Japan’s upper house vote-value disparity issue divides courts

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A Fukuoka High Court courtroom where a ruling on a vote-value disparity lawsuit is handed down on Nov. 11.

Of 16 court rulings as of Tuesday over vote value disparity in upper house constituencies, one judged that the numbers were unconstitutional. Eight said the House of Councillors election was held in a state of unconstitutionality, while seven judged that it was constitutional.

Two lawyers groups had filed lawsuits in eight high courts and six branches across the country, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the weight of the vote in a less populated constituency to be up to 3.03 times greater than that of a vote in a densely populated one in the upper house election held in July.

Kanagawa Prefecture, which had the largest number of voters per seat in the election, and Fukui Prefecture, which had the fewest, accounted for the 3.03-to-1 vote-value disparity, higher than the 3.00-to-1 seen in the previous election. The focal point of the lawsuits was how to assess the Diet’s stance on correcting the disparity.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a unified ruling next year.

The July election was held without a review of the electoral system since the previous election in 2019.

The Akita branch of the Sendai High Court ruled Tuesday that the situation was in a state of unconstitutionality. The eight such rulings viewed the lack of progress in the Diet’s efforts to rectify the disparity as a problem. The Osaka High Court and the Fukuoka High Court’s Miyazaki branch harshly criticized a special committee, set up in 2021, that was tasked with reviewing upper house electoral reform. The courts said it had failed to reach a consensus on the issue, resulting in weakening efforts to rectify the gap and causing the issue to become significantly worse.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Plaintiffs attend a press conference on Oct. 18 following a Tokyo High Court ruling in the lawsuit over the vote-value disparity in July’s House of Councillors election.

The courts in Tokyo (on Oct. 18), Sapporo and Kanazawa, which also ruled that the election was in a state of unconstitutionality, weighed not only the size of the vote gap, but also the fact that the impact on voters widened. They noted that the number of constituencies at a disadvantage of 3-to-1 or greater increased from one in the 2019 election to three: Tokyo, Kanagawa and Miyagi prefectures. This affected 21 million voters in those constituencies, or about 20% of the total number of eligible voters.

The Sendai High Court, the only court to rule the election unconstitutional, concluded that the Diet had failed to correct the problem within a reasonable period of time, saying that it had “allowed to continue a disparity of more than three times.” The nine courts that either ruled the election to be unconstitutional or in a state of unconstitutionality all rejected plaintiffs’ request to redo the election, however.

On the other hand, the seven courts (including Tokyo on Nov. 14), that ruled the election was constitutional pointed out that the upper house had a different election system from the House of Representatives, and the upper house “has a role to reflect the will of diverse citizens, including residents of less populated areas.” These courts expressed some understanding that the reform committee was unable to reach a consensus on electoral reform, saying that electoral reform “has no choice but to be gradual.”