This seems like a trick question. Of course, free-list has all sorts of complex features. In such a system, the typical rules are that any voter may vote for as many candidates as he or she wishes, even across different lists (panachage). A vote for any candidate on a list counts as a vote for that list for purposes of determining proportional seat allocation across lists, as well as for the candidate in competition among other candidates on that list.
However, this system handles votes and seats for lists just like any other list-PR system: It is designed to allocate seats to lists first, and only then to candidates. It thus is “simple” on the inter-party dimension, unlike SNTV or MNTV or STV (where candidate votes do not count towards aggregate party vote totals and seats are allocated based only on candidate votes).
My general definition of a “simple” electoral system is one that is a single-tier, single-round, party-vote system. The free-list could be said to violate that last part of the definition, in that “party vote” maybe should mean a single party vote per voter. My instinct is to keep free list in, because it remains “simple” in terms of how it processes the votes across lists. But I could be convinced otherwise, given that effectively every voter can vote for more than one list–a “dividual vote” in Gallagher’s terms.1
In Votes from Seats, Taagepera and I kept at least three free-list systems in our dataset: Honduras (since 2005), Luxembourg, and Switzerland. The issue came back to my mind because of my consideration of including some smaller countries and non-independent territories in a dataset for some further analysis of key questions. One of the smaller countries that could be added to the data is Liechtenstein, which I believe uses a free-list PR system. My gut says “yes, include” but now I wonder if we already violated our own criteria2 in having those free-list systems in the prior analysis. To be clear, none of our results would be changed if we had dropped them.3 It is just a matter of consistency of criteria.
Questions like this always nag comparative analysis, or science more generally. What things are part of the set being analyzed? It is not always clear-cut.
- Note that there is no question regarding standard open-list PR: Even if there are multiple candidate preference votes cast per voter, as in Peru, only a single list vote is registered per voter.
- In fact, on p. 31 of Votes from Seats, we say “Only categorical ballots and a single round of voting are simple, by our definition.” A free-list ballot is dividual and thus not categorical. However, the reason we give for limiting the coverage to categorical ballots is that “other ballot formats… may violate a basic criterion for simplicity in the translation of votes into seats: the rank-size principle” (emphasis in original). For example, the party with the most aggregate votes in a district may not have the most seats allocated in the district (or at least tied for most with the second-most voted party). This violation of the rank-size principle can occur with SNTV, STV, and MNTV, but as noted above it can’t occur in free-list PR (per my understanding, anyway). I note that in a later work, Party Personnel, my coauthors and I seem to adopt a stricter definition. On p. 53 of that book, we say that simple means “a voter votes once, and this vote counts for the entire party list of candidates.” Yet the conceptual point there is somewhat different, in that we are referring to “simple vote” not simple electoral system, and we remove open-list PR from the standard of simple vote because they permit differentiation of candidates within a list in the same district. But as for the vote counting for the entire list, free list still meets that part of the criterion. (A reminder that “voting system” is not a synonym for “electoral system”!)
- Although I did not think of this possible issue with free lists at the time, I definitely ran robustness-check regressions with Switzerland dropped. I did so mainly because of its multiparty alliance feature, which also is a complex feature for reasons discussed in the book (mainly with reference to Finland and Chile). Doing so did not affect the results, so we left the case in. There are not enough elections from the other free-list cases, nor are they observably different on our outcomes of interest, that they could affect results. (Switzerland is observably different–far more fragmented than expected for its seat product, and that seems to be mostly due to alliances, even above the impact of its ethnic fragmentation–see p. 269 of Votes from Seats. But the inclusion or exclusion fo the case is immaterial for the overall results.)