Open list

Open list

Open list describes any variant of party-list proportional representation where voters have at least some influence on the order in which a party's candidates are elected. This as opposed to closed list, which allows the usually much fewer, active, members, party officials, or consultants, to determine the order of its candidates and gives the general voter no influence at all on the position of the candidates placed on the party list. Additionally, an open list system can also allow a voter the alternative of voting for the party as a whole without expressing a preference between individuals. There are differences possible between varying open list systems, each giving the voter varying amounts of influence. Voter's choice is usually called preference vote.


List Systems

Relatively closed list

A 'relatively closed' open list system would be one where a candidate has to get a full quota on his or her own in order to be elected (usually Hare quota, but Droop quota is also possible). The total number of seats won by the party minus the number of its candidates that succeeded in getting this quota would then successively be given to those unelected candidates from that party who had been ranked highest on the original list.

More open list

For a 'more open' list system, the quota could be lowered to less than a full one instead. It is then (theoretically) possible that more candidates are eligible for a seat than the party deserves as a whole. It should therefore be clear in advance whether list ranking or absolute votes takes precedence in that case.

In Dutch elections (for example to the House of the Representatives) the voter can give his vote to any candidate of a list; the vote for the candidate in question is called a "preference vote" (voorkeurstem in Dutch). If a candidate has at least 25 % of the quota then he can precede other candidates who stand higher on the list but received fewer preference votes.

An example: A party list got 5000 votes. If the quota is 1000 votes, then the list will provide five members of the parliament.

Candidate position Preference votes 25% of the quota Elected
#1 3500 x (first) x
#2 50 x
#3 150 x
#4 250 x (third) x
#5 100
#6 100
#7 450 x (second) x
#8 50
... ...

Candidates #1, #7 and #4 have reached a quarter of the quota each (250 preference votes or more). They get the first three of the five seats the list has earned. The other two seats will be taken by #2 and #3. This means that #5 is not elected though being the fifth on the list and having more preference votes than #2. (If the party had gained only two seats altogether, then only #1 and #7 had been elected.)

In practice, on the national level only one or two candidates can precede on their lists. This happens more often at the local level where the quota (in absolute numbers of votes) is lower. Parties usually allow candidates to ask for preference votes, but not to have a negative campaign against other candidates on the list.

In elections in Sweden, the 'most open' list is used, but a person needs to receive 5 percent of the party's votes (in elections to the European Parliament, municipal assemblies or county councils) or 8 percent of the party's votes (in elections to the Riksdag) for the personal vote to overrule the ordering on the party list.[1] Voting without expressing a preference between individuals is possible, although the parties urge their voters to support the party's prime candidate, to protect them from being overrun by a person ranked lower by the party.

In Slovakia each voter may, in addition to the party, select one to four candidates from the ordered party list. Candidates who are selected by more than three percent of all of a party's voters are elected (in order of total number of votes) first and only then is the party ordering used. For European elections, voters select two candidates and the candidates must have more than 10 percent of the total votes to override the party list. In practice however, the most well-known candidates tend to be at the top of the party lists, and there are often 15-20 parties in elections so the effect of voters either not giving preference votes at all after selecting a specific party, or giving them to candidates who would be elected anyway is that there are very few candidates elected who would not be elected anyway by virtue of their position on the party lists. However, in the European election in 2009 (the most recent election run under this system) three of Slovakia's thirteen MEPs were elected solely by virtue of preference votes (having positions too low to otherwise win) and only one (Katarína Neveďalová of SMER) was elected solely by virtue of her position on the party list (having fewer preference votes than a number of other candidates who themselves, nevertheless had preferences from fewer than 10 percent of their party's voters).

In the Netherlands, a country with an open list proportional representation system, most people vote for the top candidate indicating no special preference, but support for the party in general. Sometimes, however, people want to express their support for a particular person. Many women, for example, vote for the first woman on the list. If a candidate gathers enough preference votes, then he gets a seat in parliament, even if his position on the list would leave him without a seat. In the 2003 elections Hilbrand Nawijn, the former minister of migration and integration was elected into parliament for the Pim Fortuyn List by preference votes even though he was the last candidate on the list.

A country could introduce a version of a more open list voting system allowing parties to choose a small number (say, 5 or 10) of candidates to be guaranteed to be selected first (perhaps to form a small 'core' of government, such as head of state, cabinet, etc.) This solves the problem of major party figures being prevented from taking office, yet still allows the vast majority of party candidates' order on the party list to be decided by the voters.

Most open list

Finnish parliamentary election uses the open list method. Here an official poster rack in central Helsinki displays the candidates and their assigned ballot numbers by party.
Ballot during the Finnish parliamentary election of 2011

The 'most open' list system is the one where the absolute amount of votes every candidate receives fully determines the "order of election" (the list ranking only possibly serving as a 'tiebreaker'). When such a system is used, one could make the case that within every party an additional virtual single non-transferable vote election is taking place. This system is used in all Finnish and Brazilian multiple-seat elections. While ties may be resolved by a toss in Finland, the oldest candidate wins the tie in Brazil.

Free list

A 'free list' is similar in principle to the most open list, but instead of having just one vote for one candidate in one list, an elector has (usually) as many votes as there are seats to be filled, and may distribute these among different candidates in different lists. Electors may also give more votes to one candidate, in a manner similar to cumulative voting. This gives the elector more control over which candidates are elected.[1]

Arbitrary list

In an Arbitrary List system, political parties may put their candidates on the list in a fixed place, and may leave some places on the list empty, and some candidates unplaced. Each empty place on the list that needs to be filled, will be filled by the unplaced candidate who got the most votes. It is only possible to vote for unplaced candidates. Hence, having only one candidate unplaced is identical to having all candidates placed.

For example: In one constituency (electoral district), four parties (A to D) may nominate up to five candidates each, and a total of 10 MPs will be elected. Party A gets 40 percent of the vote, so gets 4 representatives elected, so the preference votes have no effect - if less than 4 were elected, they would have had an effect. Party B gets 30 percent of the vote, getting 3 representatives elected, but their preference votes would only have had an effect if only 1 candidate was elected. Party C gets 20 percent of the vote, and the preference votes determine which of the 2 unplaced candidates get elected. In the case of party D, there is only one candidate to whom votes may be given, so the candidate could equally well have been fixed on the list.

Party A candidates Votes Elected Party B candidates Votes Elected Party C candidates Votes Elected Party D candidates Votes Elected
#1 x 30 x 11 x #1 x
15 x 0 x #2 x #2
13 x #3 x #3 10
12 x #4 #4 #4
#5 #5 9 #5
Total 40 4 30 3 20 2 10 1

Practical operation

Some ways to operate an open list system when using traditional paper-based voting are as follows:

  • One is to have a large ballot paper with a box for each party and sub-boxes for the various candidates.
  • The second method (used in Slovakia) is to have a separate ballot paper for each party. To maintain voter secrecy, the voter is handed a ballot paper for each party. He chooses his candidates (or not, if he wants to vote for the party as a whole) on one of the ballots and puts that paper into an envelope, putting the envelope into the ballot box (and discarding the rest into a prepared bin).
  • In Brazil until the spread use of electronic vote, each candidate is assigned a number (in which the first 2 digits are the party number and the rest is the candidate's number within the party). The voter then writes the number for his candidate in the ballot.

List of countries with open list proportional representation

Other elections


  1. ^ Swedish Election Authority: Elections in Sweden: The way its done (page 16)

The difference between "Open" and "Closed" lists was debated in 2004 by the Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia, Canada during the Learning Phase of Week 5.

Further reading

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