election district

One Person, One Vote – How Much Do Our Choices Weigh?

Giorgi Chitidze

"The ballot is stronger than the bullet." This famous phrase of Abraham Lincoln indicates the special importance of elections in democratic societies. However, the real "strength" of a vote varies by election system. In the case of Georgia, the number of voters in a large number of electoral districts is unequal. Consequently, one often hears criticism that the election system fails to ensure equality in terms of voting rights. However, a revision of the borders of electoral districts and the formal equalization of the numbers of voters in those may create new problems, including the threat of so called gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the process of manipulating election district boundaries in such a way as to ensure that a particular political party wins in each of them.

This problem is characteristic for electoral systems similar to that of Georgia, where a candidate who musters the majority of votes in a district wins. The risk of gerrymandering district boundaries so as to have a majority of supporters of one particular political force in each district is high. In such a case, the vote of a person (who does not support that particular party) not only has a different "weight," but that person is also essentially deprived of his/her voting rights. Consequently, a change in district boundaries may seriously jeopardize the whole idea of an election, turning it into a formal, illusory and senseless process.

Moreover, it is not clear cut whether the inequality of voter numbers by district conflicts with the Constitution of Georgia or international standards. Its conformity with the constitution is a topic to be decided by the Constitutional Court. The court has already considered a constitutional complaint from Ucha Nanuashvili (the incumbent Public Defender of Georgia) and Mikheil Sharashidze. The complainants believe that a number of voters registered in various election districts lack an equal possibility to influence election results. Hence, the current election system is discriminatory and conflicts with the equality and voting rights as protected by the constitution. The Constitutional Court has yet to make a final decision on the case.

As regards international standards, according to the UN Human Rights Committee, a person's vote must be equal to that of others (the principle of one person, one vote). At the same time, in drawing electoral district boundaries any discrimination of voters shall be avoided.

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission requires that seats be distributed among electoral districts in accordance with the principle of balanced representation – based on the number of citizens, registered voters or the number of people actually voting. Geographical criteria and administrative or/and historical boundaries may also be taken into consideration.

The difference in the numbers of voters should not exceed 15% except in special circumstances. It is worth noting that out of the 59 member states of the Venice Commission, 15 countries practice the majority system, with 60 percent of those not meeting the above requirements.

In the case of Georgia, parliament comprises 77 members elected through the proportional representation system and 73 members elected through the majority system. For a parliamentary election, each municipality (municipal city or district), except for the capital city, is a single-seat district by the majority system. Consequently, in this regard, the requirements of the Venice Commission are met and electoral districts are tied to administrative boundaries.

Exemption from the general standards of the Venice Commission is permissible in special circumstances, such as the protection of a concentrated minority and a sparsely populated administrative entity.

Ethnic minorities in Georgia comprise the majority of the local population in six electoral districts. In an additional four electoral districts, concentrated ethnic minorities make up more than 20 percent of the local population.

At the same time, the average number of voters per district is about 43,000. There are a total of 19 such electoral districts in the country in which the number of voters exceeds the permissible 15% departure norm. They include electoral districts in the capital city, large cities and two districts in the Kvemo Kartli region where the share of ethnic minorities is high.

A total of 43 electoral districts have a number of voters falling below the average indicator (15%), of which 39 are sparsely populated administrative entities. In the case of the smallest districts, the difference between the numbers of voters is also caused by low population density. Consequently, the differences in most electoral districts represent those special circumstances that the Venice Commission defines as exceptions.

To bring the existing inequality fully in line with international standards, the legislation needs to define the notion of a sparsely populated administrative entity.

The decision of the Constitutional Court may be a solution to this problem. However, such surgical intervention from the court cannot really be viewed as an effective means. The Constitutional Court operates as a "negative legislator;" in particular, it cannot establish a new rule or propose to the legislature a regulation that is in conformity with the constitution.

The development of the electoral system, including drawing the boundaries of electoral districts, is a political issue. Consequently, apart from being ineffective, by attempting to regulate such issues that do not fall within its competence, the court partially interferes with the functions of the legislature. Such interference will always have problems connected with legitimacy and will jeopardize the principle of checks and balances.

Therefore, the existing problem can only be fully settled as a result of political will and corresponding lawmaking activity, and not through the judiciary or any similar institution.

Another alternative would be to change the currently existing majority system. Namely, the abolition of single-mandate districts and the establishment of multiple-mandate ones. In the case of the latter, each district would elect several representatives. Consequently, the threat of gerrymandering will be minimized because voters will be able to vote for several candidates and the presence of majority supporters in a district will be of no importance for a political force.

The advantage of a multiple-mandate system is also that it allows existing inequality to be balanced among voters by distributing various mandates among the electoral districts. Taking into account the population of a district, it is possible for each electoral district to elect various numbers of representatives. Consequently, the "weight" of each vote will have maximally equal power.

It is also possible to radically change the electoral system. In particular, to reject the majority system and hold elections only by the proportional representation system. In this case, however, one would need to take into account the particular strengths and weaknesses characteristic of that system.

Finally, regardless of what kind of changes the legislators make, it is necessary that they improve the status quo and do not worsen the state of voters or create additional problems, especially the threat of gerrymandering.


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