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Electoral Systems

The Netherlands

By Brechtje Beun, Galen Irwin,

Since 1830 the Parliament of The Netherlands has consisted of two chambers. The First Chamber has never been elected directly and is therefore not considered here. In the earliest period for which one can speak of a constitutional electoral system (1848-1887), the number of members in the Second Chamber was set at one per 45,000 inhabitants. The country was divided into districts and usually two members per district were chosen by limited suffrage. Half of the Chamber was elected every two years, so that in most districts representatives were chosen at each two-year interval. An absolute majority was necessary for election; if no candidate achieved this figure, a relative majority sufficed in the second round.

In 1888 several changes in the electoral system were made. The size of the Second Chamber was set at 100. Single member districts were introduced, although multi-member districts remained in the cities. The last multi-member districts were eliminated in 1897. From that date, only the top two candidates from the first round were allowed to participate in the second round.

One of the two great political questions of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century in The Netherlands was the struggle for universal suffrage, the other question being the governmental support for religious schools. Both problems were resolved in the so called 'Pacification of 1917', as a kind of package deal. The religious political parties obtained a constitutional guarantee of governmental financial support for religious schools. Universal suffrage, one of the main political goals of the Social Democratic Party, first only for males, female suffrage followed in 1919. Proportional representation was introduced, which primarily helped the Liberal parties, who could no longer expect to gain seats under the district system with universal suffrage. Furthermore, compulsory voting was introduced, to insure proportionality.

The electoral system as introduced in 1917 has remained in effect since that time, although some details have been altered. The Netherlands still elects the Second Chamber according to the multi-member candidate list system of proportional representation. Lists of candidates are presented on the ballot. Since 1956 the name of the party or list is placed above the list. The order of the lists is according to the size of the party delegation in the Second Chamber. (For the parties having no parliamentary representation, the ordering is determined by lot). On a list a party may list up to 30 names on the ballot, or twice the number of its incumbent representatives in Parliament, with a maximum of 80. There are 19 electoral districts, but these exist more out of practical reasons and most parties will submit the lists in each of the districts (although the names on the list may vary, and there is no requirement that candidates live in the district or have any relationship with the district).

All votes cast for a candidate on a party list accrue to the total for the party. For the determination of the number of seats to be appointed to a party, the electoral districts play no role; seats are apportioned proportional according to the national vote. On the ballot a black square with a white circle is placed next to each candidate on the list. The voter must fill in the circle next to one of the candidates with a red pencil (for machine ballots there is a lever for each candidate).

In 1956 the number of seats in the Second Chamber was expanded from 100 to 150. The only threshold for obtaining representation in the Second Chamber is the number of valid votes cast, divided by 150, which also determines the electoral quotient (recently about 60,000 votes). Each multiple of the electoral quotient entitles a party to an additional seat.

When each party has received the seats to which it is entitled in this manner, it is generally found that not all seats have been allotted. The seats that remain are distributed by the method of largest average (the so called d'Hondt method). This replaced the largest remainder system in 1933, as the largest average was felt to provide a more precise proportionality. The use of the d'Hondt method does provide an advantage to larger parties. As a partial compensation for smaller parties since 1973 it has been possible to combine lists, both within and across districts, for the determination of the number of seats received.

Once the total number of seats for each party has been determined, the first name on the list is declared elected. The procedure next moves to the second name on the list, and continues until all seats have been filled. The only exception is that a candidate who receives a quarter of the electoral quotient is declared elected automatically (presuming of course that his or her party is entitled to at least one representative). The lists remain in effect between elections and are used to fill seats that have fallen empty. No by-elections are held.

Roughly the same system as explained above is used for municipal, provincial and European elections. Only the First Chamber is chosen in a different way; its members are chosen by the provincial legislatures.

Though commitment to proportionality is extremely strong in The Netherlands, compulsory voting was abolished in 1970. Further proposals to change the system have come as the result of criticism that there is a growing gap between voters and politicians. Committees were appointed to propose changes and the government eventually proposed a mixed system in which half of the seats would be allocated according to proportional representation and the other half according to a five district system. After considerable criticism that this would disturb proportionality and would not necessarily provide a better relationship with the electorate, the government was forced to withdraw its proposal.

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