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How far do parliaments really reflect the votes cast? A plea for ‘minimum standards’ of fairness in electoral systems

PACE is asking election experts to assess the fairness of different electoral systems in the light of certain anomalies which mean that parliaments do not necessarily reflect the political choices made by constituents at the ballot-box.

“Not all electoral systems provide an equal degree of fairness when it comes to translating the votes cast into political mandates and seats in parliament,” pointed out the Assembly’s Standing Committee in a resolution, based on a report by Rik Daems (Belgium, ALDE).

The Assembly said an electoral system which failed to prevent “a large discrepancy” between the political choices of constituents, as expressed in elections, and the composition of elected institutions was “a sign of democratic deficit and puts its fairness in doubt”.

Under some systems, even when the legal rules are fully observed, substantial numbers of constituents are not represented in elected institutions, or do not see in parliament the candidates they voted for. Other systems provide winning parties with parliamentary majorities which largely exceed the real support they enjoy among the voting populace.

This “inconsistency between legality and legitimacy” undermines public trust in democracy and creates fertile ground for populism and extremism, the parliamentarians said.

They urged the Venice Commission – the Council of Europe’s body of legal experts – to reflect on the fairness of different electoral systems and set “minimum standards” any given system should comply with to be deemed as guaranteeing a fair result.

They also called for an update to the Council of Europe’s 2002 Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters to cover issues such as voting rights for overseas citizens, independent candidacies, turnout requirements, thresholds, the ranking of candidates in party lists and the balanced representation of women and men.

Any update could also incorporate new standards reflecting the changes wrought by digital technology, such as the misuse of social media, bias and “fake news”, or the abuse of political advertising.