Systems of Democracy. A Comparison of the United States and Australia

Essay, 2013

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The United States and Australia share a multitude of characteristics as modern advanced democracies; however, there also exists a number of notable differences between the states that serve to illustrate the importance of electoral systems in shaping political norms. In this paper, I will argue that the type of electoral system used within a democracy determines the scope of general participation, public political attitudes, and the rate of political change. Furthermore, I will look specifically at the case of Australia to argue that its constitution helped shape an electoral system that is of higher quality with regards to representation and governance than that of other democracies.

Scholars point out that “…electoral systems are devised to accommodate a diversity of concerns, but no particular electoral system, no matter how sophisticated, can accommodate them all in their entirety.” (Aroney, 2008). Which concerns rank highest for a populace determines the shape of their electoral system. Specifically, we see that electoral systems are influenced by “…particular conceptions of the individual citizen and of the political society in which the citizen lives” (Aroney, 2008). With regards to the United States and Australia we see that they are both longstanding liberal democracies that cover a vast physical territory, which is overseen by federally organized systems of government. In addition, they both have a written constitution is interpreted under a system of judicial review, and a bicameral federal parliament, where one chamber is said to represent the people of the nation as a whole while the other is said to represent the peoples of the states or provinces. These similarities stem from their common ancestor of the British Empire, which also provides the basis for the divergence of values that would lead to the implementation of different electoral systems and their resulting democracies.

Electoral systems find their legal basis in the constitutions of the respective states. The US Constitution, claims to derive its authority from ‘We, the people of the United States,’ and stipulates that the House of Representatives is to be ‘composed of members chosen . . . by the people of the several states’ and that the Senate is to be composed of ‘two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof.’ The US Constitution also necessitates that the ‘number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one Representative.’ In addition, the Constitution requires that the president be indirectly elected through an Electoral College in which each state is entitled to provide as many members of the Electoral College as the state has senators and members of the House of Representatives. This loose framework provides for the possibility of many divergent interpretations, while ensuring the presence of some form of representative democracy.

The Australian Constitution is similar to the American as it provides a general framework but leaves the specifics to political and legislative processes. The framers of Australia’s Constitution were well aware of the US Constitution and drew upon its general framework for guidance and inspiration. Accordingly, the Australian Constitution provides that the House of Representatives ‘shall be composed of members directly chosen by the people of the Commonwealth’ and that the Senate ‘shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State.’ The Australian Constitution continues with respect to the House of Representatives by stating that the ‘number of members chosen in the several States shall be in proportion to the respective numbers of their people.’ Specifying the matter even further, the Australian Constitution requires that ‘five members at least shall be chosen in each Original State,’ so that both the House of Representatives and the Senate are framed in a way that treats the states as critical components of the federal institutions of government. The state is essential to the Australian constitution because membership in both the Senate and House is dependent on identification with a specific state.

After our brief recap of the foundational qualities of the American and Australian Constitutions, we can begin to discuss several notable differences. First, the legal force of the Australian Constitution is derived from the British Parliament and not from the Australian people. Second, because Australia was still a colony at the time the constitution was written, the executive power of the Commonwealth of Australia is vested in the British Queen and exercised by her representative in Australia, the governor-general. Third, Australia has no Bill of Rights, and accordingly no constitutional guarantee of equality before the law or a guaranteed right to vote. Therefore, “…the general tenor of the Australian Constitution reflects an underlying confidence in the capacity of parliamentary institutions to protect the rights and interests of individuals” (Aroney, 2008). This confidence in parliamentary institutions is the foundational quality of Australia’s electoral system and the fundamental source of divergence with the US democratic system. The Australian system relies heavily on the Senate and is less dependent on a strong executive, or Prime Minister.

The electoral system in Australia consists of two different methods for election. The Senate, which is traditionally more powerful than the House of Representatives, are elected through a system of proportional representation, specifically utilizing the Single Transferable Vote. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system necessitates that Senate candidates secure a certain number of votes to be elected. To calculate the number of votes needed for a particular election, the total number of formal votes cast is divided by the number of candidates to be elected plus 1, and 1 is added to the result. Once a candidate reaches the minimum number of votes needed, then the remaining votes for the candidate are transferred to the next preferred candidate marked on the election ballot. This system of election helps ensure that one major party does not dominate the Senate, and allows for minority parties to be better represented. For example, in order to win a Senate seat in a half-Senate election for state senators requires 14.7 per cent of the vote, rather than over 50 percent (Bennett, 2007). The House of Representatives are elected utilizing Preferential Voting (PV), which necessitates that a candidate gains one vote more than 50 per cent in order to win a seat. This can be achieved by either winning the first preference votes, or a combination of first preferences and preferences gained from other candidates. Preferential Voting gives a disproportionate advantage to major parties primarily because of the size of the vote needed to challenge for a seat. The combination of the two methods allows for a wider appeal to different constituents, and facilitates a healthy imbalance of power that makes the needs of minorities more easily addressed.

Studies show that PR systems, such as Australia’s STV system, score higher in measurements of quality of democracy and democratic representation. Specifically, a study that measured five commonly used indicators such as women’s representation, income equality, voter turnout, satisfaction with democracy, and closeness between governments and their citizens, found that PR systems have a much better record than systems that rely on majority voting on all measures. (Lijphart, 1999). In light of these facts, it becomes clear that within liberal democracies, divergence in their constitutions with regard to designing electoral systems can lead to notable differences in the future ‘quality’ of democracy. Specifically, Australia’s recent colonial past created a constitution that placed a greater degree of power into the hands of the Legislature, or the population in general, versus the Executive, which allowed for the development of electoral systems that maximize voter participation and representation.


“The Constitution of the United States”

"The Australian Constitution."– Parliament of Australia. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.

Bennett, Scott, and Rob Lundie. "Australian Electoral Systems." (2007): n. pag. Parliament of Australia. Politics and Public Administration Section. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.

Aroney, Nicholas. "Democracy, Community, And Federalism In Electoral Apportionment Cases: The United States, Canada, And Australia In Comparative Perspective."University Of Toronto Law Journal 58.4 (2008): 421-480. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

Lijphart, Arend. "Australian Democracy: Modifying Majoritarianism?."Australian Journal Of Political Science 34.3 (1999): 314. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

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Zach von Naumann (Author), 2013, Systems of Democracy. A Comparison of the United States and Australia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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