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IFES Ukraine

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems

Electoral Code: Issues with turnout-based seat allocation for Parliament

The choice of electoral system for parliamentary elections is an important aspect of current and past discussions around the draft Election Code. It is to date not fully decided. Using voter turnout as the basis for seat allocation, as opposed to using population or registration data, is one such open topic.

The Parliament of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada) is currently discussing which electoral system will be included in the next iteration of the draft Election Code. In the version of the draft Election Code passed by the Rada on July 11, 2019, the electoral system included a proportional representation system with a mixture of closed and open lists. Last minute amendments to the draft meant that the first 10 seats on a party list that passed the five percent threshold for seat distribution in the Rada would not be influenced by voter choice but would be decided in advance by the party. This closed party list element runs contrary to the commitment made by politicians in the outgoing Rada following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity.

President Zelenskyy objected to this closed-list element, calling it “essentially a preservation of the mixed electoral system with closed lists… that in reality neglects the will of the voter and ensures that candidates can enter parliament irrespectively of the results of their personal votes in the elections.” The Rada working group agreed with these objections and unanimously removed the respective provisions for the 10 reserved seats, ensuring that the electoral system in the new code would be a purely open list system.

For the purposes of ensuring a link between MPs and local communities, Ukraine will be divided into 27 election districts for parliamentary elections. Kyiv city and Dnipropetrovsk oblast will be divided into two election districts and Crimea and Sevastopol city will be merged with Kherson; other than these exceptions, the remaining election districts will be identical to the oblasts. Voters will cast their ballot for a regional list of candidates and mark the ballot for an individual candidate on the list.

Since the new election districts are not of equal size, they will have an unequal number of MPs. It is not yet certain how the number of MPs for each election district will be determined. It is here that the election code as passed by the old Rada came up with a controversial innovation. The method proposed by the Election Code envisaged allocation of parliamentary seats to the 27 new election districts based on voter turnout on election day in that district rather than by the population in the district.

Under the population seat allocation method proposed by IFES and OPORA, one million people in an eastern district would get the same number of representatives as one million people in a western district. For example, if voters in one region face higher barriers to registering or voting on Election Day, their region is not under-represented in the national parliament. Or, if they vote for parties which are regionally concentrated, they are not penalized in their representation. Thus, this avoids the complications of turnout and registration skewing the representation of comparable districts.

The advantages or disadvantages of basing seat allocation on turnout is entirely based on the context of voting and campaigning. If differential turnout is primarily driven by the inability of some citizens to vote because of conflict, environment, intimidation or boycott, then allocating seats based on turnout will penalize voters who through no fault of their own have been unable to vote. By contrast, in regions in which administrative resources are abused to encourage higher turnout (for instance, among the public sector employees) or in which parties and candidates use illicit practices (such as vote-buying) to increase turnout and affect the election outcome, voters would have a significant advantage in terms of representation compared to regions with lower turnout. Such underrepresentation and respective overrepresentation challenges democratic principles and may de-legitimize the electoral process.

The following example may illustrate this:

Registered voters 80,000 Registered voters 80,000
Turnout 50% Turnout 70%
Total voters 40,000   Total voters 56,000  


Party A 10,000 votes 0 seats Party A 8,000 votes 0 seats
Party B 20,000 4 seats Party B 40,000 8 seats
Party C 6,000 1 seat Party C 5,000 1 seat
Party D 4,000 0 seats Party D 3,000 0 seats
Total 40,000 5 seats  Total 56,000 9 seats


 NB: National seat quota: 5,000 votes. Only Parties B and C surmount the national threshold.

In this example, oblast North’s representation is significantly lower (five seats) than oblast South’s (nine seats). Despite having the same number of registered voters, the North has lower turnout and is punished for this in terms of the number of representatives they receive.

Historically, higher voter turnout in Ukraine’s western oblasts has been a general trend observed from one election to another (the 2019 elections were, in this respect, an exception but may indicate a new trend). A simulation using the 2014 parliamentary results as base illustrate this: the oblasts most penalized by the turnout-based method would be Donetsk, Luhansk, Odesa, and Kherson (including Crimea). The largest beneficiaries would be Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil oblasts.

Another factor is the unpredictability of the turnout-based system: parties will not know how many seats are available in each region. Thus, where parties expect a high turnout, they will strive to register as many candidates as practically possible – to avoid having fewer candidates on their party lists than the actual seats to be filled. In regions with expected low turnout, parties may want to register fewer candidates, but then risk not having enough candidates on their list to fill all seats. The turnout-based allocation of mandates injects a high element of uncertainty into the system that makes it difficult for parties to plan. This will have financial implications by making election participation more costly for political parties who register more candidates and by increasing the budget for the election administration that need to cater for additional candidates (bigger ballots, additional purchase of free broadcast time, posters, etc.).

To summarize, the turnout-based seat allocation method is problematic for these reasons:

  • It will award election districts which – for some reason or another – can produce a high voter turnout on election day an advantage at the expense of other districts;
  • This may create legitimacy problems and foster illicit campaign practices aimed at artificially inflating – or reducing – voter turnout on election day in certain regions;
  • What happens in an election district on election day will have implications for the district’s political representation the next five years;
  • There will be uncertainty about the number of seats in an election district until after election day. This may be a challenge for the legitimacy of the vote;
  • The uncertainly about the number of contested seats in a district will make it more difficult for political parties to plan and likely trigger registration of more candidates than needed;
  • A higher number of candidates will make the election more complex and costly both for political parties and for the election administration that will need to print larger ballots etc.

IFES supports basing the allocation of parliamentary seats on voter population data

In almost every parliamentary election system used around the world, seats are allocated to districts based on some combination of population size and geography. Such districts are then represented in proportion to their population size. This is also the recommendation by the Venice Commission in its Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters. Previously, Ukraine has used voter population data when drawing boundaries of plurality (majoritarian) election districts for local and parliamentary elections. With the ability of internal displaced persons (IDPs) to register a permanent electoral address at their actual place of residence in Ukraine – as is envisaged in the proposal of the President to the Election Code –IDPs will weigh in and count in equation.

Together with its civil society partners and as part of its support to electoral reform in Ukraine, IFES is providing expert input to the Verkhovna Rada Working Group for the development of an Election Code in line with international standards and best practices. IFES stands ready to provide further support and technical assistance to the Government of Ukraine to ensure effective and timely implementation of this reform.

This analysis was developed by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) through the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Global Affairs Canada and UK aid. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, nor the governments of the United States, Canada, or the UK.