The electoral threshold, or election threshold, is the minimum share of the primary vote which a candidate or political party requires to achieve before they become entitled to any representation in a legislature. This limit can operate in various ways, e.g. in party-list proportional representation systems where an electoral threshold requires that a party must receive a specified minimum percentage of votes (e.g. 5%), either nationally or in a particular electoral district, to obtain any seats in the legislature. In multi-member constituencies using preferential voting, besides the electoral threshold, to be awarded a seat, a candidate is also required to achieve a quota, either on the primary vote or after distribution of preferences, which depends on the number of members to be returned from a constituency.
The effect of an electoral threshold is to deny representation to small parties or to force them into coalitions, with the presumption of rendering the election system more stable by keeping out fringe parties. Proponents say that simply having a few seats in a legislature can significantly boost the profile of a fringe party and that providing representation and possibly veto power for a party that receives only 1% of the vote not be appropriate; however, critics posit that in the absence of a ranked ballot system, supporters of minor parties are effectively disenfranchised and denied the right of representation by someone of their choosing.
Two boundaries can be defined—a threshold of representation is the minimum vote share that might yield a party a seat under the most favorable circumstances for the party, while the threshold of exclusion is the maximum vote share that could be insufficient to yield a seat under the least favorable circumstances. Lijphart suggested calculating the informal threshold as the mean of these.
Legal electoral thresholds in various countriesEdit
In Poland's Sejm, Lithuania's Seimas, Germany's Bundestag and New Zealand's House of Representatives, the threshold is 5% (in Poland, additionally 8% for a coalition of two or more parties submitting a joint electoral list and in Lithuania, additionally 7% for coalition). However, in Germany and New Zealand, if a party wins a minimum number of directly elected seats—three in Germany and one in New Zealand—the threshold does not apply (in Germany the directly elected seats are kept regardless). The threshold is 3.25% in Israel's Knesset (it was 1% before 1992, 1.5% in 1992–2003 and 2% 2003–2014) and 10% in the Turkish parliament. In Poland, ethnic minority parties do not have to reach the threshold level to get into the parliament and so there is always a small German minority representation (at minimum, one member) in the Sejm. In Romania, for the ethnic minority parties there is a different threshold than for the national parties that run for the Chamber of Deputies.
There are also countries such as Portugal, South Africa, Finland, the Netherlands and North Macedonia that have proportional representation systems without a legal threshold, although the Netherlands has a rule that the first seat can never be a remainder seat, which means that there is an effective threshold of 100% divided by the total number of seats (with 150 seats to allocate, this threshold is currently 0.67%). In the Slovenian parliamentary elections of 1992 and 1996, the threshold was set at 3 parliamentary seats. This meant that the parties needed to win about 3.2% of the votes in order to pass the threshold. In 2000, the threshold was raised to 4% of the votes.
In Sweden, there is a nationwide threshold of 4%, but if a party reaches 12% in one election district, it will take part in the seat allocation for that district. However, through the 2014 election nobody has been elected based on the 12% rule. In Norway, the nationwide electoral threshold of 4% applies only to leveling seats. A party with sufficient local support may still win the regular district seats, even if the party fails to meet the threshold. For example, the 2021 election saw the Green Party and Christian Democratic Party each win three district seats, and Patient Focus winning one district seat despite missing the threshold.
In Australia, which uses a single transferable vote proportional representation system, they avoided the need for a formal electoral threshold by establishing smaller electorates with each multi-member electorate returning fewer members of a Parliament and as such requiring a higher quota percentage in order to be elected. As Australia also uses a ranked voting system supporters of minor parties are not disenfranchised as their votes are redistributed to other candidates according to the voter's nominated order of preference which can then form part of another candidates winning quota.
In the United States, as the majority of elections are conducted under the first-past-the-post system, legal electoral thresholds do not apply in the actual voting. However, several states have threshold requirements for parties to obtain automatic ballot access to the next general election without having to submit voter-signed petitions. The threshold requirements have no practical bearing on the two main political parties (the Republican and Democratic parties) as they easily meet the requirements, but have come into play for minor parties such as the Green and Libertarian parties. The threshold rules also apply for independent candidates to obtain ballot access.
Countries can have more than one threshold. Germany, as mentioned earlier, has a regular threshold of 5%, but a party winning three constituency seats in the Bundestag can gain additional representation even if it has achieved under 5% of the total vote, and ethnic minority parties have no threshold. The 2021 election demonstrated both thresholds: The Left still qualified for list votes despite getting just 4.9%, because they held three direct mandate seats, and the South Schleswig Voters' Association entered the Bundestag with just 0.1% as a registered party for Danish and Frisian minorities. Most multiple-threshold systems are still in the proposal stage. Electoral thresholds are often implemented with the intention of bringing stability to the political system.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommends for parliamentary elections a threshold not higher than 3%. However, a 2007 European Court of Human Rights decision, Yumak and Sadak v. Turkey, held that Turkey's 10% threshold did not violate Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR (right to free elections). Because Turkey has no limits for independent candidates, the 10% rule has to some extent been circumvented by parties running candidates as independents.
|Country||For individual parties||For other types|
|Albania||3%||5% for multi-party alliances to each electoral area level|
|Andorra||7.14% (1/14 of cast votes)|
|Armenia||5%||7% for multi-party alliances|
|Austria||4% or a Grundmandat in a regional constituencies|
|Belgium||5% (at constituency level; no national threshold)|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||3%|
|Cyprus||3.6%||5% for Northern Cyprus|
|Czech Republic||5%||8% for bipartite alliances, 11% for multi-party alliances|
|Denmark||2% or direct mandate|
|Germany||5% of the valid party list votes for proportional
representation (or winning three constituencies)
|0% (ethnic minorities), 0% (EU parliamentary elections)|
|Hungary||5%||10% for bipartite alliances, 15% for multi-party alliances, 0.26% for ethnic minorities (for the first seat only)|
|Iceland||5% (only for compensatory seats)|
|Italy||3%||10% (party alliances), but a list must reach at least 3%, 1% (parties of party alliances), 20% or two constituencies (ethnic minorities)|
|Lithuania||5%||7% for party alliances|
|Moldova||5%||3% (non-party), 12% (party alliances)|
|Montenegro||3%||Special rules apply for candidate lists representing national minority communities.|
|Netherlands||0.667% (percent of votes needed for one seat, parties missing this also have no right to a possible remainder seat)|
|Norway||4% (only for compensatory seats)|
|Poland||5%||8% (alliances; does not apply for EU elections); 0% (ethnic minorities)|
|Spain||3% (constituency). Ceuta and Melilla use first-past-the-post system. No threshold for Senate and European Parliament elections. 5% for local elections. Variable in regional elections.|
|Sweden||4% (national level)
|Serbia||3%||No threshold for lists representing national minorities|
|Slovakia||5%||7% for bipartite alliances, 10% for multi-party alliances|
|Turkey||7%||7% for multi-party alliances. Parties in an alliance not being subject to any nationwide threshold individually. No threshold for independent candidates.|
|Country||For individual parties||For other types|
|Argentina||3% of registered voters|
|Indonesia||4% (only for People's Representative Council)|
|Kyrgyzstan||9% and 0.7% of the vote in each of the seven regions|
|Nepal||3% vote each under the proportional representation category and at least one seat under the first-past-the-post voting|
|New Zealand||5% (or winning an electorate seat)|
|Philippines||2% for 20% of the lower house seats||Other parties can still qualify if the 20% of the seats have not been filled up)|
|South Korea||3% (or winning 5 seat in local constituencies)||5% (local council elections)|
The number of seats in each electoral district creates a natural threshold (also called a hidden, or effective, or informal threshold). The number of votes that means that a party is guaranteed a seat can be calculated by the formula ( ) where ε is the smallest possible number of votes. That means that in a district with four seats slightly more than 20% of the votes will guarantee a seat. Under more favorable circumstances, the party can still win a seat with fewer votes. The most important factor in determining the natural threshold is the number of seats to be filled by the district. Other less important factors are the seat allocation formula (D'Hondt, Saint-Laguë, LR-Droop or Hare), the number of contestant political parties and the size of the assembly. Generally, smaller districts leads to a higher proportion of votes needed to win a seat and vice versa. The lower bound (the threshold of representation or the percentage of the vote that allows a party to earn a seat under the most favorable circumstances) is more difficult to calculate. In addition to the factors mentioned earlier, the number of votes cast for smaller parties are important. If more votes are cast for parties that do not win any seat, that will mean a lower percentage of votes needed to win a seat.
Notable failures to reach the thresholdEdit
Examples of elections where established parties fell below the threshold:
- Germany, 2002. The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), successor to the East German Socialist Unity Party, achieved only 4.0% of the vote and only won two constituency seats, meaning that it sent only 2 members to the Bundestag. Notably, although the party had polled below 5% in the 1994 election, it had won four constituencies in former East Berlin thus surpassing the alternative electoral threshold of three constituencies and being entitled to proportional representation (in 1990, the electoral threshold was applied separately for former East and West Germany – PDS only passed the threshold in the East).
- In the 1990 German federal election the party Alliance 90/The Greens, running separately as "Alliance 90" in the East and as "The Greens" in the West would have narrowly passed the electoral threshold federally at 5.0% of the vote but failed to pass it in the West with 4.8% of the vote and thus only the Eastern part of their party-alliance was allowed representation as they had achieved 6.2% of the vote in the East.
- The successor party to the PDS, The Left again faced a scenario similar to 1994 and 2002 when they polled 4.9% federally in the 2021 German federal election and won two constituencies in Berlin (notably losing a constituency they had held since 1990) which would not have been enough for proportional representation, but they also won Leipzig II thus gaining the necessary three constituencies to bypass the electoral threshold.
- Turkey, 2002. None of the political parties that were being represented in the parliament after the 1999 elections could meet the 10% threshold, rocking Turkish politics to its foundations. Notably, DYP got 9.55%, MHP got 8.34%, GP got 7.25%, DEHAP got 6.23%, ANAP got 5.13%, SP got 2.48% and DSP got 1.22% of the popular votes. In total, 46.33% of the votes, i.e. 14,545,438 votes were unrepresented in the parliament.
- Germany, 2013. The Free Democratic Party got only 4.8% of the list vote, so it did not meet the 5% threshold. It did not win any directly elected seats either and the FDP has not won a directly elected seat since 1990. Hence, for the first time since 1949 the party was not represented in the Bundestag and their former coalition partners in the Union parties (the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union in Bavaria) had to form a grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party instead. Because the new political party Alternative for Germany only received 4.7% of the list vote and also failed to win any constituency seats in the Bundestag, 15.7% of the list vote and over 10% of constituency votes were ultimately wasted on parties that gained no seats.
- New Zealand, 2008. The New Zealand First party got only 4.07% of the list vote, so it was not returned to parliament. The ACT New Zealand party only won 3.65% of the list vote, but remained in parliament as its leader won an electorate seat (Epsom). As a result, it was also allocated four list seats. The New Zealand First party had been in parliament since 1993 and returned in 2011.
- Norway, 2009. The Liberal Party got 3.9% of the votes, below the 4% threshold for leveling seats, although still winning two seats. Hence, while right-wing opposition parties won more votes between them than the parties in the governing coalition, the narrow failure of the Liberal Party to cross the threshold led to the governing coalition continuing in power. The Liberal Party is the oldest Norwegian party (established in 1884) and reached the threshold with 5.2% of votes in 2013.
- Israel, 1992. The extreme right-wing Tehiya (Revival) got 1.2% of the votes, which was below the threshold which it had itself voted to raise to 1.5%. It thus lost its three seats.
- Poland, 2015. The United Left achieved 7.55%, which is underneath the 8% threshold for multi-party coalitions. Furthermore, KORWiN only reached 4.76%, narrowly missing the 5% threshold for individual parties. This allowed the victorious PiS to obtain a majority in the parliament. The election created the first parliament without the left being represented.
- Slovakia, 2016. The Christian Democratic Movement achieved 4.94% missing only 0.06% votes to reach the threshold which meant the first absence of the party since the Velvet Revolution and the first democratic elections in 1990.
- Israel, April 2019. Only one of the three parties representing right-wing to far-right Zionism, (Union of the Right-Wing Parties, Zehut and New Right) succeeded of passing the 3.25% threshold with 3.70% of the votes. the New Right party reached 3.22% of the votes–only about 1,300 votes below the threshold, and Zehut achieved 2.74%.
- Slovakia, 2020. The coalition between Progressive Slovakia and SPOLU won 6.96% of votes, falling short of the 7% threshold for coalitions. This was an unexpected defeat since the coalition had won both the 2019 European election and 2019 presidential election less than a year earlier. In addition, two other parties won fewer votes but were able to win seats due to the lower threshold for single parties (5%).
- Lithuania, 2020. Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance won 4.97% of the votes. If the party had passed 5% threshold and gained 5 seats, then possible coalition between Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania, Labour Party, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance and independent candidates would have been formed. Due to failure of Electoral Action, other possible coalition of Homeland Union, Liberal Movement and Freedom Party gained numerous advantage and subsequently became majority in Seimas.
- Madrid, Spain, 2021. Despite achieving 26 seats with 19.37% of the votes in the previous election, liberal party Ciudadanos crashed down in the 2021 snap election called by President Isabel Díaz Ayuso, receiving only one-sixth of the votes with just 3.54% of the total and failing to get close to the 5% threshold for representation.
Amount of unrepresented voteEdit
Electoral thresholds can sometimes seriously affect the relationship between the percentages of the popular vote achieved by each party and the distribution of seats.
In the Russian parliamentary elections in 1995, with a threshold excluding parties under 5%, more than 45% of votes went to parties that failed to reach the threshold. In 1998, the Russian Constitutional Court found the threshold legal, taking into account limits in its use.
There had been a similar situation in Turkey, which has a 10% threshold, easily higher than in any other country. The justification for such a high threshold was to prevent multi-party coalitions and put a stop to the endless fragmentation of political parties seen in the 1960s and 1970s. However, coalitions ruled between 1991 and 2002, but mainstream parties continued to be fragmented and in the 2002 elections as many as 45% of votes were cast for parties which failed to reach the threshold and were thus unrepresented in the parliament.
In the Ukrainian elections of March 2006, for which there was a threshold of 3% (of the overall vote, i.e. including invalid votes), 22% of voters were effectively disenfranchised, having voted for minor candidates. In the parliamentary election held under the same system, fewer voters supported minor parties and the total percentage of disenfranchised voters fell to about 12%.
In the Philippines where party-list seats are only contested in 20% of the 287 seats in the lower house,[clarification needed] the effect of the 2% threshold is increased by the large number of parties participating in the election, which means that the threshold is harder to reach. This led to a quarter of valid votes being wasted, on average and led to the 20% of the seats never being allocated due to the 3-seat cap[clarification needed] In 2007, the 2% threshold was altered to allow parties with less than 1% of first preferences to receive a seat each and the proportion of wasted votes reduced slightly to 21%, but it again increased to 29% in 2010 due to an increase in number of participating parties. These statistics take no account of the wasted votes for a party which is entitled to more than three seats but cannot claim those seats due to the three-seat cap.[clarification needed]
Electoral thresholds can produce a spoiler effect, similar to that in the first-past-the-post voting system, in which minor parties unable to reach the threshold take votes away from other parties with similar ideologies. Fledgling parties in these systems often find themselves in a vicious circle: if a party is perceived as having no chance of meeting the threshold, it often cannot gain popular support; and if the party cannot gain popular support, it will continue to have little or no chance of meeting the threshold. As well as acting against extremist parties, it may also adversely affect moderate parties if the political climate becomes polarized between two major parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum. In such a scenario, moderate voters may abandon their preferred party in favour of a more popular party in the hope of keeping the even less desirable alternative out of power.
On occasion, electoral thresholds have resulted in a party winning an outright majority of seats without winning an outright majority of votes, the sort of outcome that a proportional voting system is supposed to prevent. For instance, the Turkish AKP won a majority of seats with less than 50% of votes in three consecutive elections (2002, 2007 and 2011). In the 2013 Bavarian state election, the Christian Social Union failed to obtain a majority of votes, but nevertheless won an outright majority of seats due to a record number of votes for parties which failed to reach the threshold, including the Free Democratic Party (the CSU's coalition partner in the previous state parliament).
In contrast, elections which use the ranked voting system can take account of each voter's complete indicated ranking preference. For example, the single transferable vote redistributes first preference votes for candidates below the threshold. This permits the continued participation in the election by those whose votes would otherwise be wasted. Minor parties can indicate to their supporters before the vote how they would wish to see their votes transferred. The single transferable vote is a proportional voting system designed to achieve proportional representation through ranked voting in multi-seat (as opposed to single seat) organizations or constituencies (voting districts). Ranked voting systems are widely used in Australia and Ireland. Other methods of introducing ordinality into an electoral system can have similar effects.
- Reynolds, Andrew (2005). Electoral system design : the new international IDEA handbook. Stockholm, Sweden: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. p. 59. ISBN 978-91-85391-18-9. OCLC 68966125.
- Arendt Lijphart (1994), Electoral Systems and Party Systems: A Study of Twenty-Seven Democracies, 1945–1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 25–56
- Resolution 1547 (2007), para. 58
- Turkish Daily News, 31 January 2007, European court rules election threshold not violation
- Turkish Daily News, 24 July 2007, Here come the independents
- The Electoral Code of the Republic of Albania Archived 31 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Artikel 162; vor der Wahl 2009 waren es bei völlig anderem Wahlsystem 2,5 % bzw. 4 % der gültigen Stimmen auf nationaler Ebene (nur für die Vergabe von Ausgleichssitzen; Direktmandate wurden ohne weitere Bedingungen an den stimmenstärksten Kandidaten zugeteilt)
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- "These rules apply to lists representing a minority nation or a minority national community with a share of the total population of up to 15 per cent countrywide or 1.5 to 15 per cent within each municipality. If no minority list passes the 3 per cent threshold, but some lists gain 0.7 per cent or more of the valid votes, they are entitled to participate in the distribution of up to 3 mandates as a cumulative list of candidates based on the total number of valid votes. Candidate lists representing the Croatian minority are entitled to 1 seat if they obtain at least 0.35 per cent of the valid votes." Source: OSCE, 2016, Montenegro Parliamentary Elections 2016: OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Final Report
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- In 2004 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe declared this threshold to be manifestly excessive and invited Turkey to lower it (Council of Europe Resolution 1380 (2004)). On 30 January 2007 the European Court of Human Rights ruled by five votes to two (and on 8 July 2008, its Grand Chamber by 13 votes to four) that the 10% threshold imposed in Turkey does not violate the right to free elections, guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights. It held, however, that this same threshold could violate the Convention if imposed in a different country. It was justified in the case of Turkey in order to stabilize the volatile political situation which has obtained in that country over recent decades. The case is Yumak and Sadak v. Turkey, no. 10226/03. See also B. Bowring Negating Pluralist Democracy: The European Court of Human Rights Forgets the Rights of the Electors // KHRP Legal Review 11 (2007)
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