The skewed value of votes

The legitimacy of new Lower House members is already being challenged. Two groups of lawyers have filed a set of lawsuits nationwide seeking to invalidate the results of Sunday’s Lower House election on the grounds that it was held under a system that does not accurately distribute seats to constituencies according to their population, thereby creating a sharp disparity in the value of votes between more and less populous electoral districts.

For decades, legal actions have been filed to challenge the gap in the value of votes in national elections. Since the current system combining single-seat constituencies and proportional representation was introduced in 1996, the Supreme Court has never ruled a Lower House vote as unconstitutional and invalid, instead prodding legislative action by calling the vote value disparity “a state of unconstitutionality.”

The Diet, for its part, responded with a minimum reapportionment of seats in 2013 to contain the maximum disparity in the value of votes within 2 to 1, but continues to drag its feet on an overhaul of the electoral system as called for by top court rulings. And while talks for the electoral system overhaul were set aside when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the chamber halfway through the four-year term of its members, the vote value gap widened to 2.13 to 1 in Sunday’s snap election due to the continuing population flight from rural to urban areas.

The Diet should not wait for court decisions on the lawsuits but instead take action on its own to overhaul the electoral system. For that, lawmakers involved in the reforms must revisit what it means for the votes of some people to have greater weight than those cast by others and how that distorts political representation in this country.

The lawyers who filed the suits with 14 high courts and high court branches across Japan to nullify the result of races in all 295 constituencies say the Lower House members elected under an “unconstitutional” system are illegitimate because they do not accurately represent the popular will.

In Sunday’s election, the Tokyo No. 1 constituency had the largest number of eligible voters at 492,025, while the Miyagi No. 5 district had the smallest at 231,081. Since one Lower House member was chosen in each of the districts, a voter in the Miyagi constituency had 2.16 times more power in electing a lawmaker than a voter in the Tokyo district. Such a condition obviously runs counter to the principle of equality under the Constitution.

Under the current electoral system, the regional disparity in the value of votes in Lower House elections has fluctuated between 2.47 to 1 and 2.13 to 1. The Supreme Court ruled the gap of 2.30 to 1 in the 2009 election and the disparity of 2.43 to 1 in the 2012 race was “in a state of unconstitutionality” — a step back from several high court rulings that judged the 2012 election as “unconstitutional,” including the rulings by the Hiroshima High Court and its Okayama branch that invalidated the race.

In its November 2013 decision on the 2012 election, the top court gave the Diet wide discretion on how to correct the imbalance in the value of votes, saying that gradual reforms of the electoral system would be a practical choice. At the same time, the court said the “state of unconstitutionality” would not be eliminated unless the current system — which gives each of the nation’s 47 prefectures one seat and then distribute the remaining seats among prefectures according to their population — is changed. While the system is meant to ensure Diet representation for depopulated areas, it stands in the way of correcting the regional imbalance in the value of votes.

Talks on reforms in the Lower House went nowhere over the past year as each party submitted proposals that reflected their partisan interests. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party called for reducing the number of Lower House members elected in proportional representation — with a new quota that favors small parties (in consideration for its coalition partner Komeito) — while insisting that further changes in seats allocated to single-seat constituencies was not necessary after the 2013 reapportionment. The LDP is hesitant to reallocate seats in constituency races after its members swept nearly 80 percent of such seats in the 2012 election — as it nearly did again in Sunday’s election. The opposition parties, meanwhile, proposed sharp cuts in seats allocated to less populous constituencies and adding seats to several districts with larger populations, thereby trimming the vote value disparity.

In the face of the stalemate, the discussion was handed over to a third-party panel of experts under the Lower House speaker. With the snap election now over, the panel should quickly resume the discussion and come up with a proposal that fundamentally resolves the disparity. Most of the parties involved in the discussions have agreed to “respect” the panel’s proposal. When that moment comes, they should not waste more time trying to make the proposal better suit their own needs.

The disparity in the value of votes is an even more serious problem in Upper House elections. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the maximum 4.77 to 1 disparity in the 2013 Upper House election was “in a state of unconstitutionality” — again falling short of invalidating the race. When the Diet itself revised the election law in 2012, the revised law called for a fundamental overhaul of the electoral system to take effect for the triennial election in 2016. Time is running short for the reform to take shape and be promulgated in time for the next election.

Lawmakers in both chambers need to have a sense of urgency and realize the gravity of the problem. Questions are raised on whether a Diet comprising members elected under a system that does not accurately reflect popular will due to the regional imbalance in the value of votes should be allowed to discuss and make decisions on major issues that could change direction of the nation’s future, including the collective self-defense legislations and possible amendments to the Constitution. They must set aside their partisan interests and act fast.