Staggering–towards a typology

Offered as a public service, in response to a comment from JD, who observed:

To my knowledge, the following countries have partial renewal besides the US: Chile, Argentina, Czech Rep., France (indirect, of course).

I remember someone offering a detailed terminology for different types of staggered election. Does someone recall which thread that was?

I don’t think said terminology was offered here (or at least not by me), but it is an obvious F&V topic. So, let’s give it a try.

I plant this under “bicameralism” because, at least at the national level, the topic mainly concerns second chambers. However, it should be noted that Argentina continues to have staggered terms for its first chamber. At one time, so did Luxembourg, although they abandoned it decades ago.

By definition, staggering means that some members of a legislative chamber are elected at different times* than other members of the same chamber, generating “classes” of members according to when their seats are next up for election. It has entered the discussion due to the observation (by, for instance, my UC Davis colleague Ben Highton in February) that this year’s class of US Senate seats was especially unrepresentative of the partisan breakdown of the country as a whole.

Any typology of staggering would consider variables such as whether districts alternated in which were in play across elections or whether some fraction of each district’s seats came up at every election. I am sure there are other variables…

Please note the M-dash in the title of the post, as the meaning rather changes if it is omitted.

* Or for different term lengths, although as far as I know this variable is relevant only for a new chamber, or when the staggered schedule is being reset (as after a double dissolution in Australia.)

30 thoughts on “Staggering–towards a typology

  1. Already, I can think of another variable! Whether districts alternate in the number of members who are up. Brazil’s Senate has three members per state, who serve staggered 8-year terms. States alternate in whether they elect one or two per election. All states elect either one or two senators in any given election, which creates the odd situation in which some presidents come in to office (or into a second term) with two thirds of senators freshly elected, while others with only one third.

    This year’s election was for one third, which is a feature favoring the just-reelected incumbent that I have not seen mentioned in the press reports. President Rousseff is lucky, in that this was a worse year for her party than was 2010 when she was elected the first time. Her party (PT) elected 11 of 54 senators in 2010, but only 2 of 27 in 2014. For her main ally, PMDB, the numbers were 16 and 5, respectively.

  2. To avert the risk of competing terminologies, could we (first) have a search for the thread I mentioned? I’m quite sure of its existence. It was from before my time here at F&V (ie before 2012), possibly under the late ‘preserved fruits’ section.

  3. And thanks for readers for having revived that old post on constitutional reform!

    The institutional memory (so to speak) of my readers, or their willingness to engage in searching the archives, never ceases to amaze me. It is one of the valuable aspects of this blogging experience. And it is the reason why I do not have, as some bloggers do, a feature that automatically shuts down comments on posts that pass a certain age. No planting ever expires at F&V!

  4. Let us not forget that the Tasmanian legislative council has 15 members elected from SMDs on a 6 year term. 1 or 2 MLCs face election each year. There is never an election for all members.

  5. Found it! I bring you “Round on Rotation: A brief treatise thereon”, a comment on the June 2009 election in Argentina by fellow orchardist, Tom Round:

    “Round on Rotation: A brief treatise thereon

    Argentina’s Chamber is not only “absolutely unique” (as far as we here know) in having rotation for its lower house, but is also relatively unique (so to speak) in having rotation for a chamber with population-based apportionment among sub-national districts.

    In other words, almost all other rotating chambers either:

    (a) have elections at large, without any sub-divisions (and are therefore wholly turnout-based) – eg, the NSW and South Aust Legislative Councils, and the strangled-at-birth Senate of the Irish Free State; or

    (b) if they do have sub-divisions, allocate seats among these without any regard at all for population (eg the US, Australian, Argentine, Brazilian etc, Senates). Seats are never reallocated, nor are boundaries ever revised, to reflect shifts in population.

    There have been very few examples of rotating terms combined with pre-election reapportionment based (in whole or part) on population. Most are nearly a century old – eg, the Netherlands 1850-1917 used 2-seat electorates with one MP chosen at each election.

    By contrast, the French Senate, India’s Rajya Sabha, the Dutch First [sic] Chamber, and those US State Senates with rotating terms instead use what I call “sequential rotation” – ie, each division votes only once in each series of elections, and doesn’t vote again until its last electees’ terms have expired. Eg, each French college of Grands Electeurs votes in only one out of every 2 (formerly 3) Senat elections per cycle. (We could notarise this as, eg, “1 of 3 elections every 9 years” or now “1 of 2 elections every 6 years)”.

    Argentina is then truly unique in being the only remaining example of population-based (what I call) “repeated rotation” – ie, each division votes at every election in the series.

    The US federal Senate is a mixed case, which is also unusual – partly repeated, partly sequential rotation (ie, each State votes in 2 of 3 elections every 6 years).

    In Australia, the Victorian, WA and SA State Upper Houses used to have repeated rotation in districts but now have abandoned it. (NSW and SA still have rotation, but the repeated/ sequential rotation distinction has no meaning when all seats are filled at large). Tasmania’s Legislative Council, the only remaining State Upper House with districts and rotation, uses US-style sequential rotation (each Province votes in 1 of 6 elections every 6 years). Upper House electoral divisions in Australia (formerly “Provinces” if majority voting, now “Regions” if PR) were only very loosely based on population, but nonetheless their boundaries did get revised every now and then; they were not permanently fixed, unlike the State borders. I don’t know what transitional arrangements Vict, WA and SA formerly used when their Legislative Council boundaries were revised or the number of MLCs was changed.”

    • … Germany is also unique in that the second chamber, Bundesrat, is indirectly elected by staggered regional elections (in the Länder).
      The huge difference to all other cases I know is that in Germany regional governments are the members of the second chamber, i.e. the staggering of the Bundesrat is determined by the cycle of regional elections and regional government formation.
      Apart from the cases mentioned here, Austria and Japan come to my mind as also having staggered renewal of their second chamber.

    • Thanks for finding that, JD.

      I do not like the term, “rotation” for this phenomenon, although perhaps we should not be surprised that Dr Round would prefer that term!

      • Hell, you’re talking about someone who’s long wanted to give all parliaments, congresses, dumas and councils the venerable Roman title of “rota”.

        (Which lives on in “Bundesrat”, by the way…)

      • I am staggered that Dr Round should attempt to spin his use of ‘rotation’ in this obvious way.

        I suspect the etymology of ‘Bundesret’ has more to do with old Germanic roots than the stately practices of the Roman curia. ‘Ethelred the Unready’ famously meant, in Old English, Ethelred the uncounseled, not Ethelred the unprepared and definitely not Ethelred the unrotated. Oddly enough the king’s own name meant ‘noble counsel’.

      • It is entirely possible that “red” and “rota” come from the same Indo-European root. Look at “doom”, “deem”, “deemsters” and “Duma”, all cognate via a root meaning something like “judgment”.
        I think “rotation” will have to do… given the proclivities of Australian politicians (cannot speak for other polities), the term “staggering” would evoke mockery.

      • At least one point in favour of the term is that is was probably used by the man behind the term ‘neo-Madisonian’, as the 1776 Virginia Constitution suggests (I thank Alan for leading me to find this detail, on the other thread!).

  6. English district councils have “elections by thirds”. Councillors have four year terms, with elections in three of those four years.

    In urban areas, wards are simply three councillors per ward everywhere, rural areas vary from one to three. Generally each ward is one village, and larger villages just have more councillors.

  7. When I said that Argentina’s is the only lower house that still has rotating terms, I was thinking of nation-states, and also the better-known (to Anglophones) provincial/ state legislatures. However, if we broaden the search (and the definition of “lower house”) to include local councils, there are plenty of contemporary and recent examples.
    (1) Many US councils seem to use a combination of two, or all three, of (a) a mayor (elected by town-wide popular vote), (b) councillors elected to represent single-member wards, and (c) councillors elected at large, with rotation used for one of (b) or (c). To use two cities that have been in the news recently:
    * “The [Washington DC] council is composed of thirteen members, each elected by District residents to a four-year term. One member is elected from each of the District’s eight wards. Four at-large members represent the District as a whole. The chairman of the council is likewise elected at an at-large basis. The terms of the at-large members are staggered so that two are elected every two years, and each D.C. resident may vote for two different at-large candidates in each general election.” [Wikipedia]
    * “The [Ferguson, Missouri] City Council consists of six council members and a mayor. Two council members are elected from each of the three wards, for three-year overlapping terms. The mayor is elected at large and also serves a three-year term.” []
    (2) Those US examples use a presidential-mayor system, so rotation for the “lower” house [*] isn’t so out of place.
    However, Oxford City Council (to use a British example) has a council-leader executive system, but is also elected by halves, one Councillor from each two-member ward every second year. [Wikipedia]
    And Victorian local councils only two or three decades ago had three-member wards, with one member elected annually.

    [*] “Lower House” has a clear meaning in the context of a bicameral legislature where the executive/ Cabinet is chosen and/or removable by whichever chamber has more directly-elected members. There, it clearly means both “the popular chamber” and “the governing/ executive chamber.”
    But then term becomes more problematic when we look at presidential systems, where typically (if they’re bicameral) it’s the “less directly elected” chamber that has more constitutional power over the composition of the executive, whether by confirming presidential appointments or by having the final say over impeachments.
    And finally, it just seems downright weird to refer to a local council as a “Lower House,” especially if it’s unicameral (which 99% around the world are these days, since bodies like NYC’s Board of Estimate were gotten rid of, and/or Aldermen were merged into one body with Councillors, like the three French Estates), and especially if the mayor is elected separately, because then the council’s role is almost entirely like that of an upper house rather than that of a Lower House in a bicameral Parliamentary system.
    Legal drafting doesn’t really help to clarify terminology here… I don’t know of any Constitution other than Canada’s (as long ago as 1867, intriguingly: sec 17) that actually uses the term “upper house” (

    • For me, “lower house” is simply the chamber how is more close to the principle “direct election by one man, one vote”, idependently of their powers – I imagine that in 19th century aristocratic upper houses have dimilar powers to democratic lower houses (the reason why lower houses, in parliamentary systems, have more power is not because some intrinsical characteristic of the definition of “lower house”, but because of the triumph of democratic ideas).

      • As I think I’ve written somewhere else at F&V, the State of Victoria in Australia, like some US States, has two chambers elected for the same term and from equally-apportioned districts. There is no particular reason to consider either chamber “closer to the people”. Indeed, in Victoria the “upper” house reflects the voters’ ballots more accurately than the “lower” house does. (Some would argue that single-seaters for the “lower” house means members are more responsible to the voters… google “Geoff Shaw MLA” and make sure you don’t have a mouthful of coffee).
        For this reason, I’d go with “largest number of directly-elected members” as the tie-breaker. “Most numerous house” (as the US and Australian Constitutions say) won’t help because some upper houses are larger than the lower house (Lords/ Commons) or the same size (the Supreme Soviet of the USSR). Indeed, in Queensland, before unicameralism was adopted, the tendency of governments to appoint more members to the Legislative Council means it crept very close to the size of the Legislative Assembly (from memory, around 60 seats to around 70) before it was abolished in 1922. Had the number of MLCs topped the number of MLAs in 1901, when the Australian Constitution took effect, this would produced the anomalous result that only the Governor of Queensland could vote for the State’s federal MHRs and Senators, since he alone would have had the qualifications required by the federal Constitution (modelled on the US document in this regard).
        Admittedly, this index could produce a conundrum for a polity with, say, 100 Delegates elected from population-based districts and 120 Councillors who are directly elected but on the basis of equal numbers from each Province (these varying widely in population). Perhaps the measure could be tweaked to incorporate something like the Dauer-Kelsay index, ie what is the smallest number of members in each House who are directly elected by 50.001% of the overall population.

      • I think that if the legislature in question is a parliamentary one, the lower house would be the one governments are elected from and responsible to (that is to say, if there is such a house – this particular test would not be decisive for Italy’s perfectly symmetrical parliament).

    • Purely because it will fit nowhere else, I am forced to mention here that all officers of the borough of Great Yarmouth in England were elected by lot from 1490 until 1835.

  8. «Argentina’s Chamber is not only “absolutely unique” (as far as we here know) in having rotation for its lower house, but is also relatively unique (so to speak) in having rotation for aArgentina’s Chamber is not only “absolutely unique” (as far as we here know) in having rotation for its lower house, but is also relatively unique (so to speak) in having rotation for a chamber with population-based apportionment among sub-national districts..»

    Perhaps these two “uniquesses” are the same thing (a lower house is usually a chamber with population-based apportionment among sub-national districts)?

    • True, but a lot of upper houses (see my caveat above) have population-based apportionment among sub-districts (and also rotation). Admittedly most of the examples I can think of are (currently) US States and (formerly) Australian States (plus good old Oxford) so my using the term “sub-national” was ill-chosen…
      To further taxonomise rotation, here’s another axis: equality (or otherwise) of numbers across classes.
      (a) Absolute equality – eg, the NSW and SA Legislative Councils, the New Mexico (et al) State Senates, plus good old Oxford.
      (b) Unavoidable inequality – eg, the US Senate (33, 33, 34) and various other State Senates.
      (c) “Gratuitous” inequality – eg the Brazilian Senate (27 seats at odd-numbered elections, 54 at even-numbered), the Australian Senate (40 out of 76 Senators at any election will have been chosen less than 4 years previously, because the Territory Senators don’t have fixed six-year terms). The numbers could have been made more equal, but the architects chose to make the classes lopsided. Most US local councils fall in this category – with the mayor as a voting councillor, there won’t be equal numbers in both classes.

      • What is the reason for U.S local government to have staggered elections for city council members? This is the case for California local government, but is every U.S state have staggered elections for local government. It seems amazing to me that this is never questioned for the local governments that have this. Also it seems undemocratic to have staggered elections; it is okay for an upper house, but for a unicameral body; this seems peculiar. Does local government in the other Western Countries have staggered elections?

        Also will Brazil now that Rousseff has been re-elected, is the propose constitutional reform going to fixed it’s Senate?

      • We could,if we’ve got the energy, further sub-divide “gratuitous inequality among classes” into (a) cases where the most recently elected class is guaranteed to have more members (eg, the Australian Senate, or “5 of the 10 alderpersons plus the Mayor and Vice-Mayor face election every November”), versus (b) cases where the larger class may well be the one that was elected longest ago (Brazil, Nebraska, etc). I suppose you could have a third class where (c) more than (total seats/ number of classes) members took their seats before the latest periodic election, eg if you have ex officio members who’ve served for a long time (eg, princes of the royal house in the former Belgian Senate, the mayors of Belfast and LOndonderry in the former Northern Ireland Senate).
        I leave to someone else the joyous task of devising a nomenclature for this.

  9. I still prefer “staggered” terms to “rotating”. The latter reminds me of the expression, “rotation of office” used to refer to members cycling out of the national legislature to other offices (and perhaps back). Or simply having regular turnover. The notion of “staggering” I think more clearly is limited to cases where not all members’ terms in a given chamber are up for renewal at the same time.

    I see we have also entered into a debate about which house is the “lower”. Fine, but first of all, this is another terminology I dislike. I prefer “first” and “second” chamber for the chambers (houses) otherwise known as “lower and “upper”, respectively (with apologies to the Dutch). Whatever they are called, the criteria of “more representative of the population” and “if parliamentary, the one to which the cabinet is responsible” work for most cases. Italy, where the second (upper) chamber also has the fate of the cabinet in its hands, still allows differentiation on the representation principle. And the mentioned Australian states, where the second chamber is a statewide district, still work on the “cabinet responsibility” criterion. We still run into problems in a few presidential systems, such as Colombia, Paraguay, the Philippines (with staggering, too!), and Uruguay, due to their nationwide districts for second chambers. Helpfully, they all call the nationwide-district chamber the “senate” so we can add a final differentiating condition: the one called “the senate” is the second chamber.

      • Not really. Sun Yat-Sen devised his version of the “separation of powers” with its five yuan system. Its eventual implementation in the Constitution of the Republic of China basically gave the “constituent power,” i.e., the power to change the constitution, to a sixth body, the National Assembly, which also had the right to elect and remove the President of China. Think of it as a cross between the Electoral College and a Constitutional Convention, made permanent. And under Chiang Kai-Shek up until Lee Teng-Hui, well, it was permanent.

        For the purposes of this thread, this body was elected in a single poll for a nominal six-year term. When the ROC government moved to the island, though, that term was extended indefinitely, with “additional members” being elected on Taiwan as the older ones died off. Eventually, the government decided that the National Assembly should only consist of members elected on the island and the President directly elected. A few years later, one last poll for the Assembly took place, with the members being a “suicide squad” that would vote to abolish itself.

    • Except in Nebraska (and the Galactic Old Republic…), where the “Senate” is the sole elected chamber…
      Personally, I prefer the terms “assembly” and “upper house”. “Assembly” fits both unicameral and bicameral systems, and is consistent with usage in numerous polities (France, Portugal, Canadian Provinces, Australian States, much of Latin America and la Francophonie).
      All else being equal, I’d also advocate using pigeon-paired contrasting terms that sound distinctly different, to avoid accidentally mixing them up. (eg, lawyers should use “lawful/ illegal” rather than either “legal/ illegal” or “lawful/ unlawful”; likewise “indirectly elected” vs “popularly elected” – rather than “directly elected” – and so forth).
      The other alternative to ‘rotating/ staggered” terms is “overlapping” terms, which seems to get the idea of our respective Senates across to politico-constitutional newbs accurately and succinctly.

      • Ah, so Nebraska forces me to amend that last condition to, “if one of two chambers is called the “senate”, it is the second chamber”. (But I hope it would cause no controversy to say that a sole chamber is never the “second”, regardless of its name.)

      • Technically, the Nebraskan Senate is the same body that formerly was the upper house of Nebraska’s legislature. The “Unicameral” was formed not by abolishing both chambers and establishing a new body, but by simply abolishing the lower house. This is the only example I know of where the lower house, rather than the upper house, was abolished in a move from bicameralism to unicameralism.

  10. The US House of Representatives could be seen to have a unique version of a stagger in which some member(s) serve longer terms than others. The 435 representatives are elected to two-year terms, as are the delegates from DC, VI, MP, GU, and AS, but the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico (the Commonwealth’s delegate to the House) is elected to a 4-year term in presidential years. Of course, the Comisionado is not a full voting member of the House, so this lessens the utility of the example.

    However, it has some similarity to the fact that in Australia’s senate Territory senators serve a term of one parliament, while state senators serve a term of up to six years. There is also a third set of varying term lengths following a dissolution, when the first 6 candidates in each state to attain a quota are elected to a six year term while the next six are elected to three year terms.

  11. Dutch senate used to have staggered elections until 1983. Every 3 years two constituencies which (there were 4, each containing 1 to 3 full provinces. and they were called ‘groups’) were elected by the provincial councils involved (by PR list vote). The system was arranged in such a way that eache election approximately half of the seats were up for election. One oddity was that the groups were not continguous, as Utrecht was in one group with the southern provinces

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