Representation of the People – challenging our shallow democracy

By Harold A. Young, Guest Post #1, February 19, 2024.

(NOTE: This offering of TIME COME features its very first Guest Post. My fellow Belizean Dr. Harold A. Young is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science & Public Management at Austin Peay State University, Tennessee.  Click on his name for a bio).

The 1981 Constitution of Belize and all subsequent amendments comprise the supreme law of the land. The Constitution of Belize follows closely the template of most former British colonies. A pillar of our Westminster parliamentary system is bicameral Legislature (House Representatives and Senate enshrined in Part VI, Articles 56 through 67). This essay focuses on one major issue: the need for more effective representation the House of Representatives, and a brief introduction to possible alternative frameworks for voting.

For those outside the constraints of political party politics, thinking about system changes is also challenging. First, the status quo, even if criticized, is known and feels comfortable. Second, it is hard to conceptualize alternatives and even harder envisioning any alternative system in place and working. Without being overly prescriptive as to how the status quo should be changed, it is helpful to introduce ourselves to broad electoral frameworks that could address what drives us crazy about the current representative system. While the alternatives are presented individually, they all have competing pros and cons and every country implements their version differently. Arguably, some countries could fit into more than one category[1].

The choice of the electoral system is not a personal or private policy objective. The electoral system must be selected so as to implement the legitimate objectives of the people and the state. This part of the constitution is a political decision that is effected in the laws.

  • The objective of people/citizens is to be fairly represented in a way that is responsive to their wellbeing – live in a healthy, safe and equitable environment that nurtures each to reach their full potential.
  • The objective of the state is governing which is, in essence, effective decision making for the benefit of most of the people all of the time within the powers conferred by the Constitution.

An electoral system exists because it can contribute to achieving specific objectives. There are no good or bad electoral systems [only desirable or less desirable depending on objectives], each electoral system should aim at: 1) ensuring a stable government, 2) ensuring proportional representativeness of the vote in society, 3) ensuring mechanisms of direct accountability before citizens and others.[2]

Current Electoral System

Our parliamentary democracy is underpinned by single member constituencies with first past the post winners. In Belize, therefore, there are currently 31 constituencies (seats in the House of Representatives) with a single representative each. To win a seat, a candidate has to win one more vote than the candidate with the second highest number of votes.

Case Study 1: In constituency X (population 2,500), there are three candidates contesting the seat. A total of 1,000 voters (50% of registered votes) go to the polls resulting in the following: Candidate A gets 333 votes; Candidate B gets 332 votes and Candidate C gets 330 votes with five spoiled votes. The winner is Candidate A. In this ‘winner takes all system’, with a margin of 1+, Candidate A is elected having won 333 (33.3%) of the 1,000 votes cast by only 16.6% of the registered voters. Ultimately, the majority of votes cast went to candidates who were not elected.

Case Study 2: If similar results emerge from many or most (or possibly even all) constituencies, one can clearly see that the party with the majority seats would form a government having been elected by a very slim majority of voters. The policy preferences of the large minority in each constituency would not be directly represented. The winner takes all results are barely representative of the population but with a virtually unfettered mandate to govern.

Our “winner takes all” electoral system precipitates two major questions: (1) are the citizens fairly represented? and (2) can there be effective decision making for the benefit of most of the people all of the time?  I assert that the answer is generally, no! The is no representative (or group) that represents national interests and is accountable to a national vote. Representatives are individually beholden to the constituents who elected them. This engenders voter pandering in the form of handouts or favours resulting in entrenched clientelism so well captured in Political Clientelism and Democracy in Belize: From My Hand to Yours (Vernon 2022). Further, it retards and minimizes long-term policy making in favor of scoring political points for the next election. Finally, most opposing views can be ignored and this negates meaningful participation by any outside the majority party. While acknowledging the elections have consequences and the majority is handed a mandate to govern (the PM forms a Cabinet driving policy and legislative agenda), the current system provides no real checks and balances on the majority party rule via the Cabinet.

Challenges and Possibilities

Changing how our representative democracy is constructed is challenging at best and near impossible at worst. Political parties have very little incentive to change the system (unless they see a clear and direct advantage for them). The majority party enjoys the power the current structure confers and exploits the weaknesses and the opposition aspires to be in the same position. The public complaints and private whisperings about discontent with the status quo are indicators that at all levels many realize that the system is not optimal. One glaring public complaint is corruption and the lack of mechanism to check it and hold elected office holders accountable. Another is more fundamental to the focus here namely lack of choice outside the two major political parties. What is important to recognize is that the status quo entrenches two party politics and disincentivizes alternatives (parties or independents). The energy for change, however, has not reached critical mass. Chatter about incremental change and the anemic initiative shrouded as the People’s Constitution Commission (2022-present) serve to placate some, irritate others and, ultimately, obfuscate real reform.

What we have, therefore, is shallow democracy or electoral democracy[3]. In other words, there are elections but the democracy ends there. The power, ability and access of the electorate to hold the elected accountable is neutered until the next election. The system minimizes ongoing meaningful engagement AFTER elections to toothless commissions of inquiry, public consultations, walkabouts and media babble. Winning the next election, therefore, depends on how effectively the majority party can placate enough of the electorate in each constituency to win 1 vote more than other candidates. For the minority party (s), it is how much dirt you can dig up and mud you can sling to sway a least a one vote victory in each constituency. The results of both strategies individually and in tandem distort democracy. It does not benefit most of the people all of the time within the powers conferred by the Constitution.

The next section relies on works by the Political Reform Society (PRS)[4] based in the U.K. which advocates for democratic representation that meets modern needs and expectations. This starts the discussion about three broad proportional and semi-proportional systems of representation used in the majority of countries. This is not intended to be comprehensive. These are possible alternatives to the Westminster parliamentary system (e.g. Belize)[5]. While subtypes are included, this is by no means exhaustive of the variations but merely introduces us to alternatives that promote more accurate reflections of voter preferences.

Party List Elections

Closed List: Each party publishes a list of candidates for each area. The ballot paper, therefore, just has a list of parties. Voters mark the party (i.e., the list) they support. In this system, a party gets seats roughly in proportion to its vote, and seats are filled depending on the name order on the list the party prepared in advance.

Open List: On the ballot paper, each party has a list of candidates. Vote for each candidate is aggregated for their party when it is decided how many seats each party should receive. The more votes a candidate gets, the more likely to get one of the party’s seats allocated based on the proportion of the vote the list won.

Semi-Open List: In a semi-open list, voters have the option to vote for a candidate or a party. Unlike in an open list, voting for a party is taken as an endorsement of the order of candidates chosen by the party.

Case Study 3 models a comparison of the results in 2019 UK elections[6]. Model A presents the results with current single member constituencies (‘winner takes all system’, with a margin of 1+). Model B presents the same result using a proportional representation system. Comparing the two models, there is a marked difference in the distribution seats. Model B projects an increase in seats for smaller parties (e.g., Liberal Democrat, The Green Party, Reform Party, Scottish National Party, Sinn Fein, Alba Party, Plaid Cymru, Democratic Unionist) and decreases for the two major parties (Conservative and Labour Parties). The colored representations also show an increase in the number of parties winning seats. This assuages the pain of “throwing away your vote” by not voting for either of the dominate parties.

Case Study 3: 2019 UK election results

      Model A                                           Model B

Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP)

MMP is a mix of Westminster’s First Past the Post system and Party List PR – the goal is to provide a proportional House but also keep a single local representative. Voters have two ballot papers. On the first is a list of candidates from which voters choose one candidate. The candidate with the most votes (1 vote more than the nearest rival) wins the seat.

On the second ballot paper is a list of parties, each party will have published a list of candidates prior to the election. Each voter can choose one party on the ballot paper. A vote for a party is a vote to support any candidate they have selected to be on their list. Seats are then allocated in proportion to the votes a party received. Based how many ‘first vote’ seats they obtained, there is a ‘topping-up’ of the seats in the legislature to make the representation closely match the votes cast on the second ballot.

Single Transferable Vote/Rank Choice Voting (RCV)[7]

Broadly speaking, the ranked-choice voting process unfolds the best reflection of voter choice and representation. All RCV contests feature a ballot on which each voter ranks the candidates according to their preference. If a candidate wins an outright majority of first-preference votes (i.e., 50 percent plus one vote), he or she is declared the winner. If not, election officials apply established tabulation rules to identify the winner or winners.

Final Words

In summary, the essay provides a short but critical analysis of Belize’s current electoral system. The current single member constituency with winner take all generally results in poor representation. By highlighting the importance of meaningful engagement and representation in a democratic society, we reinforce our goals. By introducing alternative frameworks for consideration, we challenge ourselves to envision changes that could further those goals. Claims that changes to the electoral system will be too hard for voters are not only baseless but speaks to the disrespect some have for fellow Belizeans. Belizeans led the formation of first labour union in 1934, embraced universal adult suffrage in 1954, pushed for self-government in 1964, established a new capital city in 1970, change the name of the country in 1973 and ultimately won independence in 1981. We are change agents and survivors who continue to weather threats from Guatemala, global recessions, hurricanes, floods, climate change and, most recently, the effects of the COVID pandemic. We owe it to ourselves and the future to tackle this need for electoral reform.


[1] How many countries around the world use proportional representation? (March 5, 2023)


[3] Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research (1997)

[4] Political Reform Society (PRS):

[5] How many countries around the world use proportional representation?

[6] Election Reform Society

[7] Ballotpedia:

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