What I learned from… Damien Bol

Academic departments conceal libraries of cutting edge research so it is virtually impossible to read everything. But let’s ‘aim to the moon hit the sun’ (or was it upside down?). Here’s what I learned from…

Bol, D. (2016). Electoral reform, values and party self-interest. Party Politics, 22(1), 93-104.

Political parties need to follow electoral rules to get elected but, once elected, they can (to some extent) change these rules. What drives them to support changes? Is it a desire to be re-elected or the benefit of society? Apparently, is a bit of both. Here’s why.


Under the ‘electoral maximizer’ rationale, the bare model of action would be to compare current seats to potential seats after a reform. In bare logical terms this comes down to a belief that if the # seats tomorrow > # seats today –> politicians support reform. However, this view is questioned by some who note that, in addition, political parties also consider social goals when deciding to whether support a reform or not. Damien wants to test the tension between these two views.


To do so, drawing from the Downsian spatial proximity model (in a nutshell, party values and voters share a ‘space’ in the sense that voters vote for a party because it’s the closest to their preferences – hence parties would want to support policies coherent with their existing preferences to not distance themselves from voters), Damien develops a maximising rationale that can be applied to either values or seats.

It comes down to the following:

(System Goal – Party Goal)^2 – (Reform Goal – Party Goal)^2

How does this model work?

* First parenthesis: If the system goal is currently equal to the party goal, the first part of this equation would be zero. Anything on the second parenthesis would bring the equation to negative terms, the party would not desire change (it’s already achieving its goal).

* Second parenthesis: if the reform makes the party goals attainable, the second side of the equation zeroes out. Under these circumstances, the intensity with which a party would want to change the system comes down to how far the system currently is from the party’s goal (if today is miles away from where you want to be, you will probably want to change the way the system works to give you more chances of achieving your objectives).

For mathematical convenience, the model can be simplified to the following statement, which allows Damien to focus only in the later part of the equation (highlighted & underlined).

(SystemGoal^2 – Reform Goal^2) PLUS or MINUS 2*PartyGoal

[Plus or minus depending on whether a given reform favours or disfavours the preferences of any given party.]

This is, of course, a general model that needs to be applied to a specific situation to make any sense. To do so, Damien works on the basis of evaluating reforms that changed the level of inclusiveness of parliamentary representation in different countries. This allows him to compare three different types of party goals.

  1. Support of reform about inclusiveness given on the basis of values. (2*PartyGoal -> inclusiveness values proxy).
  2. Support of reform about inclusiveness based on ideologies. (2*PartyGoal -> left/right proxy).
  3. Support of reform about inclusiveness as a result of cold seat calculations. (2*PartyGoal -> -2*PriorElectoralGains).


To test these hypotheses Damien builds his own dataset from reviewing other literature and engaging directly with national experts.

Do note that this requires gathering data on what reforms were proposed, the content of said reforms, their outcome, the associated change in inclusiveness, AND the positions of the parties associated with said reforms. He also analyses an impressive number of cases (23).

As such, the fieldwork is extensive so I could not possibly summarise all the empirical work here. Hence, I prefer to focus on what caught my attention the most from this article. It just so happens that since I am not an expert in electoral politics, rather than the empirical specifics in the analysis, what caught most my attention was the theoretical background above and the somewhat surprising results below.


Why surprising? Well, because the results found are the following: H1 holds. Evidence for H2 is weak. H3 holds too. This basically means that political parties care about both values and seat calculations when thinking on whether to support a reform or not (as oppose than just about pure and cynical electoral maths).

Final Thoughts

Well, it turns out that politicians are not as self-centered as one thinks them to be, they also ponder the values of their parties when deciding to support a reform or not (or this one at least). That’s a surprise! I was definitely expecting the opposite.

Having said that, if we work on the basis of a Downsian concept of spatial proximity, the very interest in being coherent with party values is itself related to the interest in minimising the distance between the party’s position and voter preferences. So, when this article says political parties care about values, it really is saying that political parties care about not losing voters because of the values of the voters. The politicians themselves may or may not care about these values, however.

Alas, the question about the extent to which politicians also care about the same values as their voters (as oppose to being cynical opportunists that would flip their position as soon as they see political convenience) is a question for a separate research project.