The electoral threshold is the minimum share of the vote which a political party requires to secure any representation in a legislature. This limit can operate in various ways. For example, in party-list proportional representation systems, an election threshold requires that a party must receive a specified minimum percentage of votes (e.g. 5%), either nationally or within a particular district, to obtain any seats in the parliament. If there are a number of multi-member constituencies, each constituency will have a quota, i.e. a minimum percentage of the votes in that constituency to be awarded one seat.
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 radical factions. However, critics point out 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 election thresholds in various countries
In Poland's Sejm, Germany's Bundestag and New Zealand's House of Representatives, the threshold is 5%. 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 (though 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% until March 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 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 the Republic of 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. 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. Following the 2009 election, the Liberal Party won two seats in this manner.
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 election 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. Most multiple-threshold systems are still in the proposal stage. For example, in Canada, one proposal to reform the electoral system would see a 5% national threshold, 1% of the vote and 1 seat in the House of Commons, or 2% nationally and 15% of the vote in any one province.
Election 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|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||3%|
|Cyprus||3.60%||5% for Northern Cyprus|
|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)|
|Georgia||5%||7% for regional elections|
|Hungary||5%||10% for bipartite alliances, 15% for multi-party alliances)|
|Iceland||5% (only for compensatory seats)|
|Lithuania||5%||7% for party alliances|
|Moldova||5%||3% (non-party), 12% (party alliances)|
|Netherlands||0.67% (percent of votes needed for one seat)|
|Norway||4% (only for compensatory seats)|
|Poland||5%||8% (alliances); 0% (ethnic minorities)|
|Sweden|| 4% (national level)|
|Serbia||5%||None for ethnic minorities|
|Slovakia||5%||7% for bipartite alliances, 10% for multi-party alliances|
|Turkey||10%||None for independent candidates|
|Country||For individual parties||For other types|
|Uruguay|| 1% (Deputies)|
|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)|
Notable failures to reach the threshold
Examples of elections where established parties fall below the threshold are:
- Turkey, 2002. All five parties that passed the 10% threshold in 1999 elections, as well as two other major parties, failed to pass the threshold in 2002, rocking the 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%, all falling below the threshold. In total, 46.33% of the votes, i.e. 14,545,438 votes were without representation in the parliament.
- Germany, 2013. The Free Democratic Party got only 4.8% of the votes so did not meet the 5% threshold. It did not win any directly-elected seats either; it hasn't won a directly-elected seat since 1990. Hence for the first time since 1949 the party was not represented in the Bundestag, and their ally the Christian Democratic Union had to form a grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party.
- New Zealand, 2008. The New Zealand First party got only 4.07% of the list vote, so it was not returned to parliament. But 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 allocated three list seats also; the "coat-tail" effect. 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 or 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 it itself had previously voted to raise to 1.5%. It thus lost its three seats.
The amount of unrepresented vote
Election 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 has been a similar position 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, 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, 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. In 2007, the 2% threshold was altered to allow parties with less than 1% of first preferences to receive a seat each, 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.
Election 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, election 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 AK Party won a majority of seats with less than 50% of votes in three consecutive elections (2002, 2007 and 2011).
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. Ranked voting systems are widely used in Australia and Ireland. Other methods of introducing ordinality into an electoral system can have similar effects.
- 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, 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)
- "Folketingsvalgloven". Retrieved 24 February 2014.
- Bille, Lars; Pedersen, Karina (2004). "Electoral Fortunes and Responses of the Social Democratic Party and Liberal Party in Denmark: Ups and Downs". In Mair, Peter; Müller, Wolfgang C.; Plasser, Fritz. Political parties and electoral change. SAGE Publications. p. 207. ISBN 0-7619-4719-1.
- Act No. XXXIV of 1989 on the Election of the Members of Parliament, Art. 8 Abs. 5
- , Election to Altthingi Law, Act no. 24/2000, Article 108
- Código Electoral Nacional, Artikel 160
- 공직선거법 13조 5항(The fifth clause of Article 13 of the Public Official Election Act)
- Постановление Конституционного Суда РФ от 17 ноября 1998 г. № 26-П — см. пкт. 8(Russian) Archived 21 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
- Toker, Cem (2008). "Why Is Turkey Bogged Down?" (PDF). Turkish Policy Quarterly. Turkish Policy. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
- 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)