Upper House vote reform falls short

The changes to the Upper House electoral system, enacted this week so they can be in effect for the next election in 2016, are far from a fundamental reform in terms of correcting the sharp disparity in the value of votes between populous and less populous districts. But the protracted discussion over the issue, which split the ruling alliance of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, also suggests that a fundamental solution may have to involve reviewing and possibly redefining the role of the upper chamber under the bicameral system.

Since its inception in 1947, members of the House of Councilors have been elected through a combination of prefecture-based districts and one nationwide constituency — the latter was replaced in the 1980s by today’s proportional representation system. Half of the Upper House seats come up for election every three years. This system has created a steep gap in the value of votes between electoral districts, which the Supreme Court ruled were in “a state of unconstitutionality” in the 2010 and 2013 elections.

The revised Public Offices Election Law, jointly endorsed by the LDP, Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) and three other parties, for the first time redraws constituencies across prefectural borders. The Tottori and Shimane districts as well as the Tokushima and Kochi constituencies will be combined into two districts — with the total number of seats allocated to them reduced by half. In addition, two seats each will be taken away from Miyagi, Niigata and Nagano prefectures, while two each will be added to Hokkaido, Tokyo, Aichi, Hyogo and Fukuoka.

As a result, the maximum vote value disparity will be reduced from 4.77 to 1 in the 2013 election to 2.97 to 1, based on 2010 census data. However, the gap widens to 3.02 to 1 if the resident registry figures as of January this year are used. As population flight from rural to urban Japan continues unabated, the disparity will no doubt expand further.

Earlier, the Diet responded to criticism over the vote value gap by reducing the number of Upper House members elected from less populous prefectures and reallocating more seats to the populous prefectures, all the while keeping the constituencies along prefectural borders intact — until it became impossible to further narrow the vote value gap through such measures. In handing down its “state of unconstitutionality” verdict on the 2013 election — but without invalidating the outcome — the Supreme Court specifically called for changing the system of prefecture-based electoral districts.

Partisan interests came to the fore as political parties discussed reform of the Upper House electoral system. The LDP was reluctant to redraw the prefecture-based constituencies because the prefectures likely to be combined with their neighbors are longtime strongholds for the party. The LDP was unable to come up with its own proposal due to strong opposition from among its own members — until it finally agreed to a plan jointly proposed by Ishin no To and the other parties, which would keep changes to prefecture-based constituencies to a minimum.

Komeito refused to endorse the plan, saying it still leaves room for the Supreme Court to declare that a vote value disparity in an election held under it is unconstitutional. The ruling bloc’s junior member instead teamed up with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to jointly propose a plan to combine 20 prefecture-based constituencies into 10 districts, reducing the maximum disparity in the value of votes to 1.95 to 1. No Diet vote was taken on the Komeito-DPJ proposal.

The revision to the election law that passed the Diet is clearly a stopgap measure. A supplementary provision to the revision mandates reaching a conclusion for fundamental reform of the Upper House electoral system in time for the 2019 election — but there is no consensus in sight among parties and lawmakers about what would be the fundamental solution to the problem.

The disparity in the value of votes — meaning that ballots cast by voters in some constituencies carry more weight in electing lawmakers than do votes in others — is a grave situation that runs counter to the principle of equality under the Constitution. The disparity distorts the representation of popular will in the Diet, shaking the foundation of democracy.

Opponents of correcting the imbalance argue that if Diet seats are allocated strictly according to population dispersal, people in less populous areas will have no say in national politics — and that if a prefecture is to lose the minimum seat allocated to it because of a declining population, local voters will lose their representation in the Diet.

The Constitution defines members of the Diet as “representatives of all the people” — not the representatives of the people in their home districts. In practice, however, the aspect of lawmakers reflecting the will of voters who elected them to the Diet cannot be ignored. In a ruling on the 2004 Upper House election, the Supreme Court recognized the significance of the prefecture-based constituency system. Noting that each of the 47 prefectures has distinct “historical, political, economic and social” substance, the top court said the electoral system carries the function of “collectively reflecting (in the Diet) the will of residents” making up each prefecture.

The latest amendment is a product of compromise that leaves unresolved the fundamental question of how to reconcile the need to ensure equality in the value of votes on one hand, and the need to secure representation of voters in less-populous areas in national politics on the other. It is a question that will come back again as the “fundamental” reform is sought in time for the 2019 election.

If indeed the Upper House is a gathering of representatives from the prefectures, should each of the prefectures be represented equally or in accordance with its population? The U.S. Senate, for example, allocates two seats each to the 50 states regardless of their population, and the votes in some states reportedly carry roughly 70 times more weight in electing a senator than in others. But that’s because the Senate is defined as the chamber representing the states, whereas the House of Representatives represents the people, with the two chambers balancing each other.

It is perhaps the lack of such a clear distinction in roles between the two Diet chambers that makes the question hard to answer. The Lower House holds supremacy over the Upper House in the election of the prime minister as well as approval of the government budget and ratification of treaties, and has the power to override the upper chamber’s veto of legislation with a two-thirds majority re-vote. Upper House members have a longer six-year term that is guaranteed. Conversely, the four-year tenure in the Lower House can be cut short for a snap election.

But despite these differences, members in both chambers act according to the same partisan lines. Members of both chambers are now elected under similar systems — a combination of electoral district races and proportional representation votes, which also contributes to blurring the distinction between the two chambers.

If the Upper House is to be considered as representing the prefectures, it’s role in the bicameral system should be clearly redefined — whether or not doing so involves amending the Constitution. Otherwise, the question of vote value disparity will continue to haunt the nation whenever Upper House elections come around.