Brushing Off the Dust

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Although the State of Israel has efficient and proper election processes that meet rigorous standards, the system still has a few anachronistic elements. In this article, written before the elections for the 19th Knesset, IDI researchers Ofer Kenig and Nir Atmor focus on five elements that they believe are in dire need of change.

The Date of Election Day

Israel's Basic Law: the Knesset, which was enacted in 1958, sets a fixed time for the Knesset elections. According to Section 9 of the law, "the elections to the Knesset shall take place on the third Tuesday of the month of Heshvan." The last time Knesset elections were conducted at their appropriate time, however, was over 20 years ago, in 1988. Moreover, there have only been three other occasions since the founding of the State when the Knesset elections have indeed taken place on the date specified by the law: in 1959, 1965, and 1969. In other words, in most cases, the Knesset elections are held on a date other than the date stipulated by law. This makes the stipulation seem a bit ludicrous.

Setting the Hebrew month of Heshvan as the fixed time for Knesset elections is anachronistic. Originally, the legislator chose this month because it was a convenient time in terms of the Jewish calendar, coming after the High Holidays and Sukkot. Heshvan was further selected because it is characterized by mild weather conditions, which was essential at a time when people stood in line for hours in the hot sun waiting to vote. Today, however, it seems that this consideration is no longer relevant. In truth, in a parliamentary system, there is no point in having a fixed date for elections, since the legislature may be dissolved before it completes its term. Therefore, there is no reason why the rule should not be that the date of the elections will be four years after the date of the last elections. A suggestion of this nature was included in the Israel Democracy Institute's draft of its Constitution by Consensus: "The term of the Knesset shall be four years from the day of its election; the date for elections shall be on the last Tuesday prior to completing the four years."

This type of change would have two additional benefits: Firstly, it would put an end to the existing situation, in which a Knesset term can last almost five years. The 19th Knesset, for example, will begin its term at the start of 2013 and will be able to serve until October 2017, as that is when the third Tuesday of the month of Heshvan will be once four years have elapsed after the January 2013 elections. Secondly, this change will neutralize the sense of lack of stability that is elicited by situations in which early elections are called—feelings that emerge even when the Knesset has already served a four year term (or longer).

The Ballot

The ballots that Israeli citizens insert into ballot boxes look like they belong to a different era. Firstly, in the 21st century, it is unclear why it is still necessary for these slips of paper to include "ballot letters" representing the name of the party and why it is necessary to conduct the strange ritual in which those letters are allocated to the different parties. Would it not be sufficient to print the name of the party on the ballots? Admittedly, there are some cases in which there is a similarity between the name of the party and the letters that represent it; for example, the "shin-samech" that represents Shas, stands for "shomrei Sfarad" (guardians of the Sephardic Torah), while the letters "mem-resh-tzadi" that represent Meretz, which means "vigor" in Hebrew, recall the names of two of the three parties that merged to form that party (Mapam and Ratz). These cases, however, are the exceptions. What practical reason is there to reserve the letters alef-mem-taf for the Labor party (these letters are pronounced in Hebrew as "emet," which means "truth") or to save the letters mem-chet-lamed (pronounced "machal" in Hebrew,) for the Likud? Who understands the connection between kaf-nun (pronounced "ken" in Hebrew, which is the word for "yes") and the Kadima party, or between pe-he (pronounced "poh" in Hebrew, meaning "here") and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party? Similarly, we cautiously venture that not many citizens were waiting with bated breath to find out which letters would be allocated to Tzipi Livni's new Hatnua party.

Secondly, in contrast to the unnecessary information provided by the letters on the ballots, Israeli ballots have an extreme lack of information regarding the names of the candidates on the party list. It is entirely unclear why the ballots hide such critical information from the voters, and in this respect, Israel is a notable exception among established democracies. Printing the names of candidates clearly on the ballots would have obvious benefits (even if there is no possibility of indicating preferred candidates, which is an option that is offered to voters in some countries). Including names would strengthen the transparency of the electoral process, and present voters with greater information as they actualize one of their most important civic duties. It would strengthen ties between voters and the candidates, in an age when the public traditionally distances itself from anything that is related to politics. Although it is not necessary to print the names of all the candidates on the party's list on the ballot, even a minor change that would require the names of the top 10 candidates to appear on the ballot could incentivize voters to participate in the elections and could assist them in their process of decision making when they determine who will get their vote. A bill in this spirit ("printing the list of candidates on the ballots") was submitted to the Knesset by six Knesset members in July, 2011, but has not yet come up for its preliminary reading. As explained in the explanatory information of the bill, this seemingly technical change would have significant implications.

The Time of Voting (Early Voting)

The current Knesset Elections Law includes the following provision that enables early voting: voting on Israeli ships will take place on the twelfth day before the elections. It is not clear why other citizens who cannot participate in the elections for other reasons are not able to vote in advance. For example, if people are travelling abroad on Election Day or are undergoing surgery that has been scheduled in advance, why shouldn't they be able to exercise their democratic right to vote before their trip or their surgery?

One solution that provides a response to such situations is early voting by mail. This method is customary in many countries; for example, in Finland, early voting begins 11 days before the elections and ends five days before the elections. Opponents of such mechanisms claim that early voting is dangerous. They most often cite concerns that citizens who have been living abroad for a long time will vote by mail or that voters will vote using a false identity. In order to assuage such concerns, it is possible to determine that early voting will take place only in Israeli post offices and to enact very strict requirements for establishing the voter's identity. The downward trend in voting rates in Israel is reason enough to initiate such a reform.

Location of Voting

Today, Israeli citizens are entitled to vote only in the polling station where they are registered, as determined by their address in the population registry prior to the closing of the voter registry. For this reason, on Election Day, many citizens who wish to participate in the elections but are temporarily living far away from their permanent address—especially students—must travel to the place where they are registered to vote. Although the State subsidizes public transportation on Election Day so as to enable all citizens to exercise their right to vote, many people do not trouble themselves to travel far in order to do so. Indeed, why should a student who is studying in Tel Aviv, but is still registered in the city in which s/he grew up, whether it's Eilat or Tzfat, have to travel for hours in order to exercise a democratic right that entails only a few minutes of civic responsibility?

In the technological and electronic era, the restriction of voting to a specific location is a bit anachronistic. In the past, when there were technological limitations, the requirement that voting take place only at the station corresponding to the voter's address in the population registry was perfectly reasonable, since the fear of fraud was great. Today, however, this fear is no longer relevant, since it is possible to crosscheck voter information anywhere in the country merely with the push of a button. Correcting this old-fashioned aspect of the Election Law would make the process of voting more accessible and is consistent with the important goal of encouraging higher voter turnout in Knesset elections.

Election Propaganda on Television

Election propaganda has been broadcast on Israeli television since the elections for the seventh Knesset in 1969, subject to the Elections (Modes of Propaganda) Law, 5719–1959, which allocates broadcasting time to television channels (the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Second Television Authority). Ever since election commercials first appeared as a part of a campaign for Knesset elections, emphasis has been put on the importance of these broadcasts; they have been praised for expanding the information about the parties that is available to voters as well as for shaping the political agenda. The Elections Propaganda Law, however, includes a few obsolete sections that require reform. Indeed, in the past few years, some of these sections have already been updated. For example, before the elections of 2009, it was decided that election commercials would be broadcast on Israel's commercial channels during non-prime hours, contrary to the practice in previous elections. Similarly, it was decided to shorten the period of time in which election propaganda is broadcast on television from three weeks to two weeks.

Nonetheless, in today's era of vast technological progress, when the electronic media—the Internet, mobile communication, and social networks—plays such a central role in society, it is doubtful whether election commercials on television are necessary; that is, it is not clear why in 2012, televised election propaganda is still subsidized with a great deal of public funding, even though public interest in the commercials that are being broadcast is so scant. It seems that a conceptual shift is necessary regarding the necessity of these broadcasts, and that it is time to do away with the public funding of such commercials. Those who wish to advertise on television will have to pay for it, just as they do when they advertise in the press or in electronic journalism. Many of us can indeed do without such advertisements.

Post script

In general, the voting process in Israel, as supervised by the Central Election Committee, is a reasonable procedure. The voting procedures in Israel are generally appropriate and the election results are announced within a reasonable amount of time. However, the time has come to shake off some old features of the process so as to be able to move forward and position Israel's procedures in line with similar processes in other countries. In this article, we have proposed several steps in this vein, which are moderate and measured. We deliberately refrained from proposing more ambitious amendments, such as computerizing the voting process (i.e., allowing electronic voting and voting by citizen who are abroad), since we believe that big changes start with small steps. 

Dr. Ofer Kenig is an IDI researcher who heads the Political Parties Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel.

Dr. Nir Atmor is an IDI researcher who is conducting research as part of the Electoral System Research Team of IDI's Forum for Political Reform in Israel.