Enhancing the Representativeness of the State Duma: Options for Limiting «Wasted Votes»
by Christian Nadeau
Project Director / Russia
International Foundation for Election Systems
The purpose of the article is to address the key issue of ensuring the representativeness of the State Duma by examining international experience as applicable in the unique context of the Russian Federation. Specifically, the paper analyses the opportunities presented by the holding of second round of elections and threshold variations, as these options respect the current electoral structure. The International Foundation of Election Systems (IFES) has been present in Russia, at the invitation of the Central Election Commission (CEC), since 1993, supporting continuously the development of electoral institutions and the empowerment of the electorate. IFES is a recognized neutral and impartial source of analysis and comparative information on electoral processes in Russia and abroad. While the system of representation a country chooses is of primordial importance, IFES has no stated institutional preference as to which system - majoritarian, proportional, or mixed - should be employed in the Russian Federation. Based on the outcome of the 1995 parliamentary elections, however, IFES strongly recommends consideration be given to instituting second-round (»run-off») elections in single-member districts. The comments made below follow this principle, and reflect an earlier presentation made on March 29 at the Carnegie Center in Moscow by the author.
While looking into the design of electoral systems, key ingredients to keep in mind are simplicity, inclusion, maximizing voter's influence and encouraging coherent political parties. Achieving such goals can be done in a variety of ways both «up» and «down stream» of the electoral process. «Up stream» examples include political party primaries, which enables partisans to determine their most representative leader prior to an election, such as in the United States of America, and the use of financial deposits for candidates and parties, as in Canada. By limiting access to the ballot, fewer contestants divide the vote and greater representativeness is ensured. This holds for single mandate-district or proportional system elections.
While limiting access to the ballot is important to reduce the contesting parties or candidates, this paper will focus on «down stream» examples, applicable to the unique split election system prevalent in the Russian Federation today. Examples include a second round of elections, quotas, and the formula for seat allocation within the 225 proportional representation (PR) list seats available. Currently, single mandate districts (SMD) deputies represent on average 29.3% of the valid votes expressed in their district while PR deputies represent 50.5% of voters.1 This leaves the view of a majority of voters unrepresented in the State Duma. What are the alternatives within the current split system to increase representation ?
Second Round Elections in Single-Mandate Districts
An examination of the 1995 State Duma election results illustrates the wide-spread differences in the level of support deputies received from the voting population. Only 13 of the 225 deputies elected in single-member districts -- less than six percent --were elected by majority valid votes of their constituents. By any objective measure, this results in a shallow level of representativeness for the deputies elected through SMDs. This may explain why three times as many people chose to vote «against all candidates» on the SMD ballot than on the PR ballot in the State Duma elections in 1995. At the present stage of development of political associations and blocs, too many deputies are elected in single-member districts with significantly less than 50% of popular support based on an election system in which numerous candidates run in one-round «first past the post» voting system.
It is true most countries utilizing «majoritarian» voting systems only require plurality rather than majority outcomes. Canada, India, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and other countries following the British Parliamentary tradition, have generally developed two or three dominant and institutionalized political parties which encompass the majority of voters. Moreover, second round (run-off) elections are often used for political party primary elections and «special» (vacancy-filling) elections in the United States, where the first round is expected to contain numerous candidates. France is an exception for SMD elections as the people go to the polls twice should any one candidate fail to obtain a majority.2
As a field of candidates in a single-member district increases to more than three, the percentage of votes needed to win a plurality dramatically decreases. This situation creates a potential for winning candidates to be supported by only one minority political interest rather than any substantial consensus; the «winning» candidate may actually be disfavored by the majority. At best, plurality outcomes in those circumstances may not be representative of voter sentiment. For example, in Canada, there were on average 5.5 candidates per seat in the last Parliamentary election; the same ratio in the United Kingdom was 4.8. In Russia, there were on average nearly 12 candidates per SMD seat in the last State Duma election.
Given present political circumstances in the Russian Federation, IFES encourages election law drafters to consider the adoption of a second round (»run-off») elections in districts where first rounds do not yield a majority outcome -- especially if consideration is given to adopting an entirely «majoritarian» system for State Duma elections. Second round elections should be conducted within two weeks of the first, and should be conducted between those two candidates receiving the most votes in the first round. The election law should not impose a «voter turnout» threshold for second round elections to be valid, as turnouts are usually lower. Lithuania, for example, which also has a split PR/SMD parliamentary electoral system, holds second rounds for SMD deputies.
IFES is aware of practical objections to proposals for second round voting in elections for deputies to the State Duma: increased costs of election administration, strain upon voter interest and political uncertainties created during the time between rounds. While each of these problems is significant, IFES believes these disadvantages do not outweigh the long-term damage to political stability and public confidence that may be caused by the outcomes based upon the «first past the post» system in single-member districts. In order to alleviate these concerns, one alternative to consider is establishing a «floor level» which would require a second round of voting only if no candidates obtain a certain threshold. For example, if no candidate receives at least 35% of the valid votes cast in their favor, then one must hold a second round. This would entail, for example, that only 167 districts out of 225 would have had to go for a second round election in 1995.
Solutions on the Proportional Representation Side
Law drafters may also wish to examine options to increase the representativeness of electors in the PR half of the system; the same goal that is achieved by holding a second round is single-member districts. In 1995, the 5% threshold resulted in an extremely high number of «wasted votes» -- nearly one vote out of two -- for electoral associations that did not qualify for seats in the State Duma. While this situation is better than for SMDs elections, having such a high number of «wasted votes» is contrary to the main purpose of a PR system. Such a system seeks to mimic as much as possible the intentions of the voters, limit regional influences, and minimize «wasted» votes. For example, a party which receives 30% of the support of voters nationally should ideally obtain 30% of the seats in the State Duma. In the 1995 elections, the four parties which qualified obtained nearly twice as many seats in the State Duma than their share of the national vote.
A second round to allow voters to determine the distribution of seats amongst qualified electoral associations in PR system is one option, albeit untested, which could be considered to increase the electorate's representation in the parliament. In effect, every vote would go to an electoral association already guaranteed a seat, allowing voters to express their preference within a limited «menu» in a second round. The «closest relative» of such a system could be compared to the system in place in countries such as New Zealand or Ireland. Each of these countries have distinct electoral systems which insure a re-distribution of votes through the expression of alternate preferences, although it is done in a single round. Holding two rounds for a PR ballot entails higher election administration costs and complexities in the process, as the vote must take place nationally on two occasions. To our knowledge, no other established democracy currently uses a second round for re-distribution of PR votes.
Alternative, perhaps more simple solutions, exist to increase the representation of parliamentarians, without changing the fundamentals of the State Duma's electoral system. Internationally, PR qualifying thresholds vary in general from 0.67% in the Netherlands to 8% in Liechtenstein or an exceptional 10% in the Seychelles; one has to look closely at each case in order to fully appreciate the underpinnings of the various thresholds used in each sovereign state.
The first alternative is based on the successful examples of the German and New Zealand electoral systems, which seek to establish a link between the voters and their elected member of parliament while prescribing the benefits of the PR system. Both countries have a «mixed member proportional» system and carry a formal qualifying threshold level of 5%. The aim of the high threshold, as in Russia, is to ensure that very small parties do not gain access to representation. However, both Germany and New Zealand provide an alternative route for the parties which do not meet the threshold requirement. In Germany, parties which elect candidates in three single-mandate districts are eligible for a distribution of seats through the PR vote, even though they do not meet the 5% threshold. In New Zealand, which has three times less seats to fill than Germany's Bundestag single-member constituency seats, the same rule applies for a party which has one candidate elected through a single-member constituency seat. This represents a compromise between the need to limit access to small parties, increase the representativeness of the elected body, and to diminish the number of «wasted votes».
For comparison purposes, should the Russian Federation have had a qualifying threshold of 5% or 3 candidates in 1995 elected through SMDs, the following additional seven parties would have participated in the seat distribution of the PR list votes in the State Duma:
Agrarian Party (20 SMD Deputies; 3.85% of valid PR votes)
Power to People (9 SMD Deputies; 1.64% of valid PR votes)
Choice Russia ( 9 SMD Deputies; 3.94% of valid PR votes)
Congress of Russian Communities (5 SMD Deputies; 4.39% of valid PR votes)
Block for Ripkin (3 SMD Deputies; 1.13% of valid PR votes)
Forward Russia (3 SMD Deputies; 1.98% of valid PR votes)
Women of Russia (3 SMD Deputies; 4.69% of valid PR votes).
By using such a system, the number of «wasted votes» would have been reduced by over 40% from it's current level, raising the overall representativeness of the State Duma to over 72% of the votes cast on election day. In addition, it encourages political parties to widen their regional support, furthering party-building.
The second alternative, always with the objective of decreasing the number of «wasted» votes on the PR ballot while limiting the access of small parties, is simply a lowering of the threshold altogether. This requires little, if any explanation. Again, using the 1995 election results as a basis of discussion, a decrease in 1% of the barrier for entry in the State Duma, in 1995 from 5% to 4%, would have resulted in 17.8% of valid votes cast on election day being taken in account for the allocation of seats - the choice expressed by an additional 12 million voters.
The definition of the means to achieve greater representativeness in the State Duma is bound to be an on-going debate amongst all actors of the political system in the Russian Federation. Not surprisingly, the majority of «wasted votes» come from SMD deputies. This is a normal feature of the first-past the post majoritarian system. Holding second round of elections is a good anti-dote to this undesirable effect. On the PR side, holding a second round amongst qualified parties is one option to consider. Alternatively and perhaps more simply, introducing variations in the qualification method or level for vote distribution, would also have an important impact, carrying each voter's intention closer to the final shape of the State Duma.
While countries seek to maintain stability within their electoral system, the debate as to means to improve it is always present and lively in democracies. Faults of one sort or another appear through the rugged testing the system goes through with each election; it's a normal process. For example, the United States of America faces important challenges today with regards to the nature, extent, and enforcement of it's campaign finance provisions. Canada only recently had a Royal Commission look into all aspects of its electoral system which concluded the best alternative is to not modify it.
While the challenges facing the Russian Federation are unique, international experience can be useful in achieving the important goal of increasing the representativeness of the State Duma. The Foundation submits the ideas cited above respectfully, in the hope that it's international experience can be of use in the search for a Russian-made solution.3
1 All the Russian electoral results figures are taken or derived from the official results published in «Elections of Deputies to the State Duma - 1995», published by the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, Moscow, 1996.
2 France adopted a two-round SMD system whereby parliamentary candidates who obtains more than 12.5% can participate in the run-off. Such a threshold is not advisable as a crowded field in the second round contributes to distortions in the election result, often away from the initial will of the majority of voters.
3 IFES also has a comprehensive Resource Center which can provide further analytical work on the solutions mentioned above or others which policy makers may wish to consider.