step, a close association between the electoral institutions in the country and the role orientations adopted by legislators, is hard to come by. Large-scale comparative efforts inquiring into the sources of legislators’ focus and style of representation are surprisingly few and far between: even a most thorough search failed to unearth more than a handful. Additionally, the extant studies demonstrate that general types of electoral systems are not particularly good predictors of role orientations.

In particular, the large within-country variation emerging from these studies should encourage us to explore operationalizations of the electoral incentives generated by electoral systems at a lower—district or even individual—level. While electoral systems may bring about particular role orientations among legislators in their effort to avoid defeat at the polls, to some defeat is a distinct possibility, whereas to others it is but a distant shadow. As such, individual electoral vulnerability has the ability to mediate, and thereby to baffle, the incentives generated by the electoral system: legislators who win by a narrow margin can be expected to be strongly constrained by the system’s incentives, whereas legislators who rest on comfortable margins are not similarly constrained and are free to pursue other, even nonelectoral, interests (André, Depauw, and Martin 2015; Heitshusen, Young, and Wood 2005).

Additionally, electoral system effects have all too frequently been studied in isolation. The behavioral mechanisms underpinning electoral system effects necessitate human discretion—allowing context to exert a greater mediating impact and thereby to hamper our understanding of such system effects (Ferree, Powell, and Scheiner 2013). Contextual factors may include candidate selection procedures, electoral volatility, turnover, and devolution. Scholars have argued that inclusive candidate selection procedures may introduce incentives to cultivate a more personal support even in closed-list systems (Hazan and Rahat 2010; Atmor, Hazan, and Rahat 2011; Itzkovitch-Malka and Hazan 2017).

Moreover, a party’s strategy to concentrate on mobilizing core supporters or chasing nonpartisans is shaped by country-, district-, and even party-level differences in electoral volatility (Rohrschneider and Whitefield 2012). High levels of electoral volatility may decidedly dampen a legislator’s enthusiasm for a partisan role orientation (André, Depauw, and Beyens 2015): doing so would hardly ingratiate them with the growing scores of nonpartisans.

There are some indications that role orientations may change over the course of a legislator’s career (Patzelt 1997; see also Fenno 1978). If so, aggregate-level differences in turnover between legislatures may affect observed role orientations, hiding from view possible electoral system effects. (p. 336)

Finally, insofar as role orientations differ by policy area (see earlier), the changing institutional architecture of politics in multilevel democracies may be expected to impact the roles played in the legislative arena (André, Bradbury, and Depauw 2014). If local economic policy is set by the regional authorities, not the federal, for instance, there are likely fewer federal legislators who embrace a strong district focus, or district delegate style, of representation. Insofar as context matters, therefore, we may well continue to wrongly underestimate the impact of electoral systems.

At the same time, conceptual and operational headaches continue to plague the role concept. As an intervening variable, it may provide the linking pin tying legislators’ behavior to the electoral institutions governing their (re-)election. But, insofar as the role orientations as currently identified are neither exhaustive nor mutually distinct, what is the concept’s added value? What’s more, roles cannot be observed beyond individuals’ internal attitudes and motivations. As such, using the same survey data to connect legislators’ self-reported behavior to these attitudes and motivations may come perilously close to being tautological.

In this sense, the changing political landscape will increasingly challenge the notion that elected representatives can with any certainty delineate the groups of people whom they are representing and who in turn will see them returned to parliament. On the one hand, the growing trend toward individualization in society has dramatically undercut the presence of stable and homogenous social or ideological categories of citizens that underpin legislative roles (Andeweg 2003). The roots of political parties in society especially have withered, but not just those of political parties (Dalton 2004). Other social collectivities are similarly affected. On the other hand, the growing pace of social, economic, and technological change renders the public agenda unpredictable. Many new issues, particularly those involving identity such as gender, race, or ethnicity, that are nonterritorial clamor for inclusion on the political agenda (Urbinati and Warren 2008). To incorporate these new issues, political theorists have increasingly revived the notions of surrogate representation (Mansbridge 2003; Pitkin 1967) or even turned to representation by unelected private individuals (Saward 2009). By contrast, the manner in which roles are captured has been virtually unchanged for over fifty years! A critical re-examination and update of the content of roles, one that is not harking back to the social cleavages of the past, is certainly called for.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (1.) Saward (2010), for instance, states that any representative claim combines both an aesthetic (agency) and a cultural (structure) moment.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (2.) Insofar as role orientations include particular patterns of behavior—as both Searing (1994) and Strøm (1997) would seem to suggest, they are but a mere label or shorthand, not an explanation, of behavior.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (3.) A possible fourth, aggregate-level, mechanism may be discerned, rooted in the relative strength of mainstream and niche parties. District magnitude increases systems’ proportionality and lowers the threshold for niche political parties to gain representation. But the mechanism underpinning the association pertains more to the partisan culture than the electoral system per se. Even though there is some dispute among scholars as to the definition of niche parties (Ezrow 2010; Meguid 2010), most agree that party strategies differ by type: legislators representing niche parties can be expected to favor a partisan (or group) focus of representation that is not concentrated on the median voter within a particular geographical area (Ezrow et al. 2011; Adams et al. 2006).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (4.) Searing (1994, 486), for instance, defines the party as a disposition, not a role: “a disposition that functions like a decision rule and can be applied to MPs in any role.” By contrast, others (Andeweg 1997; Scully and Farrell 2003) have defined the partisan as a full-blown role orientation.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (5.) Also see Colomer’s chapter in this volume.