Italian electoral law

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The current Italian Electoral Law, approved on December 14, 2005, is based on party-lists representation with a series of thresholds to encourage parties to form coalitions. It replaced an Additional Member electoral system which had been introduced in the 1990s. The attempt to change the law with the referendum failed[1] and was the Constitutional Court, the judgment no. 1 of 2014, to eliminate the majority premium (that the Italicum, the new electoral law reintroduced).

The block voting system is nationwide-based for the House, and regional-based for the Senate. Italy is divided into a certain number of districts for the Chamber of Deputies, whereas each Region elects its senators. Each district is assigned a number of seats proportionate to its total of the population of Italy. The winning coalition receives at least 55% of the seats on national level in the House, and on regional level in the Senate, while the remaining seats are proportionally divided between minority parties. For the House, seats won by each party are then allocated at district level to decide the elected candidates. Candidates on the lists are ranked in order of priority, so if a party wins for example ten seats, the first ten candidates on its list receive seats in parliament.

The law officially recognizes coalitions of parties: to be part of a coalition, a party must sign its official program and indicate its support for the coalition's candidate to the prime-ministership.

Chamber of Deputies[edit]

Palazzo Montecitorio, seat of the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Republic, one of the two branches of the Parliament.

For the Chamber of Deputies, Italy is divided into 26 constituencies: Lombardy has three constituencies, Piedmont, Veneto, Lazio, Campania, and Sicily each have two, and all other regions have one. These constituencies jointly elect 617 MPs. Additionally one MP is elected from the Aosta Valley and 12 are elected by a constituency consisting of Italians living abroad. Seats are allocated among the parties that pass thresholds of the total vote on a national basis:

  • Minimum 10% for a coalition. If this requirement is not met, the 4% limit for single parties apply.
  • Minimum 4% for any party not in a coalition.
  • Minimum 2% for any party in a coalition, except that the first party below 2% in a coalition does receive seats.

Also, parties representing regional linguistic minorities obtain seats if they receive at least 20% of the ballots in their constituency.

In order to guarantee a working majority, a coalition or party which obtains a plurality of the vote, but less than 340 seats, is assigned additional seats to reach that number, corresponding roughly to a 54% majority.

Inside each coalition, seats are divided between parties with a Hare method, and consequently assigned to each constituency to elect single candidates.

Senate of the Republic[edit]

Palazzo Madama, hosts the Senate of the Republic, the upper branch.

For the Senate, the constituencies correspond to the 20 regions of Italy, with 6 senators allocated for Italians living abroad. The electoral system is very similar to the one for the lower house, but is in many ways transferred to regional basis. The thresholds are also different, and applied on aregional basis:

  • Minimum 20% for a coalition.
  • Minimum 8% for any party not in a coalition.
  • Minimum 3% for any party in a coalition (there is no exception for the first party in a coalition below this threshold, unlike the lower house).

The coalition that wins a plurality in a region is automatically given 55% of the region's seats, if it has not reached that percentage already. As this mechanism is region-based, however, and opposing parties or coalitions may benefit from it in different regions, it guarantees no clear majority for any block in the Senate, unlike the national super-assignment system in the Chamber of Deputies.


The new electoral law has come under wide criticism from the centre-left opposition since its introduction for a series of reasons:

The system is considered by its opposers to be less stable than the previous additional member system. The region-based system in the upper house is not guaranteed to produce a clear majority, and may pave the way for governmental crises. In reality, it's not clear how previous AM system could itself eliminate this problem. Despite this criticism, Berlusconi's coalition won a clear majority after 2008 elections, both in House and Senate.
Large Party Bias
It was widely alleged in the press at the time of its introduction, that the new system had been custom-designed by Silvio Berlusconi's government to give advantage to his House of Freedoms coalition in the 2006 elections, by eliminating seats for the numerous small parties on the Left that might not reach the 2% threshold. In the event however, these small parties formed alliances to reach the threshold, and the Center-Left won a surprise victory despite the system.
It has been alleged that Italian parties have retained too much power in the First Republic, screening the choices citizens had in elections; this electoral law would maintain fixed electoral lists, where voters can only express a preference for a list but not for a specific candidate. This can be used by parties to all but guarantee re-election to unpopular but powerful figures, who would be weaker in a first past the post electoral system (a system never used in Italy in its pure form after WWI).
Adaptation to Gallups
In Italian elections the left-wing tends to fare better in direct confrontation than in proportional voting, a sign there are voters who trust left-wing candidates but right-wing political parties, for reasons that can be debated. It is alleged that the centre-right majority in the Parliament undertook this reform to boost their chances in the upcoming elections of 2006 (they indeed lost by a very small margin).
No agreement with the opposition
The law was passed by the majority against the opinion of the opposition. Many felt that the "rules of the game" should be agreed upon by everybody, and not imposed by one side.

The previous electoral system (1993–2005)[edit]

Between 1991 and 1993, resulting from two referendums and legislation, Italian electoral law was altered substantially. Electoral law in Italy is determined by Parliament, not by constitution. This, along with the concurrent collapse of the Italian party system, marks the transition between the First and Second Italian Republics.

Two referendums[edit]

The nearly pure proportional representation system of the First Republic had resulted not only in party fragmentation and therefore governmental instability, but also insulation of the parties from the electorate and civil society. This was known in Italian as partitocrazia, in contrast to democracy, and resulted in corruption and pork-barrel politics. The Italian constitution allows, with substantial hurdles, abrogative referendums, enabling citizens to delete laws or parts of laws passed by Parliament (with exceptions).

A reform movement known as COREL (Committee to Promote Referendums on Elections), led by maverick DC-member Mario Segni, proposed three referendums, one of which was allowed by the Constitutional Court (at that time packed with members of the PSI and hostile to the movement). The June 1991 referendum therefore asked voters if they wanted to reduce the number of preferences, from three or four to one, in the Chamber of Deputies, to reduce the abuse of the open-list system by party elites and ensure accurate delegation of parliamentary seats to candidates popular with voters. With 62.5% of the Italian electorate voting, the referendum passed with 95% of those voting in favor. This was seen as a vote against the partitocrazia, which had campaigned against the referendum.

Emboldened by their victory in 1991, and encouraged by the unfolding Mani pulite scandals and the substantial loss of votes for the traditional parties in the 1992 general elections, the reformers pushed forward with another referendum, abolishing the proportional representation system of the Italian Senate, implicitly supporting a plurality system that would theoretically force parties to come together around two ideological poles, thereby providing governmental stability. This referendum was held in April, 1993, and passed with the support of 80% of those voting. This caused the Amato government to collapse three days later. Municipal elections were held in June, 1993, further illustrating the lack of legitimacy the sitting parliament held. The President of Italy, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, thereupon appointed a technocratic government, led by former head of the Bank of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, with the sole task of writing a new electoral law.

As it was under no constitutional obligation to enact a purely majoritarian system (nor were they under obligation to promulgate a new electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies), and cognizant of its declining popular support, the sitting parliament enacted a new electoral law in August, 1993 that provided for single-member districts while reflecting their own interests. Despite this, many of them would be voted out of office in the national election in March, 1994.

The electoral law[edit]

The national elections used an Additional Member System, which in Italy was a mixed system, with 75% of seats allocated using a First Past the Post electoral system and 25% using a proportional method, with one round of voting. The Senate and the Chamber of Deputies did not differ in the way they allocated the proportional seats, both using the D'Hondt method of allocating seats.

The Senate included 315 elected members, of whom:

  • 232 are directly elected in single-member districts.
  • 83 are elected by regional proportional representation.
  • a small, variable number of senators-for-life include former presidents of the Republic and several other persons appointed for life by a president of the Republic (no more than 5), according to special constitutional provisions (scientists, writers, artists, social workers, politicians, tycoons).

The Senate was elected on a single ballot. All those votes not contributing to a winning candidate were thrown into a regional pool, where the seats were allocated proportionally. There was no electoral threshold for the Senate.

The Italian Chamber of Deputies had 630 members, of whom

  • 475 are directly elected in single member districts.
  • 155 are elected by regional proportional representation.

The Chamber of Deputies used two ballots. The first ballot elected that district's member, on a purely plurality basis. The second ballot, in which only parties and party-lists were listed, was used to determine the proportional seats, allocated within one single national constituency, with a 4% minimum threshold for party representation.

A complicated mechanism known as scorporo, a previously unknown word in Italian politics, was used to tabulate PR votes. The number of votes cast for candidates coming in second place on the first ballot (SMD) would be subtracted from the number of votes earned on the second ballot (PR) by the party of the winning candidate in the first ballot. This would be repeated for each single-member district. This was developed – against the overwhelming opinion expressed in the referendums – to dampen the effect of the first-past-the-post system, which it was feared that it might promote the prevalence of one political party, especially parties that were strong in one geographical area.

The law also introduced a closed list system for the party lists on the second ballot, i.e., excluding voters from the decision as to which members of that party would enter parliament, thereby guaranteeing reelection of party leaders whose popular support was rapidly declining (new elections were to be held once the new electoral law was fully implemented). Ironically, that is what allowed Mario Segni, the leader of the reform movement, to enter parliament on the proportional ballot after the March, 1994, elections, having broken with his party in March, 1993, and then reunited with one of its shattered remnants that December.

The system did not accomplish the goals desired by the voters. The first parliament elected after the electoral reform produced Silvio Berlusconi's first government, which lasted eight months. Small parties still enter parliament and form unstable coalitions. On the other hand, political parties in Italy seem to be coalescing around two poles, if imperfectly so, and governments have lasted much longer, at least by Italian standards. On that level, the electoral reform can be seen as an improvement over the electoral law prior to it, even if Italy has now returned to a party-list system.

The 1946–1993 electoral system[edit]

Between 1946 and 1993, Italy used an electoral system that was a nearly pure proportional representation system, which was subject to two insignificant thresholds:

  1. that a party needed to achieve 300,000 votes at the national level;
  2. Italy was divided into 32 electoral regions (circoscrizioni), of unequal size, which were awarded a certain number of seats in Parliament based on population (e.g., Rome received more than 50). Within these regions, seats were divided proportionally; in order to become a member of parliament, a party member needed to be directly elected within one of these regions – approximately 60,000 votes. This system allocated 90% of the seats in both houses of parliament. The votes that did not go to a winning candidate were then thrown into one national electoral district, which was then divided proportionally and used to determine the remaining 10%, thereby going to candidates not directly elected.

Furthermore, voters were able to list their preferences for candidates on a party list, in order to prevent the parties from exploiting the power they acquired from being able to write their party lists. In practice, however, parties were able to manipulate these numbers to that preferred members, i.e., members loyal to one faction within a party, could enter parliament.

As neither of these thresholds was difficult to achieve, this system naturally benefitted the small parties. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Lower House has 630 seats. Because of the design of the electoral law did not provide for any mechanism to exclude small parties (indeed, it seemed designed to encourage them) or provide any incentives to avoid splintering, by the 1970s the Italian party system had become completely fragmented, with 17 parties represented in parliament in contrast to the eight represented in 1947. This resulted in highly unstable coalition governments (the average length was nine months) and political turbulence—and because voters had little control over which candidates entered parliament, political parties were insulated from the wishes of civil society. Relations between political elites and the masses therefore became clientelistic; voter behavior and politics in general became a contest as to which party could secure more pork-barrel investment for a specific region. It also allowed politicians to become corrupt.


  1. ^ (Italian) Perché non poteva essere considerato ammissibile.

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