Of Wasted and Useless Votes
«Il voto non è mai inutile». Il presidente della Repubblica Giorgio Napolitano sceglie il Cile per lanciare il suo messaggio alla politica italiana: «Ciascuno – aggiunge – dà il voto, secondo la sua valutazione, il suo giudizio, al partito che ritiene più vicino, più affine, o più importante ai fini del rinnovamento politico del Paese» – Il Tempo 21.03.08
The Birth of “Il Voto Utile” (the Useful Vote)
The forthcoming elections in Italy will prove to be another interesting testing ground for the concept of the “Wasted Vote”. The main artificers of this development are Messers Berlusconi and Veltroni, respectively heading the Popolo delle Libertà (PdL) and Partito Democratico (PD). These two men are the “candidati premier” for their respective ‘formations’ – we cannot speak of parties as yet since the PdL and PD are contesting the election as a sort of unified list with one head. The not too hidden agenda of both PdL and PD is to create two huge umbrella parties (yes David, of the PN kind where liberals sit happily with Opus Dei enthusiasts) and thus solve the problems related to multi-party representation and governance. The new electoral laws seem to have been written with this in mind – surprise, surprise once again we find an electoral law that compensates a party that obtains a relative majority of votes by awarding it 55% of the seats in Parliament.
Surprise, surprise, the two “big formations” have been quick to transform this point into an argument that sounds so uncannily similar to the “Wasted Vote” argument that was milked to no end during this month’s General Elections in Malta. Here’s what Veltroni had to say about the vote:
“Tutti i voti sono utili. Però , se con questa legge elettorale vince e prende il 55 per cento dei seggi alla camera chi ha un solo voto in più, allora è una cosa che il suo peso ce l’ha” – Walter Veltroni
All votes are useful but because of the new system, some votes are more useful than others. The argument cannot be more Orwellian than that. Here you have the potential head of the progressive left claiming that – thanks to the new system – some votes are useful and therefore, as a corollary, the other votes are less useful. Or to put it less politely, some votes are useless. Specifically it is the votes to the parties outside the two big formations that are useless. The term “nanetti” (dwarves) has begun to be bandied around in the media. Here’s Chev. Berlusconi on the same issue (of Useful Votes):
” i voti dati ai partiti minori, sono voti sottratti al nostro schieramento, i voti a Udc e La Destra sono voti che aiutano solo il Pd di Prodi e Veltroni” – Silvio Berlusconi
No no, it’s not GonziPN speaking, it’s BerlusconiPdL. Let me translate: “the votes given to minor parties are taken (stolen) from those of our formation, the votes to the UDC and the Right are votes that can only help the PD of Prodi and Veltroni”. It’s the Wasted Vote all over again. The legal mechanism that triggered it this time is slightly different. “Minor parties” in Italy already have to face their own thresholds – they vary between 4% and 8% (depending on whether we are talking about il Senato or la Camera). The vote to the minor parties cannot therefore be described as “Wasted” in terms of representation but it is being described as “Useless” and this mainly in terms of governance. PdL and PD both need to get one more vote than the other, each vote is “useful” in that sense for one of them might need it to be guaranteed the 55% of seats in the Camera (parliament).
It’s not as simple as it may seem. In the Senate, any party obtaining more than 8% of the regional votes will be guaranteed a place in the divvying up of the Senatorial seats from that region (proportionally, but I stand to be corrected). In the Camera dei Deputati, a part must obtain 4% of the national vote in order to be represented.
Hence the birth of the “Useless Vote” (or Voto Inutile) this time round. Speaking on last night’s Porta a Porta, Fausto Bertinotti (Sinistra dell’Arcobaleno) complained that the media are wrongly directing the electorate on this point since the “Useless Vote” issue is being unfairly hammered into people’s minds without the necessary clarifications about its detrimental effect on proper democratic representation.
Disenfranchising the Representative Vote
When votes become useless it is because a system has been chosen that allows governance and governability considerations to trump effective representation. Defenders of the “governability” model rightly point out the stability aspect of having one-party governance. No consideration is made for the detrimental effect that this has on representative politics and on the erosion of the values of representative institutions in modern democracies. As Bertinotti rightly pointed out in the program, electing a “PdL” or “PD” in government might translate to a stable government but it does not also give a valuable return on clear direction and programming once in government.
Large group formations like PdL and PD are the result of compromises between a number of parties. The main effect is dilution of policy and the voter can no longer fully identify with the party. In essence, voting priorities based on issues and programs (nationalisation/denationalisation, education, justice etc) are sacrificed on the altar of governability. The voters’ prerogative of exercising an influence on the direction of the programme of government is neutralised for the sake of “efficiency” in governability. A dangerous spinoff is that the very parties that represented the diversity of programmes and that would have been bound to work together to find a middle-way solution in parliament will suffer the main consequence. Voters who are convinced by the “Useless” vote issue will not vote for the so-called minor parties thus depriving them from a presence in parliament or senate (not having reached the threshhold) and therefore diluting the quality of representation in the very institutions that are supposed to guarantee that very principle.
Are voters convinced? Today’s Corriere mentions a recent poll that says that 60% of the voters are convinced by the “Useless Vote” argument and will vote accordingly. It appears that there are more sceptics among the PD supporters than among Berlusconi’s PdL. What is also interesting is that the outcome of the forthcoming elections seems to depend mainly on the choice of the Italian “ditherers”.
Italy risks ending up with a similar situation as Malta – two large parties representing a wide variety of policies without a basic identifiable set of values, and the demise of small parties (in the case of Malta more than a demise we can speak of a failed rebirth).
The debate on finding the right balance between governance and representation will certainly rage on. What seems to be certain until now is that democratic representation is will turn out to be the loser in the short-term .