Since 2005, a Proportional System electoral law is being used in both houses. A majority prize is given to the coalition obtaining a plurality: at national level for the Chamber, at regional level for the Senate.
By the Republican Constitution of 1948, the two Houses of the Italian Parliament possess the same rights and powers: this particular form of parliamentary democracy (the so-called perfect bicameralism) has been coded in the current form after the dismissal of the fascist dictatorship of the 1920s and 1930s and after World War II.
The two Houses are independent from each other and never meet jointly except under circumstances specified by the Constitution. The House of Deputies has 630 members, while the Senate has 315 elected members and a small number of life senators: former Presidents of the Republic and up to five members appointed by the President for having contributed to the Country high achievement in the social or scientific field. As of 15 May 2006 there are seven life senators (of whom three are former presidents).
The main prerogative of the Parliament is the exercise of legislative power, that is the power to enact laws. For a text to become law, it must receive the vote of both Houses independently in the same form. A bill is discussed in one of the Houses, amended, and approved or rejected: if approved, it is passed to the other House, which can amend it and approve or reject it. If approved without amendments, the text is promulgated by the President of the Republic and becomes law. If approved with amendments, it is passed back to the originating House, which can approve the bill as amended, in which case the law is promulgated, or reject it.
The Parliament votes support to the Government, which is appointed by the President of the Republic and usually led by the leader of the coalition winning the elections. The Government must receive a support vote by both Houses before being officially in power, and the Parliament can request a new vote of support at any moment if a quota of any House so requests. Should a Government fail to obtain a vote, it must resign; if it does, either a new Government is formed or the President of the Republic can dissolve the Houses and new elections are held.
The Parliament in joint session of both Houses elects the President of the Republic, five (one third) members of the Corte Costituzionale and one third of the Consiglio Superiore della Magistratura. It can vote to decide an accusation of high treason or attack to the Constitution against the President of the Republic (though this situation has never occurred).
The present electoral system, approved on December 14, 2005, is based on proportional representation (PR) with a series of thresholds to encourage parties to form coalitions. It replaced an Additional Member electoral system which had been introduced in the 1990s.
The proportional system is district-based, rather than nationwide as in some smaller countries. Italy is divided into a certain number of districts for the Chamber of Deputies, and a certain number of districts for the Senate. Each district is assigned a number of seats proportionate to its total of the population of Italy. Within each district, voters choose between lists of candidates which parties or coalitions have registered in advance, and each list is awarded seats based on its percentage of the vote in the district. Candidates on the lists are ranked in order of priority, so if a party wins for example ten seats, the first ten candidates on its list receive seats in parliament.
The law officially recognizes coalitions of parties: to be part of a coalition, a party must sign its official program and indicate its support for the coalition's candidate to the prime-ministership.
Seats are allocated to parties proportionate to votes received in each constituency, among the parties that pass thresholds of the total vote on a national basis:
Also, parties representing regional linguistic minorities obtain seats if they receive at least 20% of the ballots in their constituency.
In order to guarantee a working majority, a coalition or party which obtains a plurality of the vote, but less than 340 seats, is assigned additional seats to reach that number, corresponding roughly to a 54% majority.
The coalition that wins a plurality in a region is automatically given 55% of the region's seats, if it has not reached that percentage already. As this mechanism is region-based, however, and opposing parties or coalitions may benefit from it in different regions, it guarantees no clear majority for any block in the Senate, unlike the national super-assignment system in the Chamber of Deputies.
A reform movement known as COREL (Committee to Promote Referendums on Elections), led by maverick DC-member Mario Segni, proposed three referendums, one of which was allowed by the Constitutional Court (at that time packed with members of the PSI and hostile to the movement). The June 1991 referendum therefore asked voters if they wanted to reduce the number of preferences, from three or four to one, in the Chamber of Deputies, to reduce the abuse of the open-list system by party elites and ensure accurate delegation of parliamentary seats to candidates popular with voters. With 62.5% of the Italian electorate voting, the referendum passed with 95% of those voting in favor. This was seen as a vote against the partitocrazia, which had campaigned against the referendum.
Emboldened by their victory in 1991, and encouraged by the unfolding Mani pulite scandals and the substantial loss of votes for the traditional parties in the 1992 general elections, the reformers pushed forward with another referendum, abolishing the proportional representation system of the Italian Senate, implicitly supporting a plurality system that would theoretically force parties to come together around two ideological poles, thereby providing governmental stability. This referendum was held in April, 1993, and passed with the support of 80% of those voting. This caused the Amato government to collapse three days later. Municipal elections were held in June, 1993, further illustrating the lack of legitimacy the sitting parliament held. The President of Italy, Francesco Cossiga, thereupon appointed a technocratic government, led by former head of the Bank of Italy, Carlo Ciampi, with the sole task of writing a new electoral law.
As it was under no constitutional obligation to enact a purely majoritarian system (nor were they under obligation to promulgate a new electoral law for the Chamber of Deputies), and cognizant of its declining popular support, the sitting parliament enacted a new electoral law in August, 1993 that provided for single-member districts while reflecting their own interests. Despite this, many of them would be voted out of office in the national election in March, 1994.
The Senate includes 315 elected members, of whom:
The Senate was elected on a single ballot. All those votes not contributing to a winning candidate were thrown into a regional pool (of which there were 40), and within that district were then used to allocate the seats proportionally. There was no electoral threshold for the Senate.
The Italian Chamber of Deputies has 630 members, of whom
The Chamber of Deputies used two ballots. The first ballot elected that district's member, on a purely plurality basis. The second ballot, in which only parties and party-lists were listed, was used to determine the proportional seats, allocated within one single national constituency, with a 4% minimum threshold for party representation.
A complicated mechanism known as scorporo, a previously unknown word in Italian politics, was used to tabulate PR votes. The number of votes cast for candidates coming in second place on the first ballot (SMD) would be subtracted from the (obviously much larger) number of votes earned on the second ballot (PR) by the party of the winning candidate in the first ballot. This would be repeated for each single-member district. This was developed -- against the overwhelming opinion expressed in the referendums -- to dampen the effect of the first-past-the-post system, which it was feared might promote the prevalence of one political party, especially parties that were strong in one geographical area.
The law also introduced a closed list system for the party lists on the second ballot, i.e., excluding voters from the decision as to which members of that party would enter parliament, thereby guaranteeing reelection of party leaders whose popular support was rapidly declining (new elections were to be held once the new electoral law was fully implemented). Ironically, that is what allowed Mario Segni, the leader of the reform movement, to enter parliament on the proportional ballot after the March, 1994, elections, having broken with his party in March, 1993, and then reunited with one of its shattered remnants that December.
In practice, the system has proven egregiously useless, even for its own corrupt purposes. First-past-the-post candidates usually declare their formal allegiance to some decoy list that will collect no votes, known as liste civetta, thereby relieving their own party of a reduction in votes in the proportional quota. The bypass worked so well that in the elections of 2001 Forza Italia had not enough candidates to fill all the seats it was assigned.
Nor has the system accomplished the goals desired by the voters. The first parliament elected after the electoral reform produced Silvio Berlusconi's first government, which lasted eight months. Small parties still enter parliament and form unstable coalitions. On the other hand, political parties in Italy seem to be coalescing around two poles, if imperfectly so, and governments have lasted much longer, at least by Italian standards. On that level, the electoral reform can be seen as an improvement over the electoral law prior to it, even if Italy has now returned to a PR system.
1) that a party needed to achieve 300,000 votes at the national level;
2) Italy was divided into 27 electoral regions (circoscrizione), of unequal size, which were awarded a certain number of seats in Parliament based on population (e.g., Rome received more than 50). Within these regions, seats were divided proportionally; in order to become a member of parliament, a party member needed to be directly elected within one of these regions - approximately 60,000 votes. This system allocated 90% of the seats in both houses of parliament. The votes that did not go to a winning candidate were then thrown into one national electoral district, which was then divided proportionally and used to determine the remaining 10%, thereby going to candidates not directly elected.
Furthermore, voters were able to list their preferences for candidates on a party list, in order to prevent the parties from exploiting the power they acquired from being able to write their party lists. In practice, however, parties were able to manipulate these numbers to that preferred members, i.e., members loyal to one faction within a party, could enter parliament.
As neither of these thresholds was difficult to achieve, this system naturally benefitted the small parties. This was exacerbated by the fact that the Lower House has 630 seats. Because of the design of the electoral law did not provide for any mechanism to exclude small parties (indeed it seemed designed to encourage them) or provide any incentives to avoid splintering, by the 1970s the Italian party system had become completely fragmented, with 17 parties represented in parliament in contrast to the eight represented in 1947. This resulted in highly unstable coalition governments (the average length was nine months) and political turbulence. And because voters had little control over which candidates entered parliament, political parties were insulated from the wishes civil society. Relations between political elites and the masses therefore became clientelistic; voter behavior and politics in general became a contest as to which party could secure more pork-barrel investment for a specific region. It also allowed politicians to become corrupt.
The Overseas Constituency consists of four electoral zones, each of which elect at least one Deputy and one Senator:
The remaining seats are distributed between the same overseas electoral zones in proportion to the number of Italian citizens resident in each.
Italian citizens living outside of Italy have always had the right to vote in all referendums and elections being held in Italy (provided they had registered their residence abroad with their relevant consulate). However until late 2001, any citizens wishing to vote, were required physically to return to the city or town in Italy where he or she was registered on the electoral roll. The only exception to this rule was for the Italian elections to the European Parliament in which voters could cast their ballot at their nearest consulate but only if they had their residence in one of the other EU countries.
Until 2001 the Italian state offered citizens living abroad a free return train journey to their home town in Italy in order to vote, however the only portion of the train journey that was free of charge was on Italian soil. Any costs incurred in getting from their place of residence abroad to the Italian border had to be covered by the citizen wanting to vote, therefore a free return train journey was hardly an incentive for the large Italian communities living as far away as in the United States, Argentina or Australia. For this reason very few Italians abroad made use of this right to vote, unless they lived in cities and towns that bordered to Italy such as in Germany, Switzerland, France and Austria. Various Italian minorities living abroad (notably in the United States) protested frequently at this lack of political representation especially if they paid taxes on property owned in Italy.
After numerous years of petitioning and fierce debate, the Italian government, in late 2001, finally passed a law allowing Italian citizens living abroad to vote in elections in Italy by postal ballot. Italians wishing to excise this right must first register their residence abroad with their relevant consulate. The first vote by Italians living aboard by postal ballot was for 2 referendums in 2003 and for both chambers of the Italian parliament in 2006.