Recommendations For Review And Revision
TO: Catherine Barnes
International Foundation for Election Systems
FROM: Robert Dahl
DATE: 13 May 1996
The Federal Law on Elections of Deputies of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation
Election laws rend to he resistant to change Their existing form often is the result of previous and difficult political compromise. They seem to represent a relatively fair balance. Political forces get comfortable with operating under current rules, especially incumbents who won office by way of the election laws. And changes in the laws bring the risk of unexpected and unintended political consequences.
All of these factors will complicate any effort to review and revise present election laws in Russia, particularly laws governing elections to the State Duma. This is precisely the time to undertake this effort, however - soon after the last elections and long before the next political season for the Duma heats up. And changes should be made before the next election, or else many merely superficial or politically convenient features of Russia's new democratic election system and practices will come to be viewed as endemic and culturally ingrained (look at the American Electoral College).
Two rounds of parliamentary elections in 1993 and 1995 provide enough experience to fully appreciate problems with the existing law and amend it intelligently. Despite the tendency by many to criticize its inadequacies, the law has performed decently for a beginning effort.
In general, the election law for the State Duma needs to be reconsidered in terms of: 1) stimulating competition between relatively stable political forces, and 2) relying less upon legal/administrative control to insure compliance with election norms and relying more upon self-policing by competitive political forces and an informed public. Some of the larger premises of the system need to be reviewed (such as the split proportional/majoritarian method of electing deputies). Many of the less fundamental but nevertheless important rules and regulatory practices should be revised (such as campaign finance reporting).
Pun-off Elections. More than any other aspect of recent elections for the State Duma, the lack of run-off rounds for single-mandate seats stands out as most clearly contrary to basic democratic purposes and to the balance sought by the «mixed» voting methods. Many of the deputies were elected in single-mandate elections with far less than 50% of the vote of their constituents For the same reasons that a run-off is necessary in the Presidential elections to prevent a distorted first round outcome, unreflective of any consensus of the popular will, a run-off is needed for any majoritarian elections to the State Duma.
Most democratic systems use a categoric (one choice only ballot), and most determine winners by «first-past-the-post» (plurality); however, those systems tend to have strong two or two-plus-minor parry structures that discourage wildly dissipated minority outcomes, in places where run-offs are held, a second election is usually held within a few weeks between the two top finishers in the first round to insure a majority result in the second round (as in elections for Russian president). One variation sometimes employed in French parliamentary elections is to hold a second round (absent a first round majority outcome) open to any candidate with more than a certain threshold vote share in the first (commonly 12,5% in France), and to permit the winner to be determined by whatever plurality the second round produces.
Alternatives to Run-off Elections. Holding run-off rounds is a significant administrative expense, and runs the risk of low voter participation. Alternatives to run-offs, intended to also yield a more accurate reflection of political consensus than «first-past-the-post,» are complicated as to ballots, voting procedures and counting process. They may be confusing for voters and election administrators, and lack the benefit of focus that a second round campaign can give.
The most prominent method is called, in fact, the alternative vote, and is used at the national level in Australia for elections to the lower house. Also called «majority-preferential» system, this method permits voters to indicate their first and second preferences on an ordinal (choices are ranked by preference) ballot. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes cast, the candidate with the lowest number of first preferences is eliminated during counting. The votes of the eliminated candidate are then transferred to the second-choice preferences of that candidate's voters. The process is continued until a candidate receives majority support; the candidate whose first-choice preferences plus votes transferred from defeated candidates crosses the 50% line is declared elected.
Majority and proportional voting. Any observer of debate last year over the election law governing voting for the State Duma realizes the issue of voting methods - majority, proportional or «mixed» - is highly controversial and contentious. The issue will have to be revisited in any legitimate review of the law, however. It may be slightly less politicized now. Last summer, incumbent deputies were faced with a possible change of electoral structure right before the end of a brief two year tenure in the Assembly.
The current «mixed» system of voting for the State Duma is, by any reasonable account, an awkward political compromise. Its adoption was like not being able to choose between two dinners cm the menu, and ordering half of each. The compromise may have been necessary for democratic development, both to satisfy political interests favoring one or the other, and to avoid extreme political results that either pure majoritarian (winner-take-all) or proportional voting (proliferation of fractured minor parties) might have produced. But the compromise has been unwieldy.
The present system is not truly a «mixed» system. Rather, it holds two simultaneous yet separate elections for half the State Duma. It is not an integrated system. It fails to encourage stable and competitive political elements in either the nomination and election of candidates nor in the sitting Assembly. With the lessons of three years of experience, the system deserves to be made whole.
A truly «mixed» system shares attributes of majoritarian and proportional voting in one method. It is unlikely any changes in the Russian system would be less majoritarian, and thus likely the number of seats allocated by means of proportional voting would be significantly less than at present. Certain voting methods temper majority voting with proportional elements; mixed or hybrid systems seem most appropriate for consideration in a review of the law for electing deputies of the State Duma.
These include methods for compensatory seats from national party list (often called «additional» seats), awarded on basis of national or regional votes in single-member districts to compensate for deviations from proportionality resulting from winner-take-all allocations. These approaches can involve either one or two ballots: either based entirely on votes for individual candidates or, as in Germany, separate votes for party list to permit ticket-splitting and «underdog» voting for party.
Another method is «limited» voting (and a variation called the «single nontransferable vote») under which voters vote for less candidates than the number of seats awarded from each constituency. Clearly meant to restrain majority rule, this method prevents one party from overwhelming any one election nationally and encourages diversity and party competition in every locality, in Russia, a simple method would be to have two candidates elected from each of the 225 constituencies but voters vote for only one.
A less drastic method is to permit voters to vote for the same number of candidates as awarded through multi-mandate constituencies (including two candidates for two seats). The competitiveness of local conditions and particular races should often encourage ticket-splitting, Political blocs could even be permitted to run two candidates in a constituency under such a method, but at some risk of splitting their vote.
Political Party Law
At a fundamental level, in addition to modifying the voting method for the State Duma, it is also necessary to adopt a comprehensive law on political parties (electoral blocs). While not solely related to Duma elections, a law on parties is a necessary precondition for effectively revising the Duma law. And while such a law could be part of larger legislation on political associations in general, care should be taken to neither treat parties too inconsequentially nor over-burden small, informal and often transitory political groups.
Such a law would seek to institutionalize stable, competitive political parties without discouraging the rise of new ones. It would permit parties that have already demonstrated their seriousness through electoral success to avoid (or have lesser) signature petition requirements each election in order to field candidates. It Would place some basic requirements and restrictions upon their operations (such as the nomination procedure requirements in the 1995 law) without interfering too greatly in their internal affairs. And such a law would regulate and disclose financing of political parties beyond pre-election campaign periods.
The current law requires the remap of district lines to be approved by special law passed by the Assembly and sighed by the President no later than 110 days prior to election day. Some complaints and political wrangling over constituency lines occurred last year in the State Duma. Opposition to Central Election Commission (CEC) map-drawing finally dissipated as the deadline approached, due to some adjustments and the threat of reversion to past lines.
To deter political manipulation of constituency lines in the future, to avoid another last minute political showdown over the issue and to permit a better sense of political cohesiveness and awareness in the constituencies themselves, the election law should be changed to require district remapping to be approved five or six months prior to the election. In the meantime, the CHC should initiate a study of the adequacy of the lines, and encourage the electoral blocs who were registered in 1995 to participate in or respond to the study.
Similarly, the development and correction process for voter registries should not be pushed up so close to the election time. Current law provides for voter lists to be submitted for public inspection in each precinct no later than 30 days prior to the election. Local authorities should be required to take reasonable steps to canvas voters and determine the accuracy of lists on an ongoing basis and well before the election. These lists should be accessible to the public for scrutiny and correction sixty days before the election, at (and coinciding with formation of) territorial election commissions. Political parties should be encouraged to send representatives familiar with the locality to examine the lists.
The law needs to be amended to provide more specific requirements for publication and centralized analysis of the administrative decisions and complaint adjudications of commissions at the polling site, territorial, district and subject level. The capacity to review commission decisionmaking is necessary to develop a comprehensive understanding of the election law and encourage consistency in its application. It is also needed to permit evaluation of particular commission performance and to deter local authorities from exercising inappropriate influence upon them.
On its face, the provisions of the 1995 law governing elections for State Duma regarding campaign finance much more clearly defined the political finance covered by the law. It greatly expanded regulation and requirements for raising, spending and disclosing funds used to influence elections. In practice, however, legal restrictions appeared to be widely ignored and circumvented, and financial disclosure incomplete and unaccessible to the voting public. The primary problem with the current campaign finance regulatory process is ineffective pre-election reporting requirements, and inappropriate (and thus ineffective) sanctions for violating the law.
Revisions to the law in this area should focus on providing formal and clear disclosure requirements in the pre-election campaign period rather than tight administrative control. The CEC should concentrate on demanding party/candidate compliance with disclosure requirements and making the information accessible to the public. The news media and political competitors should be encouraged to monitor pre-election reports and complain of inaccuracies.
To complement this. efforts the overriding need is to develop a serious, reasonable, graduated penalty system for misreporting political finances, rather than relying upon drastic (and non-utilized) post-election remedies (such as cancelling candidate registration).
Tabulation And Certification Of Vote Results
The 1995 law governing elections for Stale Duma was a dramatic improvement over the regulations in terms of transparency and accountability of the vote tabulation process. Despite success in staying on schedule unde the law, and virtually no challenges to the official vote count, concern continues over the tabulation issue, That concern appears to result from the slowness of the formal protocol tabulation process (which was greatly exacerbated in I995 by incomplete coverage and misperceptions about the CEC's automated counting system).
No quick fix can: remedy the inevitable time lag in the process of vote tabulation and transmitting of protocols. Further improvement and confidence in an, automated system will be of significant valua. But the system needs a focal point to insure more immediate trust in the formal vote counting process.
Territorial commissions are the first step in the tabulation process, and are responsible for counting votes in a manageable number of polling sites. They generally work in central and familiar locations in government buildings with copying and other logistical capacities. Thus, a simple means to farther accountability would be to amend the Duma election law to require territorial election commissions to post a copy of protocols received from polling sites in their jurisdiction for a period of three days in a public place. News media, observer groups and representatives of blocs and candidates should be encouraged to compare the posted protocols with copies of protocols or observer notes from the precincts.