How are members of upper chambers chosen around the world? – Electoral Reform Society – ERS

Many countries use a bicameral political system, which means they have two chambers in their parliament. These parliaments are made up of a lower house where government is formed and day-to-day policy is conducted, like the House of Commons, and an upper house that reviews and revises legislation, like the House of Lords. Upper houses are sometimes called second houses or senates.

But while all lower houses in democracies share broadly similar functions and are elected with as equal a ratio of voters to representatives as possible across the country, the same is not true for upper houses. Not only do they vary in terms of powers and functions, from the powerful senates of Italy or the United States to the weak and imperious House of Lords or the Austrian Federal Council, but the methods by which they are chosen differ enormously.

Type of delegation “Territorial representation” Non-‘territorial representation’
Directly elected Australia, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, United States. Czech Republic, Poland, Romania.
Indirectly elected Austria, Belgium. France, Ireland, Netherlands, Slovenia.
Appointed Canada, Germany. The United Kingdom.

Some upper houses are directly elected

One way an upper house is chosen is by direct popular election, although usually with a different method from that used for the lower house.

A common method change is a different voting system. Australia, which uses the majority alternative vote to elect its House of Representatives, uses the proportional single transferable vote to elect its Senate. While the Czech Republic, Poland, Spain and Switzerland all choose their upper houses with a non-proportional voting system unlike their proportionally elected lower house. There are also some, like Italy or Japan, which use the same voting system for both chambers, with some small adjustments.

Many directly elected second chambers, including Australia, Spain and Switzerland, have followed the American model of giving subnational units (states, provinces, etc.) equal representation regardless of population. This is designed to give less populated units a stronger voice and prevent their interests from being supplanted by more populated areas. But “territorial representation” can be achieved by other means. The Italian Senate is focused on regional representation, but it is proportional to population.

Elections to upper houses usually take place at the same time as elections to the lower house. Some have longer durations, but this is by no means a universal feature. Many of those who get longer terms by electing only part of the chamber in each election such as in Australia, the United States, the Czech Republic or Japan – although the latter two are elected on a different cycle of their respective lower houses.

The obvious reason for directly electing the upper house is to give it greater democratic legitimacy, which allows it to better assert its own authority. It is therefore not surprising that most of the most powerful upper houses are directly elected – especially those which are “incongruous”, that is to say whose partisan composition is significantly different from that of the upper house. low.

But the legitimacy acquired by popular election is often lost by the mode of election. Equal representation for subnational territories may give parity to smaller areas over larger ones, but it may give a minority of the population a veto over a much larger majority – in the US Senate, smaller states largely rural areas with one-sixth of the US population have the same representation as the remaining five-sixths. Using a plurality or majority voting system instead of a proportional system also makes the chamber less representative and thus diminishes its democratic legitimacy.

Upper houses that use indirect election

The other common method of selecting upper houses in Europe is indirect election by sub-national political units – often state or regional parliaments (e.g. Austria, Belgium, Netherlands), but sometimes level bodies lower as the local councilors (France). The purpose of these chambers is often to directly represent and protect the interests of regional governments at the national level.

Although indirectly elected chambers do not have the direct mandate of a popularly elected chamber, they are still chosen by directly elected politicians and, given the design and purpose of such political systems, it is preferable to consider their mandate as an extension of that given to regional parliaments. Most of the indirectly elected chambers are also proportionally appointed – both in terms of party and population – avoiding some of the dodgy methods used to choose some directly elected upper chambers.

Unlike directly elected chambers, which are often relatively powerful, there is little consensus on the strength of indirectly elected chambers. The Austrian Federal Council is very weak – apart from certain constitutional issues, it can only delay legislation because the lower house can simply overrule it with a simple majority vote. The Dutch Senate, on the other hand, has a full right of veto over the House of Representatives which cannot be circumvented.

Other methods

Given that the powers and purposes of upper houses vary so much, it is not surprising that some electoral methods do not fit neatly into either category. There are hybrids – like the Spanish Senate, which combines direct and indirect elections. The ‘unusual’ – like the Irish Seanad, who are partly indirectly elected ‘experts’, partly appointed by the Prime Minister, partly elected by graduates. Then there is the German Bundesrat which, although sometimes grouped with indirectly elected chambers, is appointed by state governments rather than state parliaments.

There is also the Canadian Senate which, being appointed entirely by the Prime Minister, is probably one of the most similar to the House of Lords at Westminster. It does, however, have a fixed height of 105 and a mandatory retirement age of 75, which means a new senator can only be appointed in the event of a vacancy. New appointments must also be made on a regional basis – with each state holding a fixed number of seats. Although there are still calls for reform, the Canadian Senate is still not growing in size and being dominated by certain parts of the country like the House of Lords.

And there are, of course, some countries that simply choose not to have an upper house, opting instead for a single legislative chamber. This is called ‘unicameralism’, as opposed to bicameralism, and is usually the case in smaller countries, such as New Zealand, where there are no strong sub-national identities or powerful regional governments.

All 82 free democracies

Type of delegation Countries
Directly elected (15) Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Palau, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, United States, Uruguay.
Indirectly elected (7) Austria, Belgium, France, Ireland, Namibia, Netherlands, Slovenia.
Named (12) Antiqua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Germany, Grenada, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom.
Unicameral (48) Andorra, Botswana, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ghana, Greece, Guyana, Iceland, Israel, Kiribati, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Monaco, Mongolia, Nauru, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Portugal, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Suriname, Sweden, Taiwan, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tunisia, Tuvalu, Vanuatu.

Parline ranking of the main methods of upper house delegation in the 82 countries classified by Freedom House as free democracies.

A democratic second chamber for the UK

All over the world, countries have found different solutions to balance the democratic legitimacy and the powers of their second chambers. Although the exact composition of the upper house varies greatly from country to country, the commonality between almost all western second houses is that they are designed in some way to represent sub-national units. , whether states, provinces or regions, at the national level. level.

Britain remains the odd one out. It lacks the democratic legitimacy conferred on it by elections, whether direct or indirect, which virtually negates the extent to which it can successfully exercise its oversight and review functions. And it completely fails to represent the UK in all its diversity, over-representing certain territorial units (notably London and the South East) to the detriment of other nations, regions and localities.

Instead of a chamber of powerful regional representatives, we have an antiquated chamber whose members are chosen partly by aristocrats, partly by the Church of England and largely by prime ministers rewarding donors and allies. We need to reform our upper house so that it has the democratic legitimacy to do its job well. An elected second chamber that represents the nations, regions and localities of the UK could become a space to bring together all of the constituent parts of the UK to work together for their common interests. Learn more in the ERS report Westminster beyond Brexit: ending the politics of division.

Sign our petition for a democratically elected House of Lords

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