PR and Italy:
Not What You Might Think

In April 2000, CVD staff Steven Hill traveled to Italy to observe its April 16 regional elections and conduct interviews of Italian political scientists, political leaders and citizens. He also conducted research about Italy's ongoing electoral reforms of their voting system and public financing of elections, which culminated in a series of referendums on May 21, 2000.

Both referendums failed due to low voter turnout (in Italy, referendums automatically fail if voter turnout is below a majority of eligible voters), with the 'No' side urging voters to stay at home. Given that the measure to eliminate the use of proportional representation received the most attention, the low turnout (two in three eligible voters did not vote) was seen as an indication that support for conversion to all-winner-take-all elections is waning. Last year a similar measure came much closer to winning approval.

Based on his research, Hill wrote the following commentary that was published in Italy Daily (the largest English-speaking daily newspaper in Italy, a collaboration between the International Herald Tribune and Corriere Della Sera) a few days before the referenda.

May Not Be a Winner for Italy

by Steven Hill

Italy has been a dynamo of electoral change these last seven years. Electoral systems designers like myself are always eager to study politics and reform in action. Consequently I was pleased to travel to Italy for two weeks to observe their regional elections on April 16. I also interviewed political scientists, politicians and average citizens about the upcoming May 21 referendum on electoral reform.

The goals of the May 21 referendum are certainly praiseworthy: to change the electoral conditions that have caused 58 short-lived governments since World War II. But Italy should beware the "law of unintended consequences." Strong evidence suggests that the proposed referendum may not achieve Italy's desired goal.

The May 21 referendum seeks to complete the conversion of Italy's national elections to a winner-take-all, district-based system. This electoral change, it is assumed by many, would decrease the number of smaller political parties that buzz around the Italian landscape, creating something closer to a stable, majoritarian, two-party system.

But this assumption may be flawed. For instance, as a result of past reforms Italy already elects 75 percent of its national legislative seats by a winner-take-all method, and the remaining 25 percent with a proportional system. And guess what? In the last national election, *more* small political parties won seats under the winner-take all method than under the proportional method.

Winner-take-all elections don't always lead to the stability that Italy rightly seeks, and don't always produce stable, two-party government. In India, for instance, winner-take-all elections have led in recent years to a proliferation of regionally-based smaller parties and collapsing governments. In Canada's bizarre winner-take-all elections, regionally-based smaller parties have won numerous seats and nearly fueled secession. The Bloc Quebocois Party became the third largest party in parliament, despite running no candidates outside of secessionist-minded Quebec. Another party benefited in the west, where in one province it was able to win a lopsided 92 percent of seats with only 54 percent of the vote due to "split votes" among numerous small parties. Italy, with its own regional splits and secessionist threats in the north, should take note.

It's true that winner-take-all has not led to such regional balkanization in France and Britain. But in those countries, it has contributed to extreme disproportionality. In France's two-round system, the Socialists turned only 24% of the first-round vote into a majority of seats in the runoff with support from candidates from the smaller parties. In Britain, Tony Blair's Labour Party won 65 percent of the seats in the House of Commons with barely 43 percent of the popular vote.

In the United States, winner-take-all elections are dogged by an utter lack of competition and choice at the polls. For instance, a startling 41 percent of district races in state elections were uncontested because the parties save their resources for close races, and 90 percent of district races are not close. This has greatly contributed to plunging voter turnouts -- around 40 percent of eligible voters, sometimes less -- because voters have few choices and little enthusiasm. While Italians have too many choices at the polls, American voters are begging for more choice.

Unfortunately, the results of winner-take-all elections around the world are not exactly encouraging. And it doesn't seem to be working that well in Italy either, where voter turnout has started to decline. In the April 16 regional elections Italy experienced another frequent byproduct of winner-take-all -- excessively negative campaigns devoid of issues. Debates between leaders of the center-right and center-left coalitions were used as opportunities to attack each other rather than discuss issues. Such behavior is very familiar to American and British audiences. Can the ubiquitous political consultants, polling and divisive wedge issues that haunt American politics be far behind?

Given the severe drawbacks of winner-take-all elections, it may be helpful to know that there are several other ways that Italy could reduce the number of political parties and produce majoritarian government. These include using smaller-sized constituencies of 3 to 7 seats like the Irish use, with corresponding higher victory thresholds; reducing the overly-generous public financing given to smaller parties; increased ballot access requirements that would make it more difficult for smaller parties to be placed on the ballot.

Italy could even adopt a version of its new regional governmental structure, guaranteeing a majority of seats to the first-place political party. The French do this for their regional governments, and it accomplishes the goal of majoritarian government.

It is unfortunate that the drafting of the electoral reforms was left in the hands of the political parties themselves. This is a lot like leaving the fox to guard the chicken coop. Far better, it seems to me, would have been to form a national blue ribbon commission of experts, like was done in New Zealand and in Britain, to study electoral reform and make an unbiased determination about the best methods to achieve the goals.

Whether the May 21 referendum passes or not, I'm afraid that Italy's political difficulties are not likely to end anytime soon without reforms better targeted at the desired goal.

[CVD western regional director Steven Hill is based in San Francisco, California, USA. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999). For more information, see, phone (415) 665-5044 or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122]