Israel’s voting system needs urgent reform

April 6, 2021 by David Singer
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A million or more Israelis did not vote in each of the four indecisive elections held in the last two years – costing Israel an estimated $4.24 billion – whilst causing political upheaval and electoral instability as a result.

The Central Elections Committee (CEC) sets out how Israel’s electoral system works:

“Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation. In other words, the number of seats that each list receives in the Knesset – the House of Representatives – is proportional to the number of votes it received…
the only limitation placed on a list which participated in the elections that can keep it from being elected is that it must pass the qualifying threshold, which is currently 3.25%.”

The CEC explains the historical background for this unique voting system:

“The State of Israel inherited the rigid system of proportional representation from the political system of the yishuv (the organized Jewish community) in mandatory times. This system was based on the zeal with which the various political parties – in which ideology and personalities played a major role – fought to preserve their independence. The justification given for the large number of parties resulting from the system was, that in a period in which major, far-reaching and rapid changes were still taking place in the population make-up as a result of immigration, it was important to enable maximal representation for various groups and opinions.”

What was appropriate during the Mandate for Palestine (1920 – 1948) is clearly not working now.

The following Table highlights why Israel’s electoral system needs urgent reform:

  1. The threshold of 3.25% has enabled 13 lists securing more than 144182 votes each to be allocated the 120 seats in this current election. If the threshold had been 5% – 221818 votes – 9 lists only would have passed the threshold and been allocated the 22 seats awarded to those 4 extra lists.
  2. Non-voter turnout this election will be less than the difference of 2,141,719 shown between Eligible Voters and Valid Votes Cast – since Eligible Voters living abroad or temporarily overseas on business or vacation cannot vote.
  3. Non-voters this election who also voted in March 2020 are considerably greater than the 116796 decrease in Valid Votes Cast in this election given:
  • Eligible Voters increased by 124819
  • The Arab Lists vote collapsed from 581507 votes in March 2020 to 379647 this election – a difference of 201860 votes

The large number of Israelis who failed to vote in the last four elections should sound alarm bells for Israel.

The threats to Israel’s very existence posed by Iran, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Hamas and Hezbollah  – and overtly hostile international organisations such as the United Nations, the United Nations Human Rights Council, UNESCO and the International Criminal Court – makes it essential that Israel has a politically-stable and unified Government not beholden to kingmakers from small parties who end up exercising inordinate power in deciding the format and composition of the next Government – including the allocation of ministerial portfolios.

Electoral reform could include:

  • Allowing absentee voting outside Israel
  • Raising the qualifying threshold from 3.25%
  • Making voting compulsory
  • Adopting school programs emphasising the importance of voting in Knesset elections

Israel’s election train needs to be righted before it completely runs off the rails.

David Singer is a Sydney lawyer and a foundation member of the International Analysts Network

Author’s note: The cartoon — commissioned exclusively for this article — is by Yaakov Kirschen aka “Dry Bones”- one of Israel’s foremost political and social commentators — whose cartoons have graced the columns of Israeli and international media publications for decades. His cartoons can be viewed at Drybonesblog

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