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Elections to the Italian Parliament - The Senate (1994-2001)
by Manuel Álvarez-Rivera

Important Notice: New Electoral Systems for the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies

In December 2005, Italy adopted new proportional representation electoral systems for elections to the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. This page describes the system previously used for elections to the Senate, which nonetheless will be retained for the region of Trentino-Alto Adige.

An overview of the new Senate electoral system is presented here.


The Italian Senate is composed of 315 elected members. A total of 232 seats are filled in single-member constituencies or colleges (collegi); the remaining 83 seats are distributed by proportional representation (PR). Senate seats are apportioned among Italy's twenty regions in proportion to their population; nonetheless, each region is guaranteed a minimum of seven seats, except Valle d'Aosta, which elects one senator, and Molise, which elects two. Approximately three-quarters of the senators in each region are elected in single-member colleges; PR is used to choose the remaining one-quarter, except in Valle d'Aosta and Molise, where all the seats are filled in single-member constituencies. In Trentino Alto Adige, with seven Senate seats, only one senator is elected by PR; the region has six college seats - three in Italian-speaking Trento (Trent) province, and three in German-speaking Bolzano (Südtirol) province.

For the 2001 Senate election, the regional distribution of seats was as follows:

   Region       College
Seats
      PR
Seats
      Total
Seats
  
   Piemonte       17       6       23   
   Valle d'Aosta       1       -       1   
   Lombardia       35       12       47   
   Trentino Alto Adige       6       1       7   
   Veneto       17       6       23   
   Friuli Venezia Giulia       5       2       7   
   Liguria       6       3       9   
   Emilia Romagna       15       6       21   
   Toscana       14       5       19   
   Umbria       5       2       7   
   Marche       6       2       8   
   Lazio       21       7       28   
   Abruzzi       5       2       7   
   Molise       2       -       2   
   Campania       22       8       30   
   Puglia       16       6       22   
   Basilicata       5       2       7   
   Calabria       8       3       11   
   Sicilia       20       7       27   
   Sardegna       6       3       9   
   Total       232       83       315   

Beginning with the next parliamentary election, due in 2006, Italian citizens residing abroad will elect six senators, and the number of seats apportioned among the regions will decrease to 309.

Since 1993, Senate single-member colleges are filled by the plurality or first-past-the-post method, under which the candidate obtaining the largest number of votes in each college is elected. Previously, from 1948 to 1992, a majority of at least sixty-five percent of the valid vote was required for election to a Senate single-member constituency; otherwise, no candidate was elected to fill the seat, which was added to the regional PR pool, where it was allocated.

The proportional seats, allocated at the regional level, are distributed according to the number of votes obtained by each group, excluding votes won by candidates elected to a college seat. The apportionment is carried out by means of the largest average method of PR, conceived by the Belgian mathematician Victor d'Hondt in 1899. Within each group, proportional mandates are awarded to defeated candidates with the highest vote percentages, relative to other candidates from the same group.

A single election ballot is used to fill both constituency and proportional seats. There is no statutory threshold for participation in the regional allocation of Senate proportional seats; however, the application of the d'Hondt rule introduces a de facto threshold at the regional level.

To illustrate the functioning of the system, the allocation of seats in the Emilia Romagna region for the May, 2001 general election is presented here in detail. At the time, the region had fifteen college seats and six proportional seats, for a total of twenty-one seats. Six groups contested the Senate election in the region, namely L'Ulivo (The Olive Tree); the Casa delle Libertà (House of Freedoms); Rifondazione Comunista (the Communist Refoundation Party); the Lista Di Pietro (Di Pietro List); the Pannella-Bonino List; and Democrazia Europea (European Democracy).

The first step was the allocation of the fifteen single-member college seats, detailed below:

   College       L'Ulivo       Casa delle
Libertà
      Rifondazione
Comunista
      Lista
Di Pietro
      Pannella-
Bonino
      Democrazia
Europea
  
        
     
     
     
     
     
  
         Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %   
   1       99,235       52.5       63,216       33.5       11,442       6.1       5,178       2.7       4,162       2.2       5,667       3.0   
   2       84,126       51.0       59,887       36.3       10,053       6.1       4,712       2.8       3,046       1.8       3,255       2.0   
   3       99,062       52.6       65,101       34.6       11,869       6.3       5,084       2.7       4,582       2.4       2,724       1.4   
   4       89,064       48.1       73,000       39.5       10,438       5.6       4,649       2.5       4,577       2.5       3,400       1.8   
   5       102,126       55.3       61,221       33.2       9,637       5.2       4,928       2.7       3,356       1.8       3,305       1.8   
   6       100,930       53.6       67,311       35.7       7,860       4.2       5,012       2.7       4,453       2.4       2,710       1.4   
   7       96,200       55.9       55,902       32.4       8,748       5.1       5,579       3.2       3,761       2.2       2,022       1.2   
   8       99,618       56.1       57,434       32.3       9,523       5.4       4,806       2.7       3,302       1.8       2,959       1.7   
   9       100,742       57.2       55,997       31.8       7,727       4.4       5,255       3.0       3,719       2.1       2,656       1.5   
   10       84,926       51.0       59,403       35.6       9,486       5.7       5,691       3.4       3,221       1.9       3,984       2.4   
   11       111,211       58.2       56,590       29.6       10,497       5.5       5,944       3.1       3,593       1.9       3,254       1.7   
   12       103,172       53.4       65,016       33.7       12,326       6.4       5,777       3.0       3,467       1.8       3,391       1.7   
   13       86,104       48.3       68,718       38.5       11,313       6.3       6,020       3.4       3,604       2.0       2,734       1.5   
   14       66,272       37.8       82,133       46.9       10,984       6.3       7,428       4.2       4,211       2.4       4,265       2.4   
   15       85,285       47.3       72,313       40.1       9,989       5.6       5,694       3.2       4,012       2.2       2,911       1.6   
   Total       1,408,073       52.0       963,242       35.5       151,892       5.6       81,757       3.0       57,066       2.1       49,237       1.8   
   Seats       14       93.3       1       6.7       0       0.0       0       0.0       0       0.0       0       0.0   

College seats were awarded to the group obtaining the largest number of votes in each constituency (shown in bold italic). As indicated, the Olive Tree coalition won fourteen college seats, while the House of Freedoms cartel won one college seat; the remaining groups won no constituency seats.

It becomes immediately evident that the distribution of college seats in the region was far from proportional: on the contrary, the first-past-the-post system greatly amplified the Olive Tree's large popular vote majority, as the coalition secured fourteen out of fifteen constituency seats, or 93.3% of the total, with just 52.0% of the vote. Meanwhile, the House of Freedoms, with 35.5% of the vote, won just one college seat, or 6.7% of the total. As for the other groups, all of them were trailing far behind the two major groups with single-digit percentage scores across the region, so it was hardly surprising that all failed to win even a single constituency seat.

This is not an unusual outcome: the first-past-the-post system usually favors the major groups, particularly the majority ticket, which often receives a share of seats well above its proportion of the popular vote, at the expense of its opponents - which was exactly the case here. At the same time, it severely handicaps minor parties with evenly spread support, which practically have no chance of winning any seats - which was also the case in this situation.

The next step was the calculation of each group's electoral total (cifra elettorale), in order to distribute the proportional mandates at the regional level. To that end, the votes obtained by each group's winning candidates were deducted from its corresponding regional vote total. The deductions, known in Italian as scorporo (that is, subtraction), and the electoral totals for each group are detailed below.

   Group       Regional
Total
      Scorporo       Electoral
Total
  
   L'Ulivo       1,408,073       1,341,801       66,272   
   Casa delle Libertà       963,242       82,133       881,109   
   Rifondazione Comunista       151,892       -       151,892   
   Lista Di Pietro       81,757       -       81,757   
   Pannella-Bonino       57,066       -       57,066   
   Democrazia Europea       49,237       -       49,237   

Note that the electoral total for each group is equivalent to the aggregate number of votes obtained by the group's defeated college seat candidates.

The electoral total polled by each group was then divided by 1, 2, 3, and so on until the number of seats to be allocated was reached, as detailed below:

   Division       L'Ulivo       Casa
delle Libertà
      Rifondazione
Comunista
      Lista
Di Pietro
      Pannella-
Bonino
      Democrazia
Europea
  
   1       66,272       881,109       151,892       81,757       57,066       49,237   
   2       33,136       440,554       75,946       40,878       28,533       24,618   
   3       22,090       293,703       50,630       27,252       19,022       16,412   
   4       16,568       220,277       37,973       20,439       14,266       12,309   
   5       13,254       176,221       30,378       16,351       11,413       9,847   
   6       11,045       146,851       25,315       13,626       9,511       8,206   
   Seats       0       5       1       0       0       0   

Seats were then awarded to the groups obtaining the largest quotients or averages (shown in bold). As indicated, the House of Freedoms won five seats, while the Communist Refoundation Party secured one seat.

The apportionment of constituency seats can also be obtained by dividing the electoral total for each group by the smallest quotient used to allocate seats, disregarding the remainders. For the election in Emilia Romagna, the electoral total obtained by each group would be divided by the sixth largest average - 151,892 votes - with the following results:

 
   66,272 

 151,892 
= 0 seats for L'Ulivo
 
   881,109 

 151,892 
= 5 seats for the Casa delle Libertà
 
   151,892 

 151,892 
= 1 seat for Rifondazione Comunista
 
   81,757 

 151,892 
= 0 seats for the Lista Di Pietro
 
   57,066 

 151,892 
= 0 seats for the Pannella-Bonino List
 
and
 
   49,237 

 151,892 
= 0 seats for Democrazia Europea

The smallest quotient used to allocate proportional seats is also the effective representation threshold, which is the number of votes necessary to secure one seat. For the Emilia Romagna region, this threshold amounted to 5.6% of the vote.

The seats won by each group were awarded to its defeated college candidates with the highest vote percentages, relative to other group candidates. In this manner, the defeated Casa delle Libertà candidates in Colleges 2, 4, 6, 13 and 15 were declared elected at the regional level, as was the defeated Rifondazione Comunista candidate in College 12.

As such, the results of the Senate election in Emilia Romagna were as follows:

   College       L'Ulivo       Casa delle
Libertà
      Rifondazione
Comunista
      Lista
Di Pietro
      Pannella-
Bonino
      Democrazia
Europea
  
        
     
     
     
     
     
  
         Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %       Votes       %   
   1       99,235       52.5       63,216       33.5       11,442       6.1       5,178       2.7       4,162       2.2       5,667       3.0   
   2       84,126       51.0       59,887       36.3       10,053       6.1       4,712       2.8       3,046       1.8       3,255       2.0   
   3       99,062       52.6       65,101       34.6       11,869       6.3       5,084       2.7       4,582       2.4       2,724       1.4   
   4       89,064       48.1       73,000       39.5       10,438       5.6       4,649       2.5       4,577       2.5       3,400       1.8   
   5       102,126       55.3       61,221       33.2       9,637       5.2       4,928       2.7       3,356       1.8       3,305       1.8   
   6       100,930       53.6       67,311       35.7       7,860       4.2       5,012       2.7       4,453       2.4       2,710       1.4   
   7       96,200       55.9       55,902       32.4       8,748       5.1       5,579       3.2       3,761       2.2       2,022       1.2   
   8       99,618       56.1       57,434       32.3       9,523       5.4       4,806       2.7       3,302       1.8       2,959       1.7   
   9       100,742       57.2       55,997       31.8       7,727       4.4       5,255       3.0       3,719       2.1       2,656       1.5   
   10       84,926       51.0       59,403       35.6       9,486       5.7       5,691       3.4       3,221       1.9       3,984       2.4   
   11       111,211       58.2       56,590       29.6       10,497       5.5       5,944       3.1       3,593       1.9       3,254       1.7   
   12       103,172       53.4       65,016       33.7       12,326       6.4       5,777       3.0       3,467       1.8       3,391       1.7   
   13       86,104       48.3       68,718       38.5       11,313       6.3       6,020       3.4       3,604       2.0       2,734       1.5   
   14       66,272       37.8       82,133       46.9       10,984       6.3       7,428       4.2       4,211       2.4       4,265       2.4   
   15       85,285       47.3       72,313       40.1       9,989       5.6       5,694       3.2       4,012       2.2       2,911       1.6   
   Total       1,408,073       52.0       963,242       35.5       151,892       5.6       81,757       3.0       57,066       2.1       49,237       1.8   
   Seats       14       66.7       6       28.6       1       4.8       0       0.0       0       0.0       0       0.0   

Once again, seats awarded at the college level by simple majority are shown in bold italic, while seats allocated at the regional level by proportional representation are shown in italic.

The definitive seat distribution in Emilia Romagna was not fully proportional: it still favored the largest group in the region, although in a less overwhelming manner than the initial first-past-the-post seat distribution. At the same time, the allocation of proportional mandates allowed the larger minority groups in the region to attain a level of representation closer to their popular vote strength.

Clearly, the allocation of PR mandates helps parties that have won few or no constituency seats. However, the largest average method has a tendency to favor the major groups - the subtraction of votes cast for college seat winners notwithstanding - which intensifies as the number of proportional seats decreases. This tendency is compounded by the cumulative effect of the application of the d'Hondt rule over a small number of proportional mandates, spread across eighteen regions: on average, each of these returns five proportional seats. Consequently, in most regions the effective representation threshold constitutes a significant barrier for participation in the regional allocation of proportional mandates.

For the 2001 Senate election, the regional allocation of proportional seats by the largest average method produced the following effective thresholds:

   Region       PR
Seats
      Average Threshold   

Votes       %
   Piemonte       6       146,243       5.5   
   Valle d'Aosta       -       -       -   
   Lombardia       12       180,828       3.2   
   Trentino Alto Adige       1       141,096       25.6   
   Veneto       6       147,733       5.2   
   Friuli Venezia Giulia       2       139,130       18.7   
   Liguria       3       124,237       11.9   
   Emilia Romagna       6       151,892       5.6   
   Toscana       5       149,258       6.5   
   Umbria       2       103,404       19.6   
   Marche       2       122,592       13.5   
   Lazio       7       172,810       5.5   
   Abruzzi       2       125,644       16.4   
   Molise       -       -       -   
   Campania       8       164,249       5.8   
   Puglia       6       129,855       6.0   
   Basilicata       2       52,538       16.9   
   Calabria       3       86,821       9.1   
   Sicilia       7       127,385       5.1   
   Sardegna       3       110,492       12.1   

Since the effective representation threshold, as a percentage of the total vote, increases as the number of proportional seats decreases, minor parties with evenly spread support usually have very little chance of winning any seats.

However, it should be stressed that while proportional representation has some influence over the composition of the Senate, elections to the upper house of the Italian legislature are now largely decided in the single-member colleges, filled by the first-past-the-post method.

The functioning in practice of the Senate electoral system is illustrated by the outcome of the May, 2001 election:

   Group    Votes    %    College
Seats
   %    PR
Seats
   Total
Seats
   %   
   Casa delle Libertà    14,406,519    42.5    152    65.5    24    176    55.9   
   L'Ulivo    13,282,495    39.2    77    33.2    51    128    40.6   
   Rifondazione Comunista    1,708,707    5.1    0    0.0    4    4    1.3   
   Democrazia Europea    1,145,910    3.4    0    0.0    2    2    0.6   
   Südtiroler Volkspartei    126,177    0.4    2    0.9    0    2    0.6   
   Lista Di Pietro    1,140,489    3.4    0    0.0    1    1    0.3   
   Alleanza Lombarda Autonomia    308,559    0.9    0    0.0    1    1    0.3   
   Vallée d'Aoste    32,429    0.1    1    0.4    0    1    0.3   
   Pannella-Bonino    677,725    2.0    0    0.0    0    0    0.0   
   Fiamma Tricolore    340,221    1.0    0    0.0    0    0    0.0   

The House of Freedoms was the main beneficiary of the first-past-the-post election system, with 152 out of 232 college seats (65.5%), on a 42.5% share of the vote. Meanwhile, none of the minor parties secured representation at the college level, with the exception of the Vallée d'Aoste ticket, which contested the election solely in Valle d'Aosta, and the Südtiroler Volkspartei (South Tyrolean People's Party), which fielded candidates only in the German-speaking areas of Trentino Alto Adige. Despite having a tiny electoral following on a nationwide scale, the votes obtained by these two tickets were strongly concentrated in specific geographic areas: as a result, both achieved representation slightly above their respective proportions of the popular vote.

The Olive Tree managed to recover some ground in the proportional allocation of regional seats, which allowed the coalition to secure a share of seats slightly above its proportion of the popular vote. Some proportional seats were awarded to minor parties which had won no constituency seats, but the House of Freedoms won a significant number of proportional mandates - mainly in central Italy's so-called "red belt", where the Olive Tree won most of the college seats - thus retaining a sizable (if reduced) Senate majority.

It is worth noting that the introduction of plurality voting in single-member constituencies has profoundly affected the manner in which political parties contest parliamentary elections in Italy. Since the persistently fractious nature of the country's multi-party political system makes it very difficult for any single party to secure an absolute majority of seats in either house of Parliament solely on the account of its own electoral following, Senate and Chamber of Deputies elections held under the new system have been dominated by electoral coalitions, formed by diverse political parties of similar (and sometimes less than similar) ideological persuasions. Under the single-ballot Senate system, these coalitions also participate directly in the proportional distribution of regional mandates. However, the Chamber of Deputies electoral system provides for separate constituency and proportional election ballots, which allow political parties within a coalition to run independently for the distribution of lower house proportional seats.


Copyright © 2003-2006 Manuel Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.
Last update: February 6, 2006.