Variations of Party List Proportional Systems: Closed List, Open List and Free List
Party list systems are the most common methods of full representation used around the world. The three major variants of party list full representation systems vary to the degree that they allow voters to cast votes for candidates and for political parties.

Closed List

The simplest, most common party list system is the closed list. In closed list systems, ranks its candidates in a list prior to the election. The order of candidates can be determined either by party members in primaries and conventions, by local committees or by party leaders. In an effort to attract widespread support, lists typically are diversified along lines that are important to the party and the voters it seeks to attract; factors can include geography, ideology, name recognition, gender and so on. Called the "puller," the first name on the list is often the most popular and well-recognized candidate.

At the ballot box, rather than voting for any particular candidate, voters simply designate their favorite party. When all the ballots are counted, seats are assigned to each party in accordance with its percentage of the popular vote: in a ten seat district, a party would win three seats if it won some 30% of the vote. The candidates filling that party’s allotment of seats are taken from the top of the list downwards. If a party earned three seats, its top three candidates would take the seats.

Proponents of closed lists point out that they are easy for voters to understand, and may be particularly useful in situations where levels of voter education are low. They also stress their accountability: voters know exactly what they are getting when they support a particular party. Closed lists also can allow parties to take clear steps to elect more women and other traditionally under-represented constituencies. The main concern with closed lists is that they can concentrate too much power in the hands of party leaders and activists. Because parties determine the rankings on the lists, the worry is that representatives will be more responsive to party politics than voter concerns. Independent candidacies also are difficult.

Open Lists

The second major category of party list systems is called the open list. Open list systems counteract the perception of "boss-ism" present in closed list. In open list systems, voters not only indicate a party preference on their ballot, but also preferences among individual candidates within that party. As in closed list systems, seats are assigned to parties in accordance with their shares of popular support. The ranking of a party list of candidates, however, and therefore the individual representatives selected, are decided by the voters’ choices or by a combination of the voters’ choices and the party’s choices.

Most commonly, the party presents an ordered list, but voters are given the power to change the order of that list by voting directly for candidates. A rarer method is an "unordered list," as used in Finland. With an unordered list, voters vote directly for candidates. The total vote for a party’s slate of candidates (which can have more candidates than seats to be filled, as the candidate vote acts as a primary) determines its share of seats, and those seats are filled by the candidates who received the most individual votes.

Proponents of open list systems believe that by allowing voters to choose among individual candidates within a party, the candidates will be more responsive to the concerns of the voters than the demands of the party leaders. They argue that open lists give voters more input over what happens to their vote. Critics warn against the effects of intra-party competition, including a greater potential for "pork barrel" projects, negative campaigning and "politics of personality."

Free List

The third and most rarely used variant is the free list system. Free list systems allow voters to vote for candidates from different party lists (panachange). Seats are essentially allocated to individual candidates based on their popular support, but the actual mechanism is quite complicated.

Recent Articles
October 19th 2009
A better election system
Lowell Sun

Election expert Doug Amy explains how choice voting can "inject new blood" into the elections of Lowell (MA), and give voters a greater incentive to participate.

October 16th 2009
Haven't Detroit voters spoken enough?
Livingston Daily

In Detroit, there have been three mayors in the past two years and the current one has come under scrutiny. Perhaps a system like instant runoff voting will help bring political stability to motor city.

August 21st 2009
Black candidate for Euclid school board to test new voting system
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Limited voting, a form of proportional voting, will be used in Euclid (OH), in the hopes of allowing better representation of minorities.

July 2nd 2009
Reforming Albany
New York Times

FairVote's Rob Richie responds in a letter to the editor making the case for proportional voting systems to bring substantive reform to New York's legislature.