Italian ballot papers: What they look like and how to vote

With just a few days to go to Sunday’s general elections, here’s a look at Italy’s surprisingly tricky ballot papers and how to fill one out.

Italian polling station.
All voters will get two ballot papers next Sunday – a pink one for the Chamber of Deputies and a yellow one for the Senate. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Italy’s general elections are just around the corner, with polling open between 7am and 11pm on Sunday, September 25th. 

Many things have changed since Italy’s last general election, but ballot papers (schede elettorali) are not one of them and will have the same form and features they did last time.

READ ALSO: Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

But if this is your first time voting in Italy, or you just need a refresher, here’s a look at Italy’s somewhat complicated ballot papers and what you’re supposed to do with them.

First of all, voters get two electoral slips: a pink one for the Chamber of Deputies and a yellow one for the Senate. Inside, they’ll both look something like this.

First page of a Senate ballot paper.

First page of a Senate ballot paper including instructions on how to vote.

Second page of a Senate ballot featuring the symbols of all parties and their candidates.

Second page of a Senate ballot paper featuring the symbols of all parties and their corresponding candidates.

As shown in the above photo, party symbols are enclosed within white rectangles. Parties belonging in the same coalition are grouped together (as in the case of the parties making up the right-wing bloc). Next to each party are the names of the candidates.

How do you vote?

You might notice that the Italian ballot doesn’t feature checkboxes next to parties or candidates’ names for you to put your cross in, as is the case on ballots in some other countries.

On the Italian ballot, instead you draw the cross – or segno (mark) – on top of either:

  • The symbol of your chosen party OR
  • The name of a candidate written in uppercase letters. (Not lowercase – we’ll explain why below).

The ballot paper’s first page explains – in typical politichese (political jargon) – that you vote “by drawing a mark over the chosen party and it applies to said party and to the collegio uninominale [first-past-the-post] candidate associated with it. 

“If a mark is drawn over a collegio uninominale candidate, the vote also applies to the party they’re aligned with; in the case of coalitions, the vote is divided between the parties making up the relevant coalition through the proportional system.”

At this point you might be understandably puzzled about what in the world a collegio uninominale (or first-past-the-post) candidate is. 

The system is anything but simple: Italy has a mixed voting system with some seats allocated via proportional representation (‘sistema proporzionale‘) and others by first-past-the-post (‘uninominale secco‘).

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Because of this, there are two categories of candidates on Italian ballot papers. 

The candidates whose names are written in uppercase run for collegi uninominali (single-member electoral districts), meaning that there’s only one parliamentary seat up for grabs and that seat is allocated via the first-past-the-post system.

On the other hand, candidates whose names are written in lowercase run for collegi plurinominali (multi-member electoral districts), meaning that there are multiple seats available – the number of seats depends on the size of a district’s population – and seats are allocated through a proportional system based on each party’s overall performance.

Italian polling station and ballot papers being prepared.

Italy has a mixed voting system with some seats allocated via proportional representation (‘sistema proporzionale’) and others by first-past-the-post (‘uninominale secco’). Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

Now, though Italian ballot papers include both categories of candidates, voters are not actually allowed to directly vote for proportional system candidates (in lowercase) and doing so would result in a spoilt (void) ballot.

It’s worth repeating that you can only vote by marking one of either your chosen first-past-the-post candidate (uppercase) or, alternatively, your chosen party with a cross.  

So, why bother us with candidates we can’t vote for?

All voters get two votes, one for each parliamentary house (Chamber of Deputies and Senate). In both cases, votes cannot be split between the two electoral systems (first-past-the-post and proportional representation).

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

That means a vote for a first-past-the-post candidate (in uppercase) is also a vote for the party they’re aligned with and therefore for the corresponding proportional system candidates (in lowercase). 

Similarly, a vote for a party (or coalition) is a vote for its proportional system candidates as well as its single first-past-the-post representative. 

Italian ballot papers for Senate elections.

Voters cannot split their vote between the first-past-the-post system and the proportional one. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

That’s why Italian schede elettorali include the names of proportional system candidates even though voters cannot directly vote for them. 

Useful Italian ballot-paper vocabulary 

Scheda elettorale: Ballot paper

Candidato uninominale: Candidate for a single-member electoral district. Single-member districts only ‘offer’ one parliamentary seat, which is allocated directly through the first-past-the-post system (i.e. the candidate with the greater amount of votes takes the seat).

Candidato plurinominale: Candidate for a multi-member electoral district. These districts have multiple available seats that are allocated through a proportional system – parties performing better on a national level get to fill more seats in parliament.

Segno: The mark you make in order to vote. Generally this is a cross.

Lista prescelta: Chosen party 

For more information about voting in Italy’s upcoming elections, see the interior ministry’s official website here.

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How does Italy’s new government want to change the constitution?

Having emerged as the largest party in parliament following the general election, the far-right Brothers of Italy now wants to reform the constitution. How might it go about doing so - and why?

How does Italy's new government want to change the constitution?

With the official results now in, Italy’s elections have produced a clear winner.

The hard-right coalition, led by the post-fascist Brothers of Italy in partnership with the populist League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, swept to victory with 44 percent of the vote, giving them a majority in both houses of parliament.

READ ALSO: Italy announces final election results as right-wing wins clear majority

The group’s programme includes a number of policies that are typical of right-wing parties, including tightening immigration controls, cracking down on crime, reforming Italy’s welfare system, and lowering taxes.

Presidential system

One of their more left-field proposals, however, is a constitutional reform that would transform Italy’s political system from that of a parliamentary democracy to a French-style semi-presidential system through “direct elections of the President of the Republic”.

Though it came close, the coalition didn’t win the crucial supermajority of two thirds of the seats in both the senate and the lower house that would have allowed it to reform the constitution without encountering any obstacles.

But the new government could hold a referendum on the issue, handing the decision over to voters. It was through this mechanism that Italians voted in 2020 to reduce their total number of parliamentarians by one third.

EXPLAINED: What will a far-right government mean for Italy?

Meloni has been long been a proponent of overhauling Italy’s political system, and was the lead signatory to a similar proposal put before parliament by Brothers of Italy in 2018.

In the introduction to the document, its authors say that a switch to a presidential system “is not a new invention, but is a historic proposal from Brothers of Italy and the Italian right” that would make it easier for governments to enact the wishes of voters.

The proposal calls for Italy’s head of state “to be directly elected by the Italian people and thus legitimised to assume all responsibility for the nation’s political direction and the most important national and international policy choices.”

READ ALSO: How victory for Italy’s far right could impact lives of foreign residents

Leader of Italy's liberal-conservative party Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Italy's conservative party Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni and leader of Italy's far-right League party, Matteo Salvini acknowledge supporters at the end of a joint rally against the government on October 19, 2019 in Rome.

Italy’s right-wing coalition, consisting of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, Salvini’s League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, wants to switch to a French-style presidential political system. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Italy’s current parliamentary system, specifically designed to thwart the rise of would-be dictators after two decades of fascist rule, makes it almost impossible for any one party to win a majority.

This safeguard against dictatorships means parties are required to enter into often uneasy alliances to form coalition governments that could collapse at any time – which is why Italy has had as many as three governments since the last elections in 2018 and seven in the past decade.

In essence, switching to presidenzialismo, or a presidential system, would give more power to the executive and make it far more difficult to get rid of the elected head of state during their five-year term – which, while a long way from ushering in an autocracy, might make some a little nervous given Brothers of Italy’s neofascist origins.

READ ALSO: The five biggest challenges facing Italy’s new hard-right government

EU reform

Besides overhauling the political system, it’s also possible that a Eurosceptic Meloni-led government could propose further constitutional reforms to reconfigure Italy’s relationship with the EU.

As Francesco Cancellato has written for the news site Fanpage, Meloni said in 2018 that she would like to rewrite articles of the constitution that require Italy to adhere to the EU’s rules on budget balancing and abide by EU law.

Unlike the proposed shift to presidentialism, this wasn’t in the coalition’s 2022 election manifesto, and commentators have pointed out that Meloni currently has a strong vested interest in maintaining good relations with Brussels.

TIMELINE: What happens next after Italy’s historic elections?

But it has raised fears that Meloni could take steps in the future to assert Italian sovereignty and weaken the EU – along with the rights the bloc has secured for minority groups.

First, though, Meloni has the challenge of forming a new government with her coalition partners, who are already proving difficult allies – a process which could take months.

Once the new government is in place, it will be subject to the same fragilities that all of Italy’s previous post-war administrations have faced. Whether it will last long enough to attempt any of these reforms remains an open question.