Why a Japanese Court again ruled that legislative elections were unconstitutional

A High Court of Japan considers the last general elections for the House of Representatives to be held in an unconstitutional state because the weight of each voter was not fairly distributed between districts.

Japan house of representatives
Japan House of representatives | © Kim Ahlström, 2006

Takamatsu High Court ruled on February 1 that the legislative elections in Japan last October were held in a state of unconstitutionality because of high vote-value disparities. The weight of each vote was not fairly distributed.

Japan carried out general elections to vote for members of the House of Representatives, the more powerful house of Japan’s bicameral parliament the National Diet.

The Liberal Democratic Party conserved a majority of seats despite a tumultuous period since Shinzo Abe’s resignation in 2020 due to health issues, criticisms over the management of the Covid-19 pandemic and the organization of Tokyo Olympics.

But after the results of the elections, lawyers filed lawsuits asking for the invalidation of the elections because of an unbalanced disparity in the district delimitation, also called legislative apportionment.

A large disparity between the values of votes

In fact, some voters in Japan have much more weight than others in the elections of parliament members.

Last October, Tottori 1st district, the smallest district of Japan, voted for a single representative while they have approximately 230,000 eligible voters. On the other hand, the 13th district of Tokyo accounted for 480,000 voters for only one representative.

A voter in the Tottori 1st district had therefore 2.09 more weight than a voter in Tokyo’s largest district.

The system is often criticized for skewing representation towards rural areas where there is however fewer people. The Tottori prefecture has a density of 163 people per km2 while Tokyo has more than 6,000 people per km2.

But since an electoral reform in 1994, the voter disparity in Japan cannot be higher than 2. It is however regularly breached as there is always more Japanese leaving rural areas for cities.

The National Diet changed its method of calculation and adjusted the House of representatives composition for the 2017 general elections. But in 2021, the Diet was not able to adapt in time for the October elections.

As a result, the vote disparity was higher than 2 in 29 districts.

General elections regularly considered unconstitutional

The Takamatsu High Court ruled on February 1, that the October general election was in unconstitutional state. “There is a significant vote-value disparity that cannot be overlooked”, the judge said. However, he dismissed the call for invalidating the results that would lead to carrying out new elections.

The Takamatsu High Court decision is the first ruling of 16 lawsuits filed nationwide. The Supreme High Court is expected to make a unified decision after all the 16 judgments have been released before March.

If the malapportionment is not new, the state of unconstitutionality is more recent.

In 2011, the Supreme Court considered the 2009 elections to be held in an unconstitutional state because of the malapportionment of electoral districts. Results were not invalidated but the vote weight disparity had to be reduced.

House of Representatives elections were also considered unconstitutional in 2012 and 2014, which led to changes with the Adams method for 2017.

The Supreme Court is unlikely to ask for a new vote but the decision may influence the district divisions for the next elections for the House of representatives.

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