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Voters favor justice-system repeals, but low turnout preserves status quo


Voters throughout Italy cast their ballots (le schede elettorali) on five questions (quesiti) related to proposed reforms of the Italian justice system (il sistema giudiziario) on June 12. Italian citizens living abroad voted by mail in May and early June. The majority of those who participated indicated that they supported having the five current laws in question repealed. However, because of low turnout at the polls (scarsa affluenza alle urne) – ANSA has reported turnout of just under 21 percent – these laws will remain in effect. Many cities and towns in Italy also held their municipal elections on June 12.

Referendum questions were presented to voters on separate folded ballots of different colors and are each, individually, called a referendum in their own right. Therefore, there were actually five referendums held on June 12, all of which were abrogative referendums (i referendum abrogativi), because voters (gli elettori) were called upon to decide on each ballot whether or not to repeal (abrogare) an existing law; the Italian Constitution does not allow for the adoption of new legislation via referendum. The last abrogative referendum in Italy was held in 2016, and the most referendum questions voted upon in one day by Italians was 12 in 1995.

Since 1974, Italians have been called on to decide a total of 72 questions in abrogative referendums, including this year’s five. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior, 33 of these were declared invalid (non validi), because a quorum (il quorum) was not met: for a referendum vote to be considered valid, the majority (la maggioranza = 50% + 1) of eligible voters (gli aventi diritto al voto) must cast a vote on that referendum question.

On June 12, the first referendum question asked Italians whether or not they wished to repeal the so-called “Severino Law” (la legge Severino) which requires the automatic disqualification (incandidabilità) or suspension of politicians convicted of certain crimes; the second related to the pre-trial detention (la custodia cautelare) of arrestees; and the remaining three questions related to the regulation and evaluation of magistrates (i magistrati).

On each referendum ballot, voters indicated their desire to repeal the law in question (voting “sì”) or to retain it (voting “no”) by making a mark, such as a cross or a slash, with a blue or black pen in the corresponding box.

Abrogative referendums have existed in Italy since the adoption of the Constitution in 1948, but the first one was not held until 1974. In that year, the Italian electorate voted on only one issue: whether to repeal the 1970 law which, for the first time in modern Italian history, had given Italians the ability to divorce. Fifty-nine percent of Italians voted “no” to allow divorces to remain legal in Italy.

An abrogative referendum may abolish an entire law, or just part of one. The Italian Constitution identifies a few subjects – such as taxes, the budget, amnesty laws, and international treaties – which maynot be addressed by referendum (and the Constitutional Court has added to this list over the years) but other subjects, generally speaking, may be put to popular vote.

Under Article 75 of the Italian Constitution, in order for an abrogative referendum to be held in the first place, 500,000 voters or five of the 20 Regional Councils (i consigli regionali) must request it. After a referendum question has cleared this first hurdle, the Court of Cassation (la Corte di cassazione) must rule that the question conforms with the law. Then, the Constitutional Court (la Corte costituzionale) must decide that the question is admissible before it can be voted upon by the Italian people on a particular date between April 15 and June 15, set by the President of the Republic.

Other referendum questions were proposed this year but rejected by the Constitutional Court, including one regarding the decriminalization of the cultivation of cannabis and the elimination of prison sentences for non-trafficking related crimes involving cannabis. The Court also rejected a proposed question on euthanasia and one related to civil liability for magistrates.

The second most common type of popular referendum in Italy after the abrogative referendum is the constitutional referendum, although there have only been four of these (2001, 2005, 2016, and 2020). Unlike abrogative referendums, before constitutional changes may be put to a referendum, votes must first be held in the Chamber of Deputies (la Camera dei deputati) and the Senate of the Republic (il Senato della Repubblica). In the 2020 Constitutional Referendum, 69.9% of Italians voted to reduce the number of Italian parliamentarians – from 630 to 400 members in the Chamber of Deputies and from 315 to 200 members in the Senate.

Christopher Portante

Christopher Portante has served on the bench of the Delaware Justice of the Peace Court in New Castle County since 2013. His ancestors came to the United States from Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Calabria, and Lazio.

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