Elections for the Local Authority – Who, What, When, Where and How?

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During local political elections, Israelis suddenly express great interest in small, neighborhood matters. However, voter turnout in municipal elections is astonishingly low. This article by Dr. Dana Blander, which was originally published in Hebrew in IDI's online journal Parliament, examines the issue of voter participation, explores the possible reasons for low voter turnout, and proposes ways to increase citizen participation in local politics.

Every five years, we witness an awakening in local politics. Local newspapers are full of propaganda, billboards are covered with photographs of the candidates running for office, and the public suddenly expresses great interest in matters such as the opening hours of the community center and the city's image. Nonetheless, there is a sense that this political performance has no audience. Other than a handful of activists and of the numerous candidates, the vast majority of residents, particularly in the larger cities, are not interested in municipal elections, and only a small percentage actually exercises the right to vote on Election Day. In the most recent elections held in 2003, the voter turnout in municipal elections was less than 50%. Half of the public did not bother to exercise the democratic right to elect the policy makers, whose decisions directly affect day-to-day life.

This article seeks to examine the issue of participation in municipal elections, to discuss possible reasons for the low voter turnout, and to propose ways of increasing participation in local politics.

In the past, local elections were held in conjunction with national elections, and the national and the local electoral systems were similar: a representational system in which lists were voted for in proportional elections (Local Authorities [Elections] Law, 5725-1965). In 1975, the municipal electoral system underwent major reform (Local Authorities [Election and Tenure of Head and Deputy Heads] 5735-1975). According to the new system, local elections are held every five years, separately from national elections. In 1978, the new system in which voters cast a double ballot and were able to vote for both a candidate for mayor and for a party list on the city council was implemented for the first time. In addition, it established that in order to be elected mayor, a candidate must win at least 40% of the votes. In the event that none of the candidates receive enough votes, a runoff between the two front-running candidates is held two weeks later, and the winner of the majority of votes is elected (for a comprehensive review of election laws, campaign publicity, campaign financing and the right to vote and be elected, see Shapira, 2005).

This reform aimed to increase the independence of local politics and to stabilize the local authorities. The separation of local and national elections has clearly differentiated the two political systems, as well as the issues of local and national interest. This has alloweded the local parties to become stronger and has also led the proliferation of independent lists and candidates over the past few years.

The new system has also affected voting patterns and has led to the new phenomenon of split ballots. Since 1978, there has been a constant rise in the number of voters who split their vote between the mayor and the city council by voting for a certain candidate for mayor without voting for his or her party for city council. A similar development at the national level followed the adoption of direct elections for prime minister. The tendency to split one's ballot may be attributed to the weakening of the major political parties with whom voters no longer identify.

The double ballot has both positive and negative implications:

  • The double ballot limits the mayor's power by granting both the mayor and the city council a form of veto. On the one hand, this has a negative effect because the mayor is more dependent on a coalition and may find it difficult to operate in the absence of broad party support. On the other hand, by restricting his or her power, the level of oversight and supervision of the mayor is increased. In extreme instances, an "opposing council" may be formed, in which case the mayor will not have a majority on the city council. Such a situation may paralyze the local authority because the mayor will find it very difficult to act without the council's support.
  • The possibility of a split ballot encourages local "meteors", that is, independent candidates whose goal is, first and foremost, to be elected mayor even without party support because they believe that they will succeed in creating a coalition based on the mandate that they receive from the community residents, and on their own charisma. However, such "meteors" are liable to find that being elected is not the same as governing, and in the absence of a majority for their list in a coalition, they are liable to have a very difficult time once in office.
  • The split ballot increases the chances of smaller parties winning a seat on city council, to the extent that it becomes so divided that its ability to create a stable coalition is limited. Moreover, a split ballot negatively impacts the financial stability of the authority (Ben Bassat and Dahan, 2008A).

After thirty years, an evaluation of the new system demonstrates that, on the local level, direct mayoral elections contributes to the stability of local government although ballot splitting and the proliferation of smaller parties on the city councils restricts the mayors' ability to govern. This ability is further curbed by the intervention of the Ministry of Interior.

Voter turnout in local authority elections is decreasing (see graph 1) and is much lower than in national elections (see chart 1). Low turnout rates in local elections are not unique to Israel. In Britain, for example, the average voter turnout rate from 1973 to 2004 was only 38%, which was much lower than the average voter turnout rate for national elections during the same period (71%). In contrast, in Japan, the voter turnout rate for local elections is higher than the rate for national elections. In Denmark and France, the turnout rate for local elections is approximately 70% (Rallings & Thrasher, 2007: 334).

Graph 1 Voter Turnout Rate in Local Elections in Israel 1950 – 2003

Graph 1 Voter Turnout Rate in Local Elections in Israel 1950 – 2003

The most worrisome finding in figure 1 is the continual drop in voter participation – from close to 80% in 1950 to less than 50% in 2003. This decline may have one of several explanations:

  • General decline in voting rates – in Israel, as well as in many other democratic countries, the decline in voter turnout is part of a general trend of reduced interest in politics. This tendency is also expressed in the sharp decline in voter turnout in national elections in Israel (see chart 1).
  • Holding local elections and national elections on different dates – the separation of local and national elections has led to some positive consequences, such as an increase in local authority and a growing interest in local affairs. However, in terms of voter turnout, it has had a negative effect. During the years in which national elections were held together with local elections (1950-1973), the average voter turnout rate for local elections was 79%, whereas, during the period of 1978-2003, the average voter turnout rate was only 57% - a drop of 22%.
  • Precedence of national affairs over local affairs – the Israeli voter, like the national government, places foreign affairs and security issues at the top of the agenda. Therefore, he or she considers the issues dealt with by the local government as being trivial, and is, therefore, often indifferent to them.
  • Low voter turnout in local elections in the large municipalities – the percentage of voter participation decreases in correlation to the size of the municipality because the citizens feel further removed from the elected public officials and less able to affect municipal activities in their communities. For example, in the most recent elections, only 29% of the residents of Tel Aviv voted as compared with close to 80% in communities with populations of less than 3,400 individuals (Ben Bassat and Dahan 2008A: 37).
  • Technical factors – the revocation of the public holiday status of the local election day in 1993 may also constitute a reason for the decline in voter turnout rates because of the unwillingness of the residents to take time off to vote.

Chart 1: Voting Rates in Municipal and Knesset Elections
1950–2003 (1949–2006)

Election Year* Municipal
1950 (1949) 79.6 86.9
1955 78.6 82.8
1959 79 81.6
1965 82.7 83
1969 79 81.7
1973 73 78.6
1978 (1981) 57.3 79.2
1983 (1984) 59.2 78.8
1989 (1988) 59.5 79.6
1993 (1992) 56.3 77.4
1998 (1996) 57.4 78.7
2003 49.3 67.8
2008 (2006) ? 63.5

Source: Central Bureau of Statistics and the Knesset website.

* If the year of the Knesset elections was different than the year of the municipal elections, the year of the municipal elections appears in parentheses.

Although overall voter turnout in local elections is low, it is not uniformly low in every region. In the smaller districts, Arab communities and religious communities, the voter turnout rate for local elections is higher than the national average. There are certain factors that affect voting patterns in local elections:

  • Size of the municipality –The larger the municipality, the smaller the voter turnout. An examination of voter turnout rates in the large cities shows that in the 2003 elections, voter turnout in Tel Aviv was a mere 28% and 38% in Jerusalem, compared to a national average of 49%. In contrast, in the small Jewish municipalities (less than 10,000 residents), the voter turnout rates in the 2003 elections ranged from between 65-70%.
  • Nationality – In Arab and Druze communities, voter turnout rates for local elections were particularly high – almost twice as high as in Jewish communities.  In the majority of Arab communities, irrespective of size, voter turnout exceeded 80%, and, in fact, every community that had a voter participation rate exceeding 90% was Arab. The key factor in the high turnout rate among Arabs and Druze in municipal elections (compared to a relatively low turnout among Arabs and Druze in national elections) is that local politics are part of Arab and Druze clannish society. According to a study conducted by Ben Bassat and Dahan (2008B), the clan is a group with an independent social identity, which determines the political behavior of its members. Almost 90% of the parties in Arab localities are affiliated with a clan, which explains the high rates of participation. Another theory, which has yet to be proven,  that may explain the high voter turnout among Druze and Arabs in local elections is that these communities feel that the local government is the political forum in which they are able to make a difference, as opposed to the national arena. Yet another explanation for the high voter turnout in local elections among Arab and Druze populations may be an expectation of material gain, such as tax benefits or political appointments, in return for their support, although supervision by the Ministry of Interior and the law that prohibits nepotism reduces the possibilities for economic benefits in return for electoral support.
  • Religion – turnout is particularly low among secular voters. The best example is Jerusalem where, in the most recent elections, the voter turnout rate in secular neighborhoods was lower than the general average (38%). In ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, on the other hand, 85% voted for the city council and 65% for mayor. These high percentages stem from the ability to mobilize the ultra-Orthodox and the religious sectors, and, especially in areas where they are a minority, from the religious voters' sense that every vote counts and may determine whether they will have representatives on the city council to protect their interests (Tessler, 2005). Nevertheless, in municipalities with a majority of ultra-Orthodox residents (Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit, and Elad), the voter turnout rate in local elections is similar to the rate in other Jewish localities (Ben Bassat and Dahan, 2008B).

One would think that a rational voter would prefer to invest time and energy in local elections in which each vote carries more weight, it is easier to personally get to know the candidates, and the outcome is of greater interest because it has a greater effect on daily life. Why, then, do so few people exercise their right to vote?

  • Sense of Impact – Residents of the municipalities are aware of the limits of their power  and, therefore, choose not to invest their energy in local elections. It is also possible that the differences between the various candidates' platforms are so minor that it does not seem to matter who is elected.
  • Lack of Competition – The degree of political competition, that is, how "close", the race is, affects the rate of voter participation in local elections (Ben Bassat and Dahan, 2008B). The closer the race, the higher the turnout, especially where the number of voters is small and the outcome is likely to be a question of just a few votes. Thus, in municipalities in which only a single candidate is running, or where the outcome seems assured in advance (for example, where a dynamic mayor is already in office), voter turnout is particularly low.
  • Lack of Trust and Corruption – Local government is perceived by many residents as a breeding ground for corruption because of the close contact between decision makers and those who are affected by their policies. The inefficient administration of the municipalities, combined with the questionable appointments to municipal positions in some localities that were criticized in the State Comptroller's reports, contribute to a negative image and to a decline in the level of trust that the public has in these types of local authorities. This, in turn, contributes to a decline in voter participation, especially when concerns of fraud (vote buying, promises of jobs) during municipal elections are raised, as is often the case. Furthermore, the State Comptroller's 1995 Report concerning the municipalities stated that mayors used municipal funds to finance their campaigns (see Friedberg, 2005).
  • Lack of Transparency, Accountability and Initiatives for Civic Involvement – Although there is great potential for a high level of democratic participation in local government because of the small size of its population and the proximity between the constituents and those they elect, it remains detached from the populace and exercises low levels of transparency, accountability and participation. Those elected do not view their constituents as partners in the administration of the municipalities and tend to prefer to work with the bureaucracy and with limited circles of associates. Moreover, as a result of the absence of any decentralization from the national level of government to the local level of government, there is no decentralization of powers to the lower levels of the municipalities, such as to neighborhoods and communities (Hasson, 2006:17-19). Although local leaders publicly declare their support of the residents' participation in the local decision making process, the residents are apathetic and uninvolved because they do not believe that they have the power to influence what goes on in the municipalities (Yishai, 2005).

We can, therefore, conclude that the level of participation in local elections reflects a general lack of involvement on the part of the residents. The trends of civic involvement and independent activity by citizens at the municipal level are essential for consolidating urban citizenship, and this is likely to manifest itself in the form of high voter turnout as well.

It is also possible to develop technical methods for encouraging voting in local elections. Granting a municipal property tax break and declaring a public holiday on Election Day are two examples, but because these measures entail considerable budgetary costs, it is unreasonable to adopt them. Another method that is popular in certain countries is balloting by mail, which facilitates the participation of the citizens. The fact that the size of the municipality is inversely proportional to voter turnout (the smaller the community, the greater the turnout) indicates that there is may be another possible solution: changing the electoral system for city councils by inserting a personal-regional element in the proportional system, primarily in the large municipalities (according to municipal regions or neighborhoods) – where the election of one or more representatives for each region would increase the voter's sense of influence and increase his willingness to vote.

Local democracy is essential to national democracy.  The local arena is important because it shapes the physical, educational and cultural environment in which we live. Participatory, democratic experience at the local level also fosters national democratic capabilities. 

* Author's Note: My thanks to Dr. Momi Dahan for his comments. Responsibility for the content of this article is my own. 

Works Cited

Ben Bassat, Avi, and Momi Dahan, 2008A.  The Crisis in the Local Authorities: Efficiency vs. Representation, Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, the 16th Annual Caesarea Economic Policy Planning Forum.

Ben Bassat, Avi, and Momi Dahan, 2008B.  Social Identity and Local Authority Elections, Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, (unpublished).

Hasson, Shlomo, 2006.  The Local Democracy Deficit: Democracy for Appearances' Sake?  Position Paper No. 3, the Second Annual Local Government Conference, The Harold Hartog School of Government and Policy, Tel Aviv University: 15-27.

Rallings, Colin and Michael Thrasher, 2007. 'The Turnout "Gap" and the Costs of Voting: A Comparison of Participation at the 2001 General and 2002 Local Elections in England', Public Choice, 131: 333–344.

Shapira, Ron, 2005. "Elections for Local Government: Stabilization of the System and a Review of Legal Issues Regarding the Elections for Local Government", State and Society, 5 (1): 1,023- 1,060.

Tessler, Riki, 2005. "The Gush Emuni Bloc in Municipal Elections 2003: Formation, Penetration and Effect", State and Society, 5 (1): 1,147-1,182.

Yishai, Yael, 2005. "Urban Citizenship in Israel: Between Involvement and Partnership", State and Society, 5 (1): 985-1,003.

Friedberg, Asher, 2005. "Financing in Local Authority Elections in Israel in the View of Public Inquiry", State and Society, 5 (1): 1,005 – 1,022.