The Italian Electoral System – An Overview


Bologna: Last week, I was talking with a fellow SAIS student who was genuinely surprised that the Italian electoral system involves just one round of voting. Understanding the electoral system of a country is arguably equally important to knowing the policy positions of the main parties. Hence, I want to give a brief overview of the Italian electoral system. I will mainly refer to the electoral system for the members of the lower house of the Parliament (Camera dei Deputati). However, the system for the upper house (Senato della Repubblica) is very similar with a few minor adjustments.

In Italy, a party can gain the most votes, but still not have the largest representation in Parliament due to a mixed electoral system. The first 37 percent of the seats are assigned by plurality vote in single-member districts, also known as a first-past-the-post system. A further 61 percent of the seats are assigned by proportional representation (PR) in multi-member districts. The remaining two percent of seats are assigned by PR from the votes of Italians that have permanent residency abroad. This attempts to reconcile fair representation with governability.

As an example, the city of Bologna is divided into two single-member districts (SMDs). In each district, the candidate with the most votes will be elected, with or without a 50%+1 majority. At the same time, the city of Bologna is part of the province of Bologna, which constitutes one larger multi-member district that will elect four MPs according to PR. An interesting feature is that the PR district candidates are presented in short block lists. The electorate thus cannot express a direct preference for a candidate; instead, it votes for a party. The party chooses the order of the list, which determines the order that candidates will be elected to Parliament.

The Italian electoral system (Rosatellum) also has some provisions that aim to promote gender balance in the political system. First, the party lists for PR districts must alternate between genders. A four-member list could thus take the form: gender A, gender B, gender A, and gender B. If the party receives enough votes to elect three MPs in that constituency, then two candidates of gender A and one of gender B would be elected for that party. Additionally, each gender must account for 40 to 60 percent of the candidates in SMDs as well as the candidates that are ranked first in the blocked lists of the PR constituencies for each party.

While this does promote gender balance in electoral politics, it does not necessarily promote gender balance in parliamentary politics. Each party has some “safe” seats, some “swing” seats, and some “lost” seats. A party that wants to promote gender B over gender A could simply put all gender A candidates as first-ranked candidates for PR and as candidates for SMD in the “lost” or “swing” seats, reserving the “safe” seats for gender B candidates. To see each parties actual commitment to gender equality, one must look at how each major party has distributed “safe”, “swing”, and “lost” seats across genders.

While the electoral system is important, it is not the whole story. Of course, votes themselves are the cornerstone of the electoral outcome. In Italy, the electorate is split into three groups of similar size, making it more likely that the Parliament will not be dominated by any one political party. We will find out this weekend if we will have a large centre-right to centre-left coalition government once again.

Pietro Gagliardi is a true Bolognese and a first year MA student concentrating in Middle East studies.