Second chambers in unitary states

At least two unitary states have a second chamber in which the units (departments, provinces) have equal numbers of representatives, regardless of population: Bolivia ((I would have provided a link, but returns an error, “This Account Has Been Suspended”!)), and the Dominican Republic.

While the logic for equality of unit representation in federal systems is clear, the logic for the same organizing principle in a unitary state is much less so.

However, aside from making that observation, the real purpose of this planting is to ask the readership if anyone knows of other examples of unitary states that have second-chamber equality. These are the only two I can think of.

A further purpose is to observe that the French Senate is in the process of a major reorganization that has begun in 2011 (but it is not a case of equal representation of units).

56 thoughts on “Second chambers in unitary states

  1. The link to the French Senate is interesting. I shouldn’t talk, as I live in the country with the worst upper chamber in the world, but I find the method of selection and the powers of the French Senate to be completely baffling. And I don’t understand the proposed reforms at all, which seem to be the equivalent of changing the drapes in the Palais de Luxembourg.

    Liberia was no doubt influenced by the U.S. example. Until the 1960s, the Senates of many state legislatures were elected on an equal basis from counties, imitating the federal Senate, even though the states were unitary bodies and their control over lower levels of government is absolute, they can alter the boundaries and change the powers of things like counties pretty much at will.

    Also, I’ll submit that the practice of having equal representation in the upper house for each state and provinces, but having the representatives elected by the voters instead of the state and provincial governments, is even more irrational than having equal representation from each state and province in a non-federal system. The chamber then becomes useless as to protecting the state and provincial powers, and essentially becomes a duplicate of the lower elected house, albeit with added misproportionment.

  2. Depending on your definition of “unitary”… South Africa?

    Western Australia has six zones, which are not governmental units but used solely for electoral purposes. They elect varying (but not wholly per capita) numbers of MLAs to the State lower house and an equal number (N=6) MLCs to the upper house.

    Before 2002, the zones elected varying numbers of MLCs. In fact the WA Legislative Council had the same “haiku ratio” of district magnitudes (5, 7, 5) as the ACT Assembly, just twice as many.

    I realise neither of these is an unambiguous example of “equal representation for local govt units in a unitary system”, but heh.

    Also, IIRC Jamaica guarantees a minimum of 2 lower house constituencies (and ergo, seats) to each county.

  3. Not only is the Domincan Senate an example of equal representation, it is also an example of Canadian provincial-level disproportionality. In the last election, the main opposition party took 42% of the vote and no seats, while a party that won only 1.5% of the vote was able to win one seat. The other 31 seats went to a party with 55% of the vote. Looks like Alberta!

  4. What about South Africa’s Upper House? Each Providence elects 9 members. Is that country a federal state or unitary? Maybe it is semi-federal.

    Also What about Chile’s Senate, doesn’t each region elect 2 members?

    What about all the U.S state Senates except Nebraska which is unicameral having a Senate that just duplicates the lower houses function?

    • I consider South Africa federal, although some do not.

      As for Chile, the district boundaries are not coincident with the provinces (or counties or other non-electoral administrative units).

      No US state has equal representation per county or other unit. That would be unconstitutional since 1964, when the Supreme Court ruled against malapportioned state legislatures (and House delegations).

  5. Like so many French electoral system reforms, the reforms to the Senate were to a large degree opportunistic. They appear to have backfired though-the renewal of half, rather than a third of the Senate each election, as well as unexpected victories in three-seat departments (had been run under list PR tanks to a previous opportunistic reform of the last left government, but were changed back to two-round MNTV by this reform) handed a narrow victory to the left in the last election.

    I’m sure there must be a few other examples in Africa of unitary states with equal representation for the territories-DRC, maybe?

    • It’s not MNTV, right? It actually is a form of block vote (the common misnomer for MNTV). I may be mistaken, but I thought votes were for lists, not individual candidates.

      MNTV involves votes for candidates only, where both the number of seats in the district and the number of votes a voter may cast are greater than one.

  6. To be clear, there are many examples of malapportioned chambers (both first/sole and second), but my question was limited to cases where sub-national administrative units (provinces, etc.) serve as the electoral districts.

    If electoral districts combine these units, or there can be two or more districts within a unit, then it’s outside the scope of my question.

    That is, I am interested in cases that follow the typical example of federal states in using governmental sub-units that exist for other than electoral purposes as their second-chamber electoral districts, and have an equal number of members per district, yet are not federal states by the usual definition.

    So far, the only cases we have identified are Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Liberia. Plus the somewhat ambiguous case of South Africa, but I have that as a federal state.

  7. Indonesia has an upper house, the Council of Regional Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, DPD) with 4 members from each province. The DPD is a very weak second chamber, and is limited to bills dealing with regional matters, but Indonesia is unambiguously a unitary state.

  8. How was the NYC Board of Estimate able to last until 1989?

    In 1989, the Supreme Court of the United States, in Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris declared the New York City Board of Estimate unconstitutional on the grounds that the city’s most populous borough (Brooklyn) had no greater effective representation on the board than the city’s least populous borough (Staten Island), this arrangement being a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause pursuant to the high court’s 1964 “one man, one vote” decision (Reynolds v. Sims). [2]

  9. On the French Senate, in departments with 1 senators, its a conventional two round system. For two and three seaters, each voter has as many votes as there are seats, and while candidates can be grouped in lists, independents or incomplete lists are allowed, as is panachage, and votes are counted by candidate, and not by list. I called it MNTV for this reason, maybe its not the right terminology…?

  10. DC, if votes and counting are all by candidates, then you are right. It is MNTV. Thanks for the information.

    I may have been thinking of the French municipal elections.

    (Of course, in addition to not being elected by equality of units, the French senate is not elected by citizens; my own inclusion of it here in this discussion is off-topic, I have to admit!)

  11. Japan, Thailand, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Romania, Uruguay, Netherlands and already mentioned Indonesia

    Some of them appear to be “houses of reflection.” France’s was instrumental in investigations that the other body, being more transient and directly subject to current political trends, would not make. It was the source of some opposition to de Gaulle

    …also Poland, Jamaica, probably others.

  12. May I add Haiti (Senate) and Namibia (National Council) to your list? Were those countries (including Liberia) influenced by the same UN advisors?

    In other countries, only the major part of the upper house has the US-style equal representation for every sub-unit: D.R.Congo (24*4 + 8 for the capital), Burundi (17*2 + 7 others), Madagascar (22*1 + 11 appointed), Zimbabwe (10*6 + 33 others), Thailand (76*1 + 74 others),…

    In Chile, the 6 bigger regions have twice the representation of the 7 smaller ones (2 versus 1 ‘bonominal’ district), which is still heavily malapportioned. In Pinochets unamended constitution (1980) however, each region had 2 senators.

    And how could one forget Indonesia – in a way, it offers the biggest electoral contest: ONE president elected directly by 121 million voters!

  13. I don’t know about all of the additional cases some have nominated here.


    Not Japan: half the second chamber consists of a single nationwide district, and the prefectural tier varies in magnitude.

    Not Colombia or Uruguay: all of the second chamber consists of a single nationwide district.

    Not Peru: Unicameral.

    I already addressed Chile in a previous comment. Yes, all the districts have M=2, but they are not (all) coincident with the subnational administrative units.

    Poland may be correct. I am not sure (and the rules may have changed recently).

  14. Poland is not a good example: it was in 1989 (100 seats in 49 ‘voivodeship’: 47*2 + 2*3), but there was a reform of the administrative map in 1998, with 2 to 4 seats per ‘voivodeship’, depending on population, each having one MNTV district. Since 2011 it’s FPTP.

    • Nor is Romania. But The post-1990 system for the second chamber had varying M. In fact, the Romanian chambers are (or were) very congruent. There was a recent reform of the first-chamber electoral system. I am not sure what might have changed in the Senate, but the new system does not appear to have equal representation

      I did not originally ask about bicameral systems that were highly symmetric in their legislative powers as well as highly incongruent, nor about popular election, but that was the spirit behind my initial motivation to ask the question. I was interested in those unitary systems whose cameral structure most closely resembles the typical federal system. Bolivia and the Dominican Republic have second chambers with equal representation per administrative unit, nearly symmetric powers, and popular election. This is a very odd combination for a unitary state. (If a second chamber had symmetric powers and equal representation, but was indirectly elected, it should still “count”, given that we do have some powerful second chambers in federal systems that are indirectly elected, as in Germany and India. But indirect election is rare in federal systems worldwide.)

      I have not checked on the powers of the Liberian second chamber, but it is clearly a case of equal representation per county, and popular election. Indonesia’s second chamber, of course, has few legislative powers.

  15. Slightly off topic, but are there any non-US examples of supermajority requirements on ordinary legislation in an upper house? For that matter are there any non-federal US examples?

  16. Alan, that’s an excellent topic diversion. I have wondered that myself, and I would guess not. But I wish I knew.

    There are, however, other legislatures with various filibuster rules. An anti-corruption bill was just sunk this week in India’s second chamber, in part because of opposition unwillingness to stop proposing amendments. However, I think a majority could stop this and go to a vote if it wanted to (unlike in the US Senate). In the Indian example, the government currently lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha.

    (This could be its own planting!)

  17. To be absolutely strict I guess you would say that the US senate has a supermajority requirement for procedural votes to bring ordinary legislation to a vote.

  18. I agree with Alan, the US Senate doesn’t quite have “supermajority requirements on ordinary legislation”, it just feels that way!

    An institution that actually requires a supermajority for regular votes would be the Council of the European Union, which has a rather complex multiple-criterion bloc-voting system.

  19. Wildly off topic, but there was an amusing epsidoe recently where a (very partisan) member of the French government publicly regretted how the French Senate was now so dominated by party political considerations. Of course when a coalition headed by his party controlled the Senate up to 2011, no such considerations ever existed…

  20. Is there any rational reasons to have an upper chamber of parliament? It seems to me that most Senates all they do is just block legislation that the lower house passes (gridlock), or they are just redundant of the lower house (every law that the lower house passes, the upper house rarely rejects). It seems very rare to find a Senate that maintains the right balance, it is different from the lower house, and it does not block every law because of political considerations.

    Australia’s Senate is a good example of a good Senate. It is different from the lower house, and does not block every law that the lower house passes.

    I can see having an Upper House only if a country in question does not elect it’s lower house with a system of PR.

    With a Parliament elected with PR, there is little reason to have an upper house unless it is a Federal State, but then there could be ways for states to have there say such as allowing a majority of states to petition for a veto referendum if they feel such a law impinges on state rights. Doesn’t Switzerland have such a procedure with it’s Referendum?

  21. I have read slightly extremist articles by STV advocates arguing that the Senate should continue while the House of Representatives should be abolished. The argument is that the far smaller number of wasted votes in senate elections explains why the Senate, despite rotation and equal state representation, has generally followed the popular vote more closely than the House.

    In an ideal world I would retain the Senate as is and elect the House by sortition.

    • Bancki, on this there is no doubt: The US Senate as an institution, by which I mean equal representation per state, (though not the more recent invention of de-facto super-majority requirements on virtually everything), was indeed to protect states’ rights. At least if we mean right of sufficient representation to outvote the popular majority. In other words, the two justifications separated by your “or” are really the same thing. Remember, the constitutional design did not have to be sold to the public. It had to be sold to state legislatures.

      Madison’s original plan (which I write about in the blog’s “mission statement”) called for two chambers to be both apportioned by population. He rather explicitly feared “tyranny” resulting from the majorities that could be formed in each of several smaller states and had a vision of federalism that was the “extended republic” and in which the representatives of the popular majority in the nation could overturn state legislation. That whole concept would not fly, as the smaller states demanded a legislature with equal voting weights for each state (as was the status quo under the Articles of Confederation). Then came the Great Compromise (TM): let’s have one of each!

      So was born US bicameralism. The Compromise also is what led to the notion of a separate executive, as Madison’s original design had the executive elected by the national legislature. If the Senate, as designed, was going to balance the House that Madison had wanted to be dominant, then it was important to have the executive also balance the rest. Thus, at least in this interpretation of the place of the executive in the final design (which, unlike that on bicameralism, is not universal among scholars of these things), it was more important that the executive, as a national institution, balance the Senate, as that the congress as a whole balance the executive. Most contemporary accounts, of course, place the emphasis the other way around.

      To take things back to the original thread, it is important to recognize that Madison’s design was definitely federal–both by his definition, and by that used by me and most contemporary political scientists. It is not necessary for a system to have symmetric chambers, with the second chamber having equal representation for the units, for the system to be federal. (Arguably it would not even have to be bicameral, although there are no significant examples of federal democratic states that are unicameral, unless you consider Micronesia to be “significant” or Venezuela under the Chavez regime to be democratic.)

      There are some prominent examples of federal systems that lack equal representation of their units in the second chamber (e.g. Germany, India), and a few cases of clear federalism that do not even have significant over-representation of the smaller units (e.g. Austria).

      So, while there is at least a logic for equal unit representation in an equally powerful second chamber when the system is federal, not all federal constitution designers have arrived at the conclusion that such logic should govern. On the other hand, if equal unit representation in an equally powerful second chamber is not required for federalism, it certainly is hard to defend on logical grounds for a unitary state.

  22. This is off topic, but Akhil Amar in his history of the U.S. constitution made the point that the equal representation for each state ensured that each state would get the same representation in the Senate regardless of the percentage of their population that was disenfranchised through slavery. The three fifths compromise that has gained a certain (and widely misunderstood) infamy was necessary for the House, where representation varied with population.

    According to Amar, the Electoral College to elect the president arose from similar considerations. Direct nationwide election of the President would have put slave states and slaveholders at a disadvantaged due to the high proportion of their population that was disenfranchised. A state’s electors would be reduced by slavery relatively slightly by the three fifths clause.

  23. The Senate as some sort of guarantee of states’ rights was robbed of most of its point with the direct election of Senators. Its now simply a second chamber elected from malapportioned normally single member electoral districts. I don’t think the explosion of federal power in the years after the ratification of the seventeenth amendment was a coincidence.

    The framers should have gone farther than they did, providing not only for election of Senators by state legislatures, but for recall of Senators by state legislatures as well, making them more ambassadors from their state government. And it should only have voted on legislation affecting states’ rights, similar to the Bundesrat, though in practice I think the Bundesrat winds up voting on most legislation.

  24. If Senators were (a) chosen by their States’ legislatures, (b) subject to recall by those same legislatures, and (c) still apportioned equally per Statum without regard to per capita numbers, would there be any point left in having more than one per State?

    Recall by majority vote at any time (no rotation, no fixed terms, no PR) would mean the majority party would control all the seats for each State, whether the Senate delegation is one person or ten. “District magnitudes” over 1 make sense if they are uniform but ensure PR of parties (eg, Aust Senate), or are winner-take-all but reflect population differences (eg, Bundesrat).

    The only remaining rationale is that the Senate might function better as a legislature (staffing committees, etc) with 100 or 150 members rather than 200. If the Framers had wanted a US Senate with a size of roughly, say, 50 to 100, they could have stipulated 4 Senators per State when the US kicked off with 13 States, dropping to 3 per State once there were 17 States, then 2 per State at 25, and so forth. Of course this would play havoc with rotation.

    It is difficult to combine PR with recall, but if I am ever asked to sketch a federal upper house model on the back of an envelope, I would recommend something like:

    (a) between 5 and 15 seats per State (ideally with some population weighting, but this model will work with a uniform number per State as in Aust), all directly elected at large by State-wide PR, 4-year terms, no rotation; plus

    (b) one Senator per State who is chosen, and who moreover can be removed and/or replaced at any time, by the executive of that State (ie, in Aust the “Governor in Council”, ie Premier and Cabinet).

    So: the popularly-elected seats ensure a high degree of R in party terms, while the State govts’ “emissaries” not only represent State interests at the centre, but also provide some degree of immediate responsiveness. As with the German Bundesrat, a change of govt at State level (an election, or a mid-term baton change such as Qld in 1995-96) would mean an immediate shift in party numbers in the federal upper house. The difference is, only one seat would change at a time, not 3 to 6 as with the Bundesrat (although in a PR-elected chamber, a few seats could be crucial).

  25. What you’ve described is quite close to the National Council of Provinces in South Africa.

    (1) equal representation by province

    (2) delegations elected by PR in the provincial legislature

    (3) 6 permanent delegates elected by PR in the provincial legislature for the term of that legislature

    (4) 4 special delegates (one must be the premier or their nominee) elected ad hoc by the provincial legislature.

    (5) The delegates vote either individually or by province depending on the class of bill before the NCOP

    I think there is a case for popular election of the delegates, but preferably at the same time as the provincial election, not a federal election.

    I think the use of rotation in the US senate rather supports the claims in the article Bancki quotes that the US senate was intended as an American house of lords rather than a federal chamber.

  26. Another way to arrange for PR+recall could be to make recall costly in some way. For example, what if instead of recall-and-appointment, the Governor/Premier could dissolve the state’s Senate delegation and have a new one elected by the voters? Since the Governor could lose in the new election, there’s some risk involved. Plus, voters generally dislike too many elections–at least voters who aren’t election geeks!–and might punish a Governor who kept recalling the Senate delegation.

  27. I am generally opposed to off-schedule elections, specially at the discretion of the executive. If however the term of permanent delegates was tied to the term of the regional legislature, the delegation would stand dissolved on dissolution of the regional legislature.

    I suspect a better ratio than South Africa would be 7permanent delegates (odd numbers have an advantage iN STV) and 3 special delegates. The operation of PR would generally make the special delegates the governor/premier, their deputy and the regional opposition leader.

  28. I could see France in another 2-3 decades, on its current trajectory, evolving to a sort of Namibian model – along the lines of

    * “President and National Assembly have a concurrent term maximum 5 years”

    * “Ministers are nominated by the President but must have the confidence of the Assembly to remain in office (except when the Assembly stands dissolved)”

    * “If the President dissolves the Assembly, fresh elections for both follow” (on the same two days – rather than the 1981, 1988, 1995, etc precedent of four weekends out of eight).

    Then you might want to look at adding a Vice-President chosen on the same ticket as the President, so you don’t have to dissolve Parliament just because the President resigns, as in 1969, or dies, as in 1974.

  29. The one kind of off-schedule election I do approve is special presidential elections.

    It is unconscionable for anyone to become president except by popular election. I recognise you need short-term interim arrangements but lets look at 3 months or so, not a period of years. The French manage to complete special elections for president inside 35 days.

  30. @Alan, but the the French Interior Ministry organises the elections, and the electoral process is the same in every part of France (except perhaps in Corsica and certain boroughs of Paris, where in a show of civic-mindedness that shames the rest of us even the dead have voted from time to time).

    A question on the Bundesrat-I understood that technically its not a second chamber of parliament, but a sort of conference of state plenipotentiaries?

  31. @DC, French electoral efficiency does not alter the principle. Rather the question becomes why you’d base constitutional design on the assumption of inefficiency.

  32. The Bundesrat is a second chamber.It comprises instructable and recallable delegates of the executives of the states. It does not have the same legislative powers as the Bundestag.

  33. While Spain does not have exact equal representation (due to the more proportionally-apportioned indirectly-elected seats), the baseline is 4 seats per province elected directly. These seats amount to about 75-80 percent of the Senate.

    • So is Spain unitary or federal? As with South Africa (mentioned upthread), there seems to be disagreement on this point among experts.

  34. The Bundesrat is a federal second chamber but resembles a confederal ‘conference’: the senior ministers of the 16 state governments are themselves present, and they vote in 16 blocs. It looks like the EU Council of Ministers.

  35. The South African National Council of Provinces votes by province on constitutional amendments with 6 of 9 votes required, by province on provincial bills with 5 votes required, and by individual delegate on all other bills. It resembles the Bundesrat and the European Council of Ministers on constitutional and provincial legislation and a more conventional senate on other legislation.

  36. What is the best type of Senate? Elected by the People like Australia’s Senate, Elected by States as in India, or Appointed like Canada and UK.

    Are there a country where the Senate is elected by the people, and as well elected from the states? That would be a good compromise for a country that wanted to have it’s lower house elections at the same time as the upper house elected part, and the states electing representatives could be staggered fixed terms.

    Another question is that should the representation of the states be equal regardless of population as in Australia, by population as in India, or weighed as in Germany?

    Should elections to a Senate be staggered as in Australia in half, the U.S in thirds, and Japan in half? or the entire Senate be elected at the same as the lower house as in Poland?

    The only criticism that I would have with staggered Senate elections separate from a House dissolution is that the Upper House becomes a nation wide by-election.

    Has any country tried to elected it’s Senate by sorition or selection by lot similar to Jury Duty?

    I find a website on Sorition or is it called selection by lot.

    Of course Canada is the only Federation in the World where the Senate is appointed on the basis of the Governments recommendation. It seems like there is no will to change it.

  37. Even if Spain is federal, the Spanish Senate isn’t.

    If Spain is federal, it’s because of the powers of the ‘autonomous communities’. But in (the major part of) the Senate, the US-Senate-style equal representation is applied to the provincies, the lower tier of government.

    In fact the Madrid-oriented regions are overrepresented (many small provinces), so the Senate is not the federal safeguard for say Basque and Catalonian autonomy.

    • The usual definitions of federalism do not require any particular design of the second chamber, or even that there be one. Yes, if Spain is federal, it is because of the autonomy of its regional units. That is the essence of the definition of federalism–unit autonomy, plus constitutional guarantees that the center can’t take it away.

      In fact, all federal systems other than Venezuela under its current constitution and Micronesia are bicameral. However, several of them do not have equal representation of the units in their second chamber. Austria, Canada, Germany, and India are prominent examples.

  38. I completely agree with you, MSS, “the essence of federalism is unit autonomy, plus constitutional guarantees that the center can’t take it away.”

    My own Belgium seriously considers downsizing its Senate in size, powers and legitimacy (= no direct elections any more), and no-one fears this will endanger the federal character of the whole.

    On the other hand, as the Belgian federacy essentialy only has two units 60:40, protecting the autonomy of the units does not require many formal guarantees.

    • Thank you for that information on Belgium, Bancki.

      I note that you use the term “federacy”; however, this term does not apply to Belgium. A federacy is a region of an otherwise unitary state that has special autonomous powers. So it is as if it were the unit of a federation, but other administrative units of the larger country’s territory lack autonomy, the larger country is not in fact federal. Oft-cited examples are the Aland Islands (FInland) and Faroe Islands (Denmark). The current status of Kurdistan within Iraq would also fit the definition, as might Scotland within the U.K.

  39. I accept the usage of the term ‘federacy’, it’s a little unfortunate given cognates like ‘confederacy’ and a general tendency in English to use the ending ‘-acy’ as an alternate for the ending ‘-ation’, both derived from the the Latin ‘-atio’. The Roman tongue did not die in intestation!

    • Well, Alan, if we want to go down that road, “plurality” is unfortunate, too. I believe Fowler says it should be “plurity”.

      I am not sure what the better term for “federacy” might be, but the term is reasonably well established–though certainly not as well as “plurality”–so I suspect we are stuck with it.

  40. As for the South African example above, as I understand it the upper chamber was modeled on the German Bundestag. The provincial governments of SA are quite powerful, but not as much as Bundeslaender as I understand it.

  41. Modeled on the Bundesrat, that is. Somehow, supporters understands ‘Bundestag’ and corrected it.

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