Space Matters: Designing Better Electoral Systems for Emerging Democracies


  • The authors wish to thank Matthew Golder and six anonymous referees for their suggestions, which have resulted in a much better article than the original and intermediary drafts. The authors also appreciate the support of two modest grants, one from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and one from the Graduate College at the University of Iowa that facilitated the research for this article. Joel D. Barkan's work on this article was also supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for Democracy

Joel D. Barkan is professor emeritus of political science, 341 Schaeffer Hall, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242 ( Paul J. Densham is reader in geography, University College, London, Pearson Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6B6, UK ( Gerard Rushton is professor of geography, 316 Jessup Hall, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242 (


Although the holding of founding and subsequent elections is essential for any transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, the comparative literature on electoral system design is limited on the experience of “Third Wave” democratizers. This is especially true with respect to the interactive effects between the choice of electoral system and the spatial, i.e., geographic, distribution of the vote—a critical factor that shapes electoral outcomes in all societies, but particularly in emerging democracies because many are plural and agrarian societies. Political elites in these countries have also rarely considered the impact of alternative electoral systems when selecting a system for their country. This article addresses these gaps in the literature and practice by presenting a computational model known as a spatial decision support system or SDSS that both explores these interactive effects and facilitates electoral design. The utility of the model is then demonstrated with data from Kenya and South Africa—two emerging democracies where issues posed by the spatial distribution of the vote have given rise to demands for redesigning or modifying the electoral system.