This question concerns whether a provision should be included in the Constitution on the election of particular individuals which would be broader than is the case in the present legislation on electoral procedure. The question does not ask how far to proceed in authorising the election of individuals in the Constitution.
By ‘the election of individuals’ is meant an arrangement in which the voter is able to choose individual candidates (one or more) from the list on the ballot paper instead of choosing between party-political lists as has been customary in general elections in Iceland.
The way things are now
The present Constitution contains no provisions on the election of individuals. Under Article 82 of the General Elections Act, No. 24/2000, voters are permitted to cross candidates’ names out or change the order in which they are ranked on the list of their choice. The authorisation to change the order was expanded in the current General Elections Act; for more than half a century prior to that, changes made on the ballot paper by voters had had practically no effect. In the general elections of 2007 and 2009, four candidates were moved one position down on their lists as a result of changes made by voters to the list for which they voted.
Under the current provisions, in order to change a candidate’s position by one seat on a list through the crossing out of names (the method that is by far most commonly used), 10-25% of those who vote for the list in question must cross out the same name. If voters wish to ensure a particular candidate a secure seat in parliament, or cause a candidate who already occupies a safe seat to lose it, more is required: as many as half of those who vote for the list in question would have to make the same deletions.
A certain type of individual election has been practised in Iceland since about 1970 in the form of ‘primaries’ held by the political parties in the run-up to general elections. In most cases in recent years, the primaries have only been open to party members or supporters.
The Constitutional Council’s proposals
Article 39 of the proposals envisage that the ranking of candidates on political parties’ lists would not determine which of the candidates were elected to the Althingi; this would depend on the number of votes the individual candidates received. Voters who merely chose lists would therefore leave the ranking of candidates on the list to other voters, irrespective of whether many or few availed themselves of this possibility. It is stated in the explanatory notes to the proposals that this arrangement would go further than is done in various other countries as regards election on an individual basis. The proposals allow for voters’ being able to choose candidates from lists fielded by different political organisations, though it would be up to the legislature to decide whether this option were actually employed.
Discussions and arguments
In most parts of the world, provisions on election on an individual basis are less extensive than those proposed by the Constitutional Council. Election of individuals is nevertheless the dominant practice in the Faroe Islands, Finland, the Netherlands and Ireland. Thus, the voters determine at the polling stations which candidates are actually elected from each list, just as the Constitutional Council is proposing here. Examples can be found of mixed methods, different rules for how the lists are presented, and election on an individual basis. It is rare that voters can choose candidates from more than one list, but this is the case, for example, in Ireland.
As an example of how this works in practice, voters in Sweden can choose from ranked lists of candidates. If 5% of those who vote for a particular list mark a particular candidate, then he or she will be put at the top of the list. The same applies if more than one candidate is marked in this way: they will all be put at the top of the list, their positions relative to one another then being determined by the number of votes received by each. It is rare that Swedish candidates have been elected as a result of such changes to the lists, but since this system was introduced in 1998, 22-30% of voters have made use of this option of choosing individual candidates.
Another example is the Danish method. In this, parties may field either ranked or unranked lists; most field unranked lists. In the general election of 2007, about half the voters ranked the candidates, so determining who was actually elected from each of the lists.
The main argument in favour of having elections based to a greater degree on the choice of individual candidates is that this would give voters greater choice and make for greater accountability on the part of politicians. Voters would be able to choose the individuals they consider most competent and trust best to represent them in parliament.
The main argument against the election of individuals it that it is impossible to predict what effect such a system would have. Great emphasis on individuals may increase the likelihood of irrelevant issues creeping into the political process, and in many places, election on an individual basis has led to problems in monitoring financial contributions to political activities.