Italy’s election backfires using US-style voting
Winner-take-all elections distort Italian election results, produce “minority rule”
US-style elections seem so simple: you elect one representative per legislative district, and the highest vote-getter among a range of candidates wins. What could be wrong with that?
Quite a lot, it turns out. In this case, another word for this “simple” winner-take-all method is “backward.” The most recent illustration of this is this past Sunday’s elections in Italy.
The headlines are blaring that the “far right” has won control of Italy, that soon Italy will be returning to fascism (“Mussolini is back!”), that Italy (the fourth largest country in the European Union) will undermine Europe’s unity and the transatlantic relationship, striking another blow for illiberal authoritarianism over democracies.
With so much at stake in this election, perhaps more leaders and experts should have paid attention to how the election was conducted. Lessons from around the world have shown, on numerous occasions, that using the wrong electoral method can result in unintended consequences.
Italy’s election is not the first one to demonstrate that a winner-take-all electoral system (also known as “first past the post”) can result in lopsided results in which one side wins a disproportionate share of seats, throwing notions of democratic fairness and legitimacy into the salsiccia grinder. That’s especially a problem when the elections occur in polarized societies like Italy, with rampant populism that can easily intensify the polarization.
So here’s how democracy worked, Italian style, in this past Sunday’s election. The leading center-right coalition, a four-party grouping led by the Brothers of Italy Party (which actually is led by a woman, but whatever), together won nearly 44% of the popular vote. Yet it ended up with a whopping 59% of the legislative seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Meanwhile the fractious center-left parties, led by a five-party coalition along with other left or centrist-populist parties (that refused to join the coalition), together garnered 49% of the vote. Yet they won only 39% of the overall seats.
Go figure. A minority of votes has won a solid majority of seats. If representative democracy means anything, it is that the “will of the majority” must prevail. That is a key underlying value. Yet that did not happen in Italy.
Winner-take-all’s nervous breakdown
But here’s where it really gets interesting – or tragic, if you are an Italian. Italy has long used the US-style winner-take-all electoral system, electing 147 out of 400 (37%) of its legislative seats by this method. The rest of the seats are elected by a proportional representation method called party list. Proportional voting elects political parties in proportion to their voting strength, so that if a party wins 10% of the popular vote it gets 10% of the seats, and if another party gets 40% or 60% of the popular vote it receives 40% or 60% of the seats. Both majority and minority perspectives can win a place at the legislative table, and they win seats roughly in the same proportion as they perform in the popular vote.
In Italy’s election, there was a huge schism in the results elected by winner-take-all districts vs. proportional representation. In the winner take all districts, the center-right coalition was able to parlay its 44% minority of the popular vote into an astounding 82% of the districted seats. In fact, it’s in the districts where those parties won their lopsided overall majority, because that same coalition won about 46% of the 245 seats elected by proportional representation, which is within the margin of what you would expect for a grouping that had 44% of the popular vote.
Unfortunately the winner-take-all system is known for these kinds of “seats-to-votes” distortions in which one party ends up winning a disproportionate number of seats. Those democracy deficits stem from a number of factors. In Italy’s case, one of the factors was that some of these district elections were won by candidates with a low plurality of the vote. For example, in one constituency the winner had barely 38% of the vote. In other constituencies, seats were won with less than 30%.
When you have winners with such low pluralities of the vote, that means the vast majority of the voters in that district actually voted for a losing candidate. And if some of the other candidates are politically like-minded and split the aggregate vote of their voting bloc, it actually means that the wrong candidate may have won. That’s why a number of countries such as Australia, Ireland, Scotland and an increasing number of jurisdictions in the US use ranked choice voting, to prevent those kinds of split votes and spoiler candidates in single-winner elections.
What’s even more of a shame is that other countries like Germany and New Zealand combine proportional voting with winner-take-all districts, but they use what’s known as a “compensatory” system. That means that, at the end of the election, the election administrators ensure that the overall percentage of seats for each political party is proportional to the nationwide popular vote, even though some of the legislators have been elected by single-seat districts and others by multi-seat proportional lists.
This “mixed member proportional” system – known by its acronym MMP -- is the fairest way to allow both geographic-based representation (based on where you live) as well as ideological representation (based on what you think) – both valid philosophies of representation – without having the applecart overturned by the distortions of the winner-take-all system.
But the Italian electoral system is not compensatory, and so the winner-take-all districts played maximum havoc with the results.
Italy is not alone in its “minority rule”
Italy is not the only country where this “minority rule” roller coaster has occurred recently. In a previous DemocracySOS article, I told the horrendous tale of how Viktor Orbán in Hungary has grossly manipulated his country’s winner-take-all districts. In elections earlier this year, Orbán’s party Fidesz won 82% of the single-seat district races, and 67% of the seats overall, even though his party only won 54% of the popular vote.
In Hungary’s case, Orbán and his cronies changed electoral laws designed to cement his advantage for years to come, including increasing the percentage of winner take all districts from 46% of all seats to 53%, and giving the power to redistrict to his political party instead of an independent commission. Fidesz’s computer-guided gerrymanders packed voters from opposition parties into a smaller number of heavily populated districts, and spread out its own supporters among a great deal of less-populous districts. This was a gerrymander on steroids, and it allowed Orbán’s party to benefit from being vastly overrepresented.
Like in Hungary, the Italian electoral system badly translated the popular vote into actual representation, and it has now provided a false legislative “mandate” that most Italians do not really support. This is not going to end well. Certainly we have seen a number of past episodes in other countries when far right leaders like Jorg Haider in Austria, the Le Pens in France, Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders in Netherlands and others, have won electoral success, only to misread their mandates and implode with the voters over their own unsupported excesses.
But we Americans shouldn’t get too high and mighty. Our system is constantly plagued by “minority rule.” As just one example, look at the U.S. Senate. While the Senate is currently split 50-50 Senators for each party, the Democratic half won over 41 million more votes than the Republican half and represents 56% of the American people – so Democrats have six fewer seats than their proportionate share of the popular vote. Because every US state has two senators, regardless of population size, sixteen conservative states with a smaller combined population than California’s have a total of 32 Senate seats. GOP senators have not represented a majority of the population since 1999, yet Republicans have held a majority of Senate seats for most of the past 20 years, passing or blocking key legislation.
Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni is on course to become Italy’s first female prime minister ever, which for a paterfamilias country like Italy is a remarkable development. And while the new election results are not yet available, in recent years the number of female legislators in Italy has climbed to its highest ever, 36% of parliamentarians. Italy is ranked 41st in the world for women’s representation, much better than the US ranked at 70th.
But the four-party governing coalition is likely to be shaky, both due to internal conflict over key issues and strong personalities who may not accept female leadership. One coalition partner, the party known as The League, is headed by a wolfishly ambitious Matteo Salvini who is resentful of Meloni’s rise, as it has come at his expense; and another is Forza Italia, a longtime conservative party in Italy, and still headed by that farcical, plastic-faced, lecherous vampire, Silvio Berlusconi.
They are united on cracking down on illegal immigration but not much else, including whether to exit the Euro, support Ukraine over Russia, and other major issues. The lure of badly needed funds from the EU for Italy’s battered economy will likely keep this leadership in line for the most part.
The take away message from Italy’s election is that the winner-take-all electoral system is a real clunker in so many ways. Proportional voting is the most effective way to allow large and distinct populations in a mass society to win their fair share of representation. Given that a number of important countries use the backward winner-take-all method – India and the UK are two others – it’s a wonder that the world functions as well as it does.
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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Sweden does not have SMD or winner-takes-all, but the far right won a majority. So doesn't that make the case that PR can still be problematic?
Thank you for the great explanation. Italy is brought up often as a reason to avoid PR and I've never fully understood what happens in their system.