Alternative Voting Systems For Electing Deputies To The State Duma Of The Russian Federation
Robert Alan Dahl
International Foundation for Election Systems
In 1993 and 1995 elections, deputies to the State Duma of the Russian Federation were elected by means of two ballots and two voting methods: 225 deputies were elected in single-member districts (SMDs) through one-round, plurality voting; 225 deputies were elected from one federal constituency through proportional representation (»party list» voting). Although called a «mixed» system, it is more accurately viewed as «split» voting. These methods involve two different elections conducted simultaneously. No mechanism is provided to allocate Duma seats to compensate for disparities between plurality vote outcomes and awarding of SMD seats.
Alternative voting methods for electing deputies to the State Duma are currently under consideration. One commonly mentioned approach is a change to total majoritarian (plurality) voting for all 450 seats. The advantages of that change would be to simplify the system, strengthen local representation, and direct public attention and political resources outside of Moscow. The disadvantages of a change to a pure majoritarian system would be to exaggerate representation of larger political parties (electoral associations/blocs), undermine representation of political and social minorities, reduce incentives for development of new political parties, and favor «personality» politics over «policy» choices in elections for State Duma.
The following identifies alternatives to the present system or pure majoritarian changes.
Majoritarian Voting Methods/Second Round Elections
The International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) has consistently favored the adoption of two round (run-off) elections for electing deputies to the State Duma, particularly if any shift to entirely (or significantly greater) majoritarian voting is enacted. In a report issued in January 1998 (»Comments Regarding Revisions to the Law on Elections of Deputies to the State Duma of the Russian Federation»), IFES observed that only 12 of the 225 deputies elected in single-member districts in December 1995 elections - only five percent - were elected by majority votes of their constituents. One hundred and forty-two deputies - sixty-three percent - were elected with 30% or less of the vote.
Second round elections between the two candidates receiving the most votes in the first round could be conducted within two weeks.1 To avoid a protracted election process, the law should not impose a participation requirement (»voter turnout» threshold) for second round elections to be valid.
Proposals for second round voting in elections for deputies to the State Duma are often criticized as leading to increased costs of election administration, strain upon voter interest and political uncertainties created during the time between rounds. IFES believes these potential costs or problems do not outweigh long-term damage to political stability and public confidence caused by the undemocratic outcomes arising from plurality voting in single-member districts.
Majoritarian Voting Methods/Ordinal Voting
An alternative to holding second round elections in a majoritarian system is to adopt an «ordinal» voting method for the ballots. Voters would be permitted (although not required) to rank-order candidate choices on the ballot by placing a number one next to their favorite choice, number two by their second favorite and number three by their third choice.2 If no candidate in the single-member district wins an outright majority based on voters' first choices (or, alternatively, more than 40% or 45%), ballots would be retabulated to give proportionate weight to voters' ordinal preferences (three points per first choice, two points per second choice and one point per third choice). The winner would be the candidate receiving the greatest total points, demonstrating the broadest political support of the candidate field.
Polling site election commissions would simply count first choices and transmit vote return protocols and ballots to the territorial commission. If the vote tabulation by the district election commission determines no candidate has won a majority of first choices in the single-member district, territorial election commissions would «recount» ballots according to the point system described above.
Majoritarian Voting Methods / Two-Mandate Constituencies
A majoritarian system can be adapted to alleviate disproportionate outcomes of single-member plurality voting methods by use of two-mandate constituencies. Pure majoritarian methods in single-member districts heavily favor the most dominant party in an area. A two-mandate method tends to provide representation to more political parties (and independent candidates) by awarding seats to voters' first and second choices. For the same reason, this approach also abates the worst effect of «first-past-the-post» results that reward only the top vote-getter. In the case of election of deputies to the State Duma, this alternative has the advantage of using the existing 225 constituency (district) lines to elect all 450 deputies.
Under a two-mandate system, voters would vote for two candidates from one list of candidates for the constituency. Political parties (electoral associations/blocs) could field two (or more) candidates, but run the risk of diluting their popular support and not winning any seats. Thus, a two-mandate system requires some sophistication by political parties in deciding how many candidates to nominate and/or to emphasize in the pre-election campaign. It also encourages some sophistication by voters (»strategic voting») in deciding how to allocate two votes, or whether to only vote for their favorite candidate and avoid dissipating their vote.3 This system offers the benefit of allowing voters to cast one vote for a candidate they support and anticipate can win, and to cast their other vote for a «long-shot» favorite choice.
Another variation of this approach is to combine the two-mandate constituency structure with ordinal voting. Voters could mark ballots for first and second choices (first choices equal two points; second choices one); the two candidates accumulating the most points win election.
The 450 State Duma deputy seats could be distributed among the subjects according to population (roughly equivalent to present allocation doubled), and subjects could each qualify as a multi-mandate constituency. This approach furthers the political value of strengthening political identity on the «subject» level.
Majoritarian voting in multi-mandate constituencies produces even more exaggerated, anti-democratic outcomes than in single-member districts, which benefits large dominant parties and denies fair representation to social and political minorities, especially minorities that are geographically concentrated.4 Such effects can be diminished, and minority representation advanced, by use of «limited» voting, in which voters cast a number of votes that is (usually) one less than the number of offices being elected (for example, voters cast two votes in a constituency electing three deputies). This method prevents dominant political forces from overwhelming all seats.
Alternatively, however, multi-mandate constituencies can serve as the basis for ordinal voting methods, particularly the «Single Transferable Vote» (STV) method.5 Under STV, legislators are elected in multi-member districts (usually three to seven seats per district). Candidates, including independents, are listed separately on the ballot. Voters rank-order the candidates on ballots by number in order of their preference, and are not confined to party lists.
Several steps are necessary to determine winning candidates. First, a threshold «quota» is established that represents the minimum number of first-choice votes a candidate must receive to be elected. Generally, the threshold is determined by the «Droop quota» method, calculated by taking the total number of votes in a constituency and dividing it by the number of seats to be filled plus one, and then adding one vote.6 First-choice votes are first counted and candidates who have reached the quota are elected. Then STV involves two kinds of transfers of votes. Once a candidate reaches the threshold, any surplus ballots beyond that threshold are redistributed to the next available candidate preference and votes are recounted to see if more candidates have reached the threshold after the redistribution.7 If no candidates have reached the threshold during a round, the last-place candidate is eliminated and those votes are redistributed to second-choice candidates and another count is made.
This process of ballot transfers continues until all the seats are filled. As a result, more voters contribute to electing a candidate they support. However, some arbitrariness results from the process of redistributing second choices of voters supporting the least popular candidates; not all second choices of voters supporting losing candidates are considered if the quotas are reached earlier.
STV systems aim to maximize the choices of voters so that most voters contribute to the election of a candidate (unlike the present circumstances in State Duma elections). Voters may choose their true preferences without fear of wasting their votes on big winners or big losers: where their votes are unnecessary or futile towards electing a candidate, votes are redistributed.
Mixed System/Compensatory Seats
The current «split» system voting for deputies to the State Duma through single-member (majoritarian) districts and a federal (proportional representation) constituency could be modified to provide a link between the two ballots and become a genuinely «mixed» system. Germany utilizes a hybrid arrangement called the «additional member» system to compensate for deviations from proportional results in single-member district outcomes. Germany employs two ballot voting similar to that used in the Russian Federation, but candidates are drawn from regional party lists as an addition to the number of candidates already elected in single-member districts and as compensation for failing to win seats despite good vote performance.
Hungary provides an interesting (but complicated) example of a mixed, compensatory voting system that combines elements of majoritarian voting and proportional representation. Political parties and their candidates compete at three levels: 176 seats from single-member constituencies; a maximum of 152 seats from 20 regional party lists; and a minimum of 58 seats from national party lists.8 Voters cast one ballot in the single-member district and one ballot in the regional constituency in a first round of voting, and usually a third ballot two weeks later in a second round «run-off» election for the single-member district. Up to 152 seats (depending upon vote outcomes and disparities) are allocated to parties at the regional level through quotas and a «limited largest remainder» proportional representation formula. The inputs to the national list «compensatory» level come from «wasted» votes (either futile votes for losing candidates or surplus votes for winning candidates) that are transferred from the two lower levels. The rules for eligibility of parties to compete and win seats are highly interactive among the levels of participation.9
The German and Hungarian systems combine the benefit of geographically based constituencies at two levels with a softening of exaggerated majoritarian outcomes through proportional representation and «compensatory» mechanisms. Other «mixed» systems can be designed to achieve the goal of local representation through majoritarian district voting while reducing the disproportionate outcomes that result from such voting.
The present system for electing deputies to the State Duma could be adapted to include compensation for disparities in plurality voting. Deputy mandates in the federal constituency (party list voting) that are not awarded in the initial distribution of seats based on proportional representation could be distributed on a compensatory basis. Rather than readjusting upward the percentage of seats given to the political parties (electoral associations/blocs) that crossed the qualification threshold (to account for all votes «lost» to parties not crossing the threshold), seats could be awarded to major parties - those parties nominating candidates in ten or more single-member districts - whose total vote performance in districts was strong but who failed to win many seats by a plurality.10 Thus, candidates on party lists could win seats based upon either their party's success in the federal constituency (party-list voting) or their party's success in attracting votes (but not winning pluralities) in single-member districts.
Varying Options By Subject
If the current voting system for electing deputies to the State Duma is changed to eliminate the federal (proportional representation) constituency, the Law on Elections of Deputies to the State Duma of the Russian Federation could be amended to permit subjects to choose through voter referendum their own type of voting method for electing deputies to the State Duma. Subjects could select majoritarian systems with either second round (»run-off») elections or ordinal voting to decide elections with less than a majority outcome, or (where three or more deputies are to be elected in the subject) could choose either a multi-mandate constituency utilizing «limited» voting or ordinal/STV practices.
1 France has utilized a system in which, absent a majority outcome, all candidates who received more than 12.5 percent of the vote in the first round participate in the second, which is decided by plurality outcome (but is usually a majority or near-majority result).
2 Single-member districts in which only two candidates are running would not employ ordinal voting methods. Those districts would necessarily yield a majority outcome.
3 Permitting use of both votes for one candidate by voters (cumulative/»bullet» voting) is not recommended, as it serves to return the advantage to the local dominant political party.
4 In the United States and other democracies in the British tradition, pure majoritarian voting in multi-mandate election districts is called «at-large» voting, and is in disfavor for its negative impact upon representation of political and cultural minorities.
5 STV is used in the Republic of Ireland, the Australian Upper House and Malta; it was also used by several cities in the United States earlier in the century.
6 For example, if voters cast 1200 votes to fill seven seats, the threshold would be 1200 divided by 8 (7 + 1) plus one - 151 votes.
7 «Surplus ballots can be distributed by one of two methods. Under the first method, [winning] candidates are not allowed to exceed the quota. On reaching the quota, surplus ballots immediately are transferred to the next choices indicated. Under the second method, [all of] the ballots of a candidate receiving a surplus of number '1' votes are reexamined to determine the distribution of number '2' votes. The surplus ballots are distributed proportionately according to second choices [on all that candidate's ballots].» Joseph F. Zimmerman, «Equity in Representation for Women and Minorities,» in Wilma Rule and Joseph F. Zimmerman, eds., Electoral Systems in Comparative Perspectives: Their Impact on Women and Minorities, (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 8.
8 Reflecting the political interests of the dominant party at the time of election law development, individuals are permitted to be candidates in all three tiers simultaneously.
9 Candidacies in single-member districts (SMDs) are based on collection of signatures, but eligibility of parties to participate in regional lists is determined by the number of SMD candidacies for which a party has qualified in that region. Whether a party may gain seats from a territorial list depends on its percentage of the vote in territorial lists nationwide. Eligibility for gaining seats from the national list also depends on a party's percentage of the vote in territorial lists nationwide; the qualification for a national list depends on the number of territorial lists the party was able to field (which is determined by the SMD candidacies).
10 Of course, the five percent threshold could be dropped to four percent to allow greater distribution of seats based on proportional representation and fewer «unallocated» seats for the compensatory procedure.