Vote-Value Disparities: It’s Time to Fundamentally Rethink Election System for Upper House

Even though the judiciary has handed down a ruling of constitutionality, the basic problems facing the election system have not been resolved. Is the current system, which faces continual pressure to correct vote-value disparities, appropriate? The ruling and opposition parties should fundamentally debate the issue.

The Supreme Court’s Grand Bench has ruled that the July 2022 House of Councillors election, in which the maximum vote-value disparity was 3.03-to-1, was constitutional.

The upper house election in 2019 saw a maximum vote-value disparity of 3.00-to-1, which was also ruled constitutional. Because no action was taken, the disparity became slightly greater in the 2022 upper house election. The rulings by high courts and their branches in various parts of the country were split on the latest election, with seven rulings that it was constitutional, eight that it was in a state of unconstitutionality and one finding it unconstitutional.

The lawsuit focused on the current situation in which the disparities have not been corrected and on how to assess the stance of the Diet on the issue.

The top court stated that to proceed with efforts to correct the disparities, the effectiveness of certain measures and the issues to be tackled should be carefully determined and also that public understanding should be obtained. It probably recognized the discretionary power of the Diet and judged that a ruling of constitutionality was unavoidable in this case.

On the other hand, there are about 21 million voters in constituencies where the disparity was 3.00-to-1 or greater, amounting to 20% of all voters in the nation. In light of this, the top court noted that “the concentration of population in urban areas has occurred, and legislative measures, including a review of the election system, are required.”

In the past, the top court ruled that the 2010 upper house election, in which the maximum disparity was 5.00-to-1, and the 2013 upper house election, in which the maximum disparity was 4.77-to-1, were “in a state of unconstitutionality.” In response to the rulings, the Diet has been correcting the disparities through such measures as merging constituencies.

Yet the disparities will continue to widen as the trends of depopulation in rural areas and concentration of population in urban areas are expected to become more pronounced in the future. As long as the current system continues, the number of prefectures covered by merged constituencies will further increase. In effect, the number of upper house members elected from regional areas will continue to decline.

Amid a declining population and other changes in the structure of society, it is impossible to think that it is in the interest of voters to keep reviewing vote-value disparities each time a judicial decision is made — and that goes for disparities in the House of Representatives as well.

Many people may feel uncomfortable with the repeated lawsuits claiming disparities are unconstitutional because of the number of decimal points.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has proposed amending the Constitution to allow at least one candidate to be elected from each prefecture in every upper house election in order to break up merged constituencies.

For example, one idea is to revise the Constitution to position upper house members as regional representatives and elect them from each prefecture. In this case, however, the role of the upper house would need to be reviewed.

When merged constituencies were introduced, the Diet stated in the supplementary provisions of the Public Offices Election Law that a fundamental review “must be concluded.” However, since then, discussions on election system reform in the upper house have stalled due to the intertwined interests of parties. This is nothing short of flagrant neglect of Diet members’ duty.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 19, 2023)