Modifying a Pure PR System

Richard S. Katz

The April Referendum on Pure PR
        On August 4, the Italian parliament completed work on a major reform of that country's parliamentary electoral system. The immediately precipitating factor was the acceptance of a referendum in April that abrogated several phrases of the law governing elections of the Italian Senate.
        Although the laws for the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies on the surface differed considerably before the referendum, both were highly proportional voting systems. After the April referendum, the Senate was left with a system in which 75% of the seats would be elected by U.S.-style "First-Past-the-Post," in constituencies of extremely disparate population. The other 25% would be allocated by the party list form of proportional representation, with the votes of those candidates already elected in the single-member districts excluded from the party totals, which would provide a mechanism for the list seats to compensate for distortions in the single-member district seats.
        Given that the Italian government is equally responsible to each chamber of parliament, it was clearly untenable to have the two chambers elected by radically different systems. Moreover, especially when seen in the context of other referenda, the results of municipal elections in June and the ever growing tangentopoli scandal, the referendum was interpreted as a popular repudiation of the existing system, and a demand for thorough-going reform.

The Objectives of Reform
        The electoral reformers, led initially by former Christian Democrat Mario Segni, the instigator of the referendum, had several objectives. One was for the "aggregation" of small parties and for more stable governments backed by secure parliamentary majorities in place of the fragmentation that had given Italy 52 governments since World War II. A second was to further the personal responsibility of representatives to their electors. For some, this meant particularly a desire to weaken -- or in the words of Radical leader Marco Pannella, "to close down" -- the existing parties.
        While these goals were widely supported, at least publicly, there was not a corresponding agreement about how they might best be achieved. Moreover, achievement of these objectives would be likely to end the careers of many of the leaders of parties whose support was required for reforms to be passed in parliament.
        In this light, it is understandable that the reforms ultimately adopted were probably the least that could have been done, and indeed Segni himself abstained in the final vote and had already called for even more fundamental change in the form of direct election of the prime minister. Nonetheless, the new parliamentary electoral law is a major retreat from proportionality -- if not quite as far as interpreted in many press accounts -- and is already having a profound effect on Italian politics.

The New Electoral Law
        After extensive debate, supporters of the French two-ballot system (adopted earlier for the election of mayors) were defeated by advocates of First-Past-the-Post. In both chambers of Parliament, three quarters of the seats are to be filled from single-member districts by First-Past-the-Post, while the remaining quarter are reserved as "proportional compensation seats" to provide more representation for minority parties.
        For the Chamber of Deputies, each voter will cast two votes: first for a single candidate and then for a party list. After the single-member district winners have been determined, the votes they required to win (one more than the number of votes received by the second place candidates) will be subtracted from the list totals of the parties supporting them, with the compensation seats allocated on the basis of the resulting national totals, subject to a 4% threshold.
        For the Senate, there will be only one vote, with the proportional compensation seats awarded to parties at the regional level based on the vote totals of their candidates who were not elected to the single-member seats, and assigned to individual candidates in order of the personal vote percentages. No statutory threshold must be passed for a party to share in the compensation seats for the Senate.
        Although the relatively small number of compensation seats in each region means that a party generally will need more than 4% of the regional votes in order to win a seat, parties with regional strength should be able to win seats in the Senate even though they do not reach the national threshold for the Chamber of Deputies. (For example, in 1992 the Rete had nearly 10% of the Senate vote in Sicily, which would be more than enough to elect at least one senator even though this was less that 1% of the national total.)
        In addition to this new electoral formula, several other reforms were also introduced. The intra-party preference vote, which previously had allowed the voters to determine the order in which Deputies were elected from their party lists was abolished, making list candidates entirely dependent on their parties. Parties also are now required to alternate male and female candidates on their lists, although the effect of this will be limited since at most one quarter of the seats will be filled from the party lists. All of this was in addition to the elimination of public financing of political parties by a companion referendum in April.

Ultimate Consequences of Law
        The ultimate consequences of the reforms will depend on a number of factors which are not yet known. For the first time in post-war Italy, the location of district boundaries will play a substantial role in determining the outcome. While boundaries have been proposed by the commission of experts appointed for this purpose, they are still subject to amendment and final approval.
        Moreover, with the apparent demise of the Socialist Party, and the virtual collapse of the Christian Democrats, it is not clear how one would project from previous election results to future behavior, even if one knew where the boundaries would be. Even more, while it is clear that the pattern of alliances among parties also will play a crucial role, the jockeying for position is still going on, with the sweeping victory of the left in the administrative elections of early December likely to cause substantial realignments on the right.

        Richard S. Katz is professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. In December he was in Italy during their administrative elections.

        The following is from a press release issued by The Center for Voting and Democracy on April 19, 1993.
        In a national referendum Italians today voted to elect three-quarters of their Senate with a U.S-style 'first-place-takes-all,' single-member district voting system. The Italian Chamber of Deputies -- which has far more political power than the Senate -- is now expected to modify the 'pure' party list proportional representation system used to elect its members.
        Matthew Cossolotto, president of the Washington, D.C.-based political reform organization The Center for Voting and Democracy, called for American observers to put the Italian referendum in perspective.
        "Italian voters today expressed their outrage at the widespread corruption that has shaken the Italian political establishment. But it is absurd to blame these scandals solely on proportional representation (PR). The message from Italy is anti-corruption, but it will retain a modified form of PR. In fact, nearly all of the world's democracies use forms of PR, and such 'first-place-takes-all' nations as New Zealand and Great Britain are moving toward it, not away."         
        Cossolotto discussed the following key factors:
The vote modified PR, not eliminated it: One-quarter of the Senate still will be elected proportionally, which will maintain more fairness than complete "first-place-takes-all" voting. Such a "mixed system" is only one of several ways to modify PR in order to address such concerns as proliferation of parties and unaccountable elected officials.
The Italian system is proving responsive: It is widely accepted that the current probe into Italy's rampant political corruption succeeded only because the ruling coalition suffered significant losses in the 1992 elections; PR enabled regional reform parties to gain support. In addition, the Chamber of Deputies only would modify PR after today's referendum if members feared facing voters without taking action.
The Italian vote was similar to the anti-first-place-takes-all vote in 1992 New Zealand referendum: In September 1992, over 85% of New Zealanders in a national referendum voted to replace their current first-place-takes-all system with a PR system. Voters accepted the recommendation of a Royal Commission that had recommended a German-style PR system.
Italy may take heed of problems in France: The 1993 election's unfair results in France -- in which the winning center-right coalition polled 39% of the vote, but received nearly 80% of seats -- dramatically reveal the pitfalls of non-proportional voting.


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