Photo/Illutration Lawyer Hidetoshi Masunaga, who represents one of the groups that filed lawsuits on the vote-value disparity, center, speaks to reporters in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district. (Odaka Chiba)

Votes for Lower House elections in some areas of Japan are twice as valuable than those in other areas.

The Supreme Court has handed down a ruling that effectively condoned the Diet’s failure to redress this unacceptable inequality.

The top court on Jan. 25 ruled that the Lower House election in October 2021 was “constitutional” despite a wide disparity in the value of votes.

The disparity in the general election was as high as 2.08 in the number of voters per representation, but the Supreme Court’s Grand Bench said that did not make the election inconsistent with the constitutional principle that all voters should have an equal say in the choice of their representatives.

The 2021 Lower House election was held under the same vote apportionment system as the one for the previous poll held in 2017.

There were 230,000 voters per representative in Tottori’s No. 1 electoral district, the least populous constituency, while 480,000 votes per seat in Tokyo’s No. 13 electoral district, the most populous one.

The maximum disparity in vote values rose to over 2.0 to 1 from 1.98 to 1. The number of districts where the number of votes per seat was more than two times larger than the smallest vote value also increased to 29 from zero.

The top court ruling concerned 16 lawsuits filed at high courts and their branches nationwide by two groups of lawyers against election administration commissions.

In nine cases, the high courts ruled the election was constitutional while seven declared it was held in a “state of unconstitutionality.” But the top court’s Grand Bench decided it was constitutional almost unanimously. Fourteen of the 15 judges acknowledged the constitutionality of the poll.

Legislation to reform the Lower House election system that passed the Diet in 2016 requires the adoption of the so-called “Adams method” for the reapportionment of seats in each prefecture in accordance with population fluctuations. The next Lower House election will be held under the new vote apportionment formula.

The Jan. 25 Supreme Court ruling echoed the court’s previous decision on the constitutionality of the 2017 Lower House election, which was based on the assumption that the inequality will be rectified under the new system.

The court argued that the widening of the gap in the 2021 election, which it said was inseparable from the new apportionment formula, did not raise a constitutionality question.

But the ruling made a mockery of the long-established goal of keeping the difference in the value of a vote to less than 2.0. This magnitude of difference is far from “small” from the viewpoint of the equality of the value of each vote, a fundamental principle spelled out in the Constitution.

The Supreme Court ruled that the 2014 Lower House election and the two preceding ones, which were all held with a vote value disparity of over 2.0, were in a “state of unconstitutionality.”

In handing down these rulings, the court singled out the one-seat special allocation system (“hitori betsuwaku hoshiki”) as a major factor behind the disparity.

This system allocates one seat to each prefecture and then distributes the remaining seats across prefectures. The effects of this system partially remained in the 2021 election.

This problem was cited by Katsuya Uga, the only Supreme Court judge who expressed the dissenting opinion. Uga, an expert in administrative law, contended the Lower House polls in both 2017 and 2021 were held in a “state of unconstitutionality.”

Even during the transition period to a new election system, the basic principle of equality in elections must not be ignored.

The Diet could have made necessary adjustments to seat apportionment to tackle the problem by closely monitoring constantly changing demographics.

The top court’s latest ruling on the issue of vote-value disparity, which does not rebuke the Diet for its negligence, cannot be deemed a judicial decision that serves the interests of the people.

In December, the revised Public Offices Election Law, which requires the adoption of the “add 10, take away 10” seat redistribution formula based on the Adams method, finally came into force.

The formula seeks to keep the difference in the value of a vote to less than 2.0 by adding 10 Lower House seats for single-seat constituencies in Tokyo and four prefectures while removing one seat each from single-seat constituencies in 10 prefectures.

It should be noted that there were attempts until the last moment to roll back the reform among lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Doubt about the fairness of the election system undermines the legitimacy of the Diet. Legislature members should not forget that they are representatives of all the people, not just their local constituencies.

The Diet needs to continue making steady efforts to ensure equality in elections without becoming complacent with the reforms.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 26