A draft proposal to correct the sharp imbalances in the value of votes between constituencies in Upper House elections, recently put forward by the head of the council on the chamber’s electoral system, calls for reorganizing electoral districts across prefectural borders and narrowing the maximum gap in the vote value to within 2 to 1. Lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition camps should use the proposal to expedite their discussions and come to an agreement so that they can implement the changes in time for the next Upper House election in 2016.
In the 2013 Upper House election, which chose half the current members of the chamber, the maximum disparity in the value of votes between populous and less populous constituencies reached 4.77 to 1, meaning that a vote in one electoral district carried 4.77 times the weight of a vote in another in electing lawmakers. In a series of 16 lawsuits filed over the vote-value disparity in the election, all of the high court rulings determined that the electoral system that allowed such a gap was either “unconstitutional” or “in a state of unconstitutionality.” The October 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court on the 2010 Upper House election stated that an overhaul of the prefecture-based constituency system was needed to fundamentally correct the gap.
The draft plan by Masashi Waki, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary general for the Upper House, redraws the current constituencies based on the nation’s 47 prefectures by creating 11 new electoral districts that straddle two prefectures. Under the proposal, the nation’s population is divided by 73 — the number of Upper House members elected through constituency races every three years — and a constituency (prefecture) whose population falls short of the benchmark figure of 1.75 million will be combined with its neighboring constituencies.
The formula reorganizes 22 prefecture-based constituencies into 11, including ones coupling Iwate with Akita, Miyagi with Yamagata, Niigata with Toyama and Osaka with Wakayama. Six of these new electoral districts will lose one Upper House seat each, and the seats will be reallocated to six populous constituencies such as Tokyo, Kanagawa and Saitama. Under this system it is estimated that the maximum disparity in the value of votes between constituencies will fall drastically from the current 4.77 to 1 to 1.83 to 1.
While the council hopes to reach a conclusion on the issue by the end of August, the talks for an agreement are likely to be tough because LDP members — which swept the constituency races in recent elections — will be the most likely to face the prospect of their hometown districts being reorganized or their seats being axed in the proposed reform. As expected, some LDP lawmakers have responded by arguing that the proposal would make it more difficult for the opinions of voters in rural areas to be reflected in national politics, possibly exacerbating the economic decline of the country’s depopulated areas.
Lawmakers should not use such arguments as excuses for inaction on the large disparity in the value of votes, which — as the courts have unanimously determined — undermines the principles of equality under the Constitution, and distorts the representation of popular will in the Diet. Under the Constitution, Diet members represent all the people in this country, not just those in their constituent prefectures. Lawmakers’ personal interests, such as their links to their home turfs or their chances of securing their Diet seats, should not be allowed to stand in the way of reforms.
The disparity in the value of votes must also be corrected in the Lower House, where — given the continuing shift in population from rural to urban areas — it is likely that the gap will have widened again beyond 2 to 1 by the time the four-year term of the current Lower House members expire at the end of 2016. Given the speculation that elections in both chambers of the Diet will be held simultaneously in the summer of 2016, members of the Lower House should begin making preparations to fix their own vote-value disparity.