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Constituencies revisited


Many representative democracies charge subnational constituencies with the election of members of parliament. The constituencies, in turn, are usually defined in terms of geography and residence such that MPs are returned by the inhabitants of particular areas of the national territory. A familiar consequence of this practice, especially in single-member district systems, is that the placement of constituency boundaries acquires politically saliency, and political and legal theory have accordingly developed a rich body of thought on the proper placement of constituency borders and the potential (il)legitimacy of gerrymandering practices (e.g. Beitz 1989, 2018; Guinier 1994; Altman 1998; Thompson 2002; Wilson 2019).

But the use of geographic constituencies raises questions of more fundamental character as well: Why is it attractive at all to define constituencies in terms of geography? Would it be better, perhaps, to group citizens according to other criteria? These problems of constituency definition have in recent decades garnered some philosophical attention. Guinier (1994) has argued that geographic constituencies might not be all that desirable, as has Pogge (2002), who advocates that constituencies instead be organized as thematic associations that citizens can continuously form, join, and leave at discretion. And in his seminal The Concept of Constituency (2005), Rehfeld has shown forcefully that the most common arguments for geographic constituencies are philosophically wanting and made an original case for non-territorial, random constituencies to which citizens are assigned for life – a proposal that is supported, too, by James (2015) and Ciepley (2013).

This emerging literature on the proper definition of constituencies is limited, though. For one thing, it leaves undertheorized some important questions of institutional design. There is littlesystematic thinking, for example, about the constituency affiliation of expatriates (who, if enfranchised, might be treated as virtual residents of extant in-country constituencies or might be grouped into distinct overseas constituencies) and contributions that have been made to this issue (Bauböck 2007; Spiro 2006) are philosophically questionable. So, too, are emerging discussions about the proper constituency definition for the EU Parliament (cf. Bright et al. 2016; Scherz 2017; Lacey 2017; Wolkenstein 2018), which is particular in that it represents a distinctively transnational demos that by design stretches across national (and linguistic) boundaries.

Further, extant discussions of constituency definition pay little attention to the potential connections between this field of inquiry and other domains within democratic theory. As such, it is ill-understood how fundamental questions of constituency definition relate to, and how their discussion might interact fruitfully with, e.g. scholarship on the justification of democracy, gerrymandering, and/or the constitutive turn in representation theory.

Finally, in the extant literature on constituency definition it is the critique of geographic constituencies that is predominant and priority has thus been accorded to developing and defending radical alternatives such as Rehfeld’s random-constituency proposal. However, this has meant that virtually no attempts have been made to restate or reconstruct a philosophically robust case for geographic constituencies, and the literature is thus at risk of being irrelevant both for the electoral practices that exist and for the moderate electoral reforms that are realistically possible.

Given these and other limitations, it is worthwhile to rethink and expand the philosophical and normative reflection on electoral constituencies. This panel proposes to act as a vehicle for that, inviting papers that push boundaries in philosophical thinking about the proper design and definition of constituencies – both in general and in relation to particular cases – and/or which relate issues of constituency definition to other, broader themes in democratic theory.

If you are interested in participating, please submit an abstract of no more than 500 words to The abstract should be prepared for blind review and be in .doc or .pdf format. It should be accompanied by a separate file containing author information (name, paper title, institutional affiliation, and email address). The deadline for abstract submissions is 25 May 2020.

Selected abstracts will be notified within 10 days. As the panel is planned as a pre-read workshop, confirmed participants should be prepared to pre-circulate their paper about two weeks before the conference.