Italy’s new electoral law

Guest post by Filippo Tronconi

 

On Monday, 4 May, 2015 the Chamber of deputies has finally approved Italy’s new electoral system. It has not been a consensual decision, as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had initially hoped. Although Berlusconi’s Forza Italia had voted in favor of an identical text in the previous passage at the Senate, it subsequently withdrew its support. Part of the Democratic Party led by Renzi himself has opposed the reform too, together with Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and other minor opposition parties.

The new electoral law, similar to the one adopted in 2005 and invalidated by the Constitutional Court in 2013 is a bonus-adjusted proportional representation system. At the same time, many differences have been introduced, the most important of which are 1) the fact that the majority bonus is now allocated to the most voted list, and not to a coalition of parties; 2) a run-off between the two most voted lists is foreseen in the event that no one reaches 40% of valid votes in the first round; 3) a national threshold is set at 3% of valid votes, in place of the multiple thresholds of the old system; 4) preference voting has been re-introduced.

Let’s analyze the functioning of the new system in detail.

Italy’s 630 Deputies are divided into 618 members elected from the national territory, and 12 members elected by Italians living abroad. The latter are elected through proportional representation. Of the 618 national MPs, 340 are allocated to the most voted list, provided that it reaches 40% of the valid votes nationwide. In case no lists reach this threshold, a run-off is held two weeks later between the two most voted lists. Of course, in the unlikely event that a party obtains 340 seats thanks to the proportional distribution, no further bonus is awarded. Therefore, whatever the result, this is a majority-assuring system. Either after the first or the second round, one list gets 340 seats, equal to 54%. A few additional seats are likely to join the majority from the ones elected by Italians living abroad. The remaining seats are allocated proportionally (via Hare quota and largest remainders) to the other parties obtaining at least 3% of the valid votes nationwide; parties below this threshold do not get any parliamentary representation.

While the bonus is allocated in a nationwide arena of competition, intraparty competition is based on 100 districts electing 3 to 9 MPs, depending on the resident population (with particular arrangements for the two Alpine regions of Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, characterized by the presence of Francophone and German linguistic minorities). In each district, lists are made of a head-of-list, whose name is printed beside the symbol of the respective party, and the remaining candidates, whose number range from half to the full number of seats to be allocated in that district. Voters can express one or two preferences for the “open” candidates (i.e. excluding the head-of-list) of their party, writing the corresponding name or names on the ballot. If a party is entitled to only one seat in a district, that is reserved to the head-of list. If more than one seat must be allocated, they go, after the head-of-list, to the candidates obtaining more preference votes. Heads-of-list (and only they) can be candidates in up to ten different districts; if elected in more than one district they will opt for one after the elections. The remaining districts where a head-of-list has been elected will allocate those seats to candidates chosen by preference vote.

In sum, this is a flexible list system, where voters are allowed to choose among candidates only beyond the head-of-list. The most voted list will have 340 seats, with 10 to 100 of them being filled by “closed” candidates and the remaining 240 to 330 by “open” candidates, depending on how extensively the multi-candidacy rule is used. For opposition parties, the balance between “closed” and “open” MPs will mainly depend on vote fragmentation. In general, the smaller the party, the higher the chances to have only heads-of-list elected.

Several rules are oriented to increase a gender-balanced representation: 1) heads-of-list of the same gender cannot exceed 60% within the districts of each region; 2) “open” candidates are alternated by gender; failing to comply with such rules determines the exclusion of the list from the ballot; 3) voters who express two preference votes need to choose one man and one woman; if not, the second preference is invalid.

One final important remark is in order. All the above refers to the Chamber of Deputies only. The electoral system for the Senate is currently the 2005 one as modified by the ruling of the Constitutional Court, which means open-list proportional representation without majority bonus. A comprehensive Constitutional reform is currently under way in Parliament, which would transform the Senate into a sort of federal chamber, indirectly elected by Regional assemblies and without the power to vote the confidence to the executive. For this reason the new electoral rule for the Chamber will be effective only from July 2016, when the Constitutional reform is expected to complete its second reading in Parliament. It is clear that the effects of the electoral reform would be seriously jeopardized in the event that the current symmetrical bicameralism remains in place.

Overall, the new electoral law is intended to have a strong majoritarian imprinting, similar to the 2005 system for the Chamber of Deputies. The nationwide competition for the bonus makes the Italian territory similar to one big district, and this is expected to lead towards a two-party equilibrium in the long run. On the other hand, the relatively low threshold will leave room for small parties, though preventing them from gaining a pivotal coalitional power, as currently happens. Clearly, nothing prevents parties from agreeing to form ad hoc joint lists before elections and splitting once in parliament, although this will have the cost of not displaying their own symbol on the ballot. Furthermore, the new electoral system cannot be expected to reduce the traditional factionalism of Italian parties, nor the trasformismo of elected representatives. But this is probably something one would better avoid to expect from any electoral system.

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Model of the new ballot:
new ballot italy

12 thoughts on “Italy’s new electoral law

    • I would assume that the distribution of seats to constituencies would remain unchanged from the present format; however, don’t ask me to explain the present format because I can’t find anything in English explaining how it works.

      Interestingly, this system would have caused a runoff between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement. The Berlusconi coalition received more votes, but the PDL itself was behind the M5S. It will be interesting to see how Lega Nord reacts to the changes–they have enough support to win individually, but if they want a Forza Italia prime minister they may have to join a united list.

      I like the concept of a runoff between the largest lists to decide who forms government, though I’m not as big on the bonus seats concept. I think it might be worth considering a format where a number of seats are reserved for the second round and divided based on the vote received in that round. This would grant the larger parties a higher number of seats than their proportional share from the first round, but the voters would decide how those seats are apportioned rather than constituency boundaries doing it for them as in FPTP.

      I think the second round format might work in countries where lengthy negotiation periods are the norm (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Israel, for example), though in Belgium at least, the second round would likely need to permit coalitions (either pre-election or formed between rounds) to ensure linguistic balance. This would at least make it clear who the public prefers as formateur. Of course, while not a second round, the Israeli experience of directly electing prime ministers without any seat bonus could show the perils of such a format as well.

      I think that requiring voters to vote for candidates of different genders could be interesting. You could see voters “bullet” vote for just a single candidate to try to get their top preference elected, and I also think this will lead to a very high number of spoiled ballots. Is there anything in the law which says whether such ballots would count towards the list (but not candidate preferences) or whether they’d be completely invalid?

  1. Henry,
    the procedure is complicated. In this document (in Italian) it is described in detail from p. 57: http://documenti.camera.it/leg17/dossier/pdf/ac0246c.pdf. Basically, the territory is divided in 20 regional constituencies and each regional constituency in districts (Lombardy, the most popolous region, will have 101 districts; Valle d’Aosta will have only one). Seats are distributed between regions calculating regional quotas for each above-threshold party and then the procedure is repeated between districts of the same region. In case parties have more (or less) seats than assigned with the nation-wide allocation, these are re-dstributed within the same region, so that the nation-wide allocation is eventually complied with.

    Chris,
    in case a voter gives her preference to two candidates of the same sex, only the second preference is spoiled. This “double-gender preference” was first introduced for the Regional assembly of Campania in 2010 and then for all municipal assemblies since 2012. In both cases it has given excellent results, more or less doubling female representation (which is traditionally very low in Italy).

    Regarding your reference to Israel’s direct election of the Prime Minister, let me just underline that there is no direct election in the Italian case. Italy remains a parliamentary system. The new electoral law is “only” meant to indicate a formateur party and to give it a solid parliamentary majority. Then the usual mechanism of the vote of confidence comes in and determines the life and death of cabinets and prime ministers.

  2. Thank you, Filippo.

    What do you mean by “trasformismo of elected representatives”?

    And what’s happening with the Senate? Is it still going to lose its legislative power?

    • The term “trasformismo” refers to the practice of building fluid government majorities based on contingent interests, beyond party discipline. Here I was specifically referring to widespread party switching. In the current legislative term 102 Deputies (17%) and 97 Senators (31%) have switched from one parliamentary group to another until now (see http://parlamento17.openpolis.it/i-gruppi-in-parlamento/camera and http://parlamento17.openpolis.it/i-gruppi-in-parlamento/senato).

      According to the Constitutional reform currently under discussion, the Senate would have substantial powers only in the fields of Constitutional revisions, EU treaties, regional autonomous powers, linguistic minority rights and a few other matters. However, the reform must be approved by Chamber and Senate in a second reading and then will be submitted to a popular referendum.

      • That would be lamentable. The only real problem was that the government was responsible to both houses. Now the only real check on a government which has automatic lower house majority is to be taken away. I suppose that’s what happens when you leave the power to propose constitutional amendments to parliament.

      • Will the Constitution Reform pass in a Referendum? Isn’t there a quorum requirement of 50% of registered voters voting Yes in order for the proposal to pass?

  3. Thanks for this. There are some thought about adopting the Italian reforms to IL in order to increase governability. This entry gives us a lot to grind on.

  4. Rob,
    there will be a referendum to confirm the constitutional reform, but this will not require a 50% quorum. Such quorum only applies to referenda to abrogate a law

    • That’s odd, one would think a referendum to amend the constitution would require a quorum of 50% but at least that is a good thing as it will be easier for the constitutional reform to pass.

      • Rob, the reason why we have a quorum is to make it difficult for a well-organized minority to strike down legislation passed by the Parliament: so when the “yes” have the majority of votes in a referendum to repeal a law, but the quorum is not attained, the referendum is not valid and law stays.

        If the same happened with a constitutional referendum, if the number of people voting were not less than the quorum, the referendum would not be valid and the constitutional reform would be considered approved.

        However, you probably thought that the outcome would be the opposite: if the referendum is invalid, the reform is not approved. This is not how it works in Italy: the power to reform the Constitution, as any other legislative power, is vested in the Parliament and not in a direct popular vote. Referenda are only there to give people a chance to veto the Parliament: if a referendum fails, this veto power cannot be exerted.

        So, the fact that there is no quorum is actually understood as a way to make it *more difficult* for the Parliament to pass constitutional laws.

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