The issue of district elections involves many options, each of which has its good points, bad points, and implications for the allocation of political power. The following article, which includes a comparative international perspective, surveys the models of district elections that could be adopted in Israel, and explores the pros and cons of each.
The idea of changing the Israeli electoral system keeps returning to the public agenda. Ever since its founding, and especially against the background of the Law for the Direct Election of the Prime Minister (which was in force from 1996 to 2003), the Israel Democracy Institute has been inviting proposals for reform of the electoral system. In April 2008, four Knesset members, representing Kadima, Labor-Meimad, and the Likud, submitted a bill to alter the system. It provided that half the members of the Knesset be elected in 60 constituencies: “Each constituency will be allotted one seat when Knesset seats are distributed. … In each district, the candidate who won the largest number of votes will be awarded the seat.”
Under the proposed bill, the other half of the Knesset would be elected in a nationwide proportional system similar to that employed today. Two months after the bill was submitted, the Israel Democracy Institute hosted a roundtable to discuss it, with the participation of two of its sponsors—the then-chair of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, MK Menahem Ben-Sasson, and MK Ofir Paz Pines—as well as supporters and opponents of the idea, drawn from Knesset members and academics, some of them affiliated with the Institute and some from outside it. The symposium, “Changing the Electoral System: Introducing a District Dimension,” dealt with the reform proposal, including its implications, advantages, and drawbacks.
The issue of district elections involves many options, each of which has its good points, bad points, and implications for the allocation of political power. The present article offers a broad survey of the various models of district elections (that is, in constituencies), including the international aspect, the arguments pro and con, and especially the situation in Israel and the proposals to adopt one of these models.
It is conventional to understand “district elections” as referring to a geographic division of a country into smaller units for the purpose of elections. Voters go to the polls in their designated wards in the district to which they are assigned. When Election Day is over the votes in this district are counted. Candidates compete for the support of the voters in their district; whoever receives the required number of votes (which depends on the system and country) becomes that district’s representative in the legislature.
Some may assert that this is a trivial matter of administrative divisions and of secondary importance in the overall system of government. In fact, the division into districts is crucial, especially with regard to the proportionality of the results. Some scholars see the manner of drawing district boundaries as the most important parameter of an electoral system—even more significant than the formula for allotting seats in the legislature (Cox 1997; Lijphart 1994; Taagepera and Shugart 1989).
In general, any discussion of electoral districts must relate to three key issues:
- How many constituencies will there be? As stated, the division of the country into electoral districts is a geographical demarcation, with the vote total in each district determining the results. The number of districts may fall anywhere on an axis between a single district (all candidates are elected “at large” in one district), and as many districts as there are seats in the legislature (that is, one representative per district). For example, in the general elections in Great Britain in May 2005, 646 constituencies returned 646 members to the House of Commons. In Israel, at the opposite extreme, the entire country is a single electoral district that returns 120 representatives. Other countries are located somewhere between these two poles when it comes to electoral districts.
- How many representatives are returned by each district? The second question has to do with the number of representatives that each district sends to legislature. In the literature this is designated the “district magnitude” (M). With regard to the district magnitude (which depends on how the districts are drawn), there is a continuous axis: at one end are countries with no districts, in which all the legislators are chosen on a nationwide basis; in this case, the district magnitude may exceed 100 (in Israel it is 120). At the other extreme are countries where each legislator represents his or her own district and the district magnitude equals 1 (M=1), as in the United States, Great Britain and Canada.
- Are there tiers? Many countries go beyond this primary division into districts and try to guarantee proportionality in the results by providing compensation at the nationwide level to parties that came up short in the allocation of seats by districts. In addition to the division into electoral districts, there are also super-districts or tiers, in which seats in the legislature are allotted to candidates whose parties are underrepresented by the results in the districts (the most familiar examples of this system are Sweden and Denmark).
These three issues are important considerations for the district system. The first two, which refer to the number and size of the districts, are interlinked. The model in which there are as many constituencies as there are legislators is also known as the single-member district model, with one representative for each district (M=1). If the number of districts is less than the number of members of the legislature, we have multi-member districts. Even a country without electoral districts can be seen as having a single multi-member district (in which the number of representatives is equal to the total number of legislators). In several countries, some legislators are elected in single-member districts and others in multi-member districts; these are known as “mixed systems.” Below we will look at several examples to illustrate the differences among the various models for district elections.
Almost every country is divided into electoral districts. Even Luxemburg, with fewer than half a million residents, is divided into four constituencies.The Southern District elects 23 representatives, the Central District 21, the Northern District 9, and the Eastern District 6 (a total of 60 seats in Parliament), proportional to the population of each district. There are only five exceptions to this rule. For us, of course, Israel is the most familiar example of a country with no districts, so that all members of the legislature are elected on a nationwide basis. In Israel, every list that runs in the elections is entitled to a number of seats in the Knesset proportional to its nationwide strength, on condition that it passes the 2% threshold. The other four countries that employ this system are the Netherlands, Slovakia, South Africa, and, most recently, Russia: starting in 2007, all 450 members of the Duma are elected on a nationwide proportional basis.
Table 1 presents some of the leading democracies and how they are divided into electoral districts, with reference to the three issues mentioned above. The first group consists of countries that are divided into single-member districts and use the plurality or first-past-the-post system to determine the winner. In this model, the country is divided into the same number of districts as there are seats in the legislature. In each district, the candidate who wins the largest number of votes wins the seat in the legislature.
The second group consists of various countries with multi-member districts. Here the differences among the countries are more pronounced and there is a larger range of options. Chile has 60 constituencies, each of which returns two members to the Chamber of Deputies (a total of 120). Ireland is divided into 42 districts, each of which sends between 3 and 5 representatives to the 166-member in the Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann), as a function of the number of eligible voters in each constituency. In Switzerland, the 200 members of the National Council are elected in the 26 cantons, and the district magnitude is determined by the population of each canton: Zurich, the largest, elects 34 representatives; the seven smallest cantons have only a single representative each. Sweden is an example of a country with multi-member districts and an upper tier. It elects 310 of the 349 members of Riksdag in 26 multi-member districts (the district magnitudes range from 2 to 34); the remaining 39 are selected nationwide to compensate parties whose seats in the first tier under-represent their proportion of the national vote, on condition that they reach the threshold of 4%.
The third group comprises countries with mixed systems. Here there is a division on two separate levels: one to elect individual candidates in multi-member districts, and the other to vote for a party in multi-member districts (or nationwide). In Germany, the best-known example, 299 members of the Bundestag are elected in multi-member districts, with the balance elected in the 16 Länder (states), each with its own district magnitude. New Zealand, too, which modified its electoral system in 1992, employs a mixed system similar to Germany’s. Today, 70 members of its 122-member Parliament are elected in single-member districts, and 52 on a nationwide basis by proportional representation.
Table 1: A Comparative Look at Legislative Districts
|Country||Population Size||Number of Electoral Districts||District Magnitude (M)||Upper Tier (Compensatory Seats)|
|1. Single-Member Districts (or SMD)|
|2. Multi-Member Districts
|3. Mixed Systems|
Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union, http://www.ipu.org/english/home.htm
Even though it is somewhat difficult to detach the question of electoral districts from other aspects of the electoral system, we now move on to arguments for and against district elections.
Each type of constituency system has its advantages and disadvantages. The debate between those who favor multi-member districts and those who prefer single-mmber districts to some extent overlaps that between plurality systems (characteristic of single-member districts) and proportional systems (typical of multi-member districts). We now turn to the main arguments for and against these two different systems.
Advocates of single-member districts believe that this model promotes the emergence of a two-party system (Blais and Massicotte 2001; Duverger 1959), because there is only one winning candidate in each district. In single-member districts, both voters and candidates tend to affiliate with one of the two main parties, because this gives them a much better chance of winning the race. When all the votes are counted, the two major parties together win more than 90% of the seats in the legislature; in fact, one of them usually wields an absolute majority. This victory gives it the right to form a government without having to depend on coalition partners. The champions of the single-member district system see a government based on a single party as more stable and believe that a stable government is conducive to political stability.
Another argument in favor of single- member districts is that this mode encourages a closer link between voters and their elected representatives, and maximum allegiance, commitment, and accountability on the part of the parliamentarian vis-à-vis their constituents. This link grows weaker when the number of representatives in a district increases and is negligible when there are no districts at all.
Critics of the single-member system emphasize two inherent disadvantages. The first involves the huge potential discrepancy between the results at the district level and those at the national level. Theoretically, at least, one can imagine a situation in which one party wins all of the single-member districts (and thus 100% of the seats in the legislature) with the support of only 40% of the voters in each district. In other words, this system offers a significant leg up to the largest party and reduces the chances of small and mid-size parties to win any seats in the legislature (unless a particular minority is concentrated in a single district). The other disadvantage has to do with the method of drawing the geographical boundaries of the single-member districts. Because the country has to be divided so that there will be approximately the same number of voters in each district, there are fixed dates when redistricting (required by population growth and mobility) takes place. Redistricting triggers political debates and give rise to extensive criticism, because it may be subject to manipulation aimed at achieving certain electoral outcomes (for more on this, see Diskin and Diskin 1988, 19–31). By contrast, multi-member districts do not have to be of equal magnitude, because the number of representatives returned by each does not have to be identical. In countries that employ the multi-member system, district boundaries do not have to be redrawn. Instead, the number of seats to which each district is entitled is determined at regular intervals as a function of the number of residents or eligible voters.
Those who favor multi-member districts argue that this method guarantees representation to medium-sized and small parties and, consequently, to minorities, women, and social sectors. The larger the number of representatives returned by a district, the greater the expression of the principles of representation and fairness in the membership of the legislature. This is because the obstacle of the number of votes required to win a seat (found in single-member districts) is decreased as the number of representatives elected by a district increases. For example, in a district that returns 10 parliamentarians, a list will be represented in the legislature if it receives more than 9% of the votes; in a district with four seats, a list has to win at least 20% of the votes to be represented.
Those who argue against multi-member districts emphasize the large number of parties that may win seats in the legislature, making coalition governments inevitable. They note further the problems of governance that this entails, so that multi-member districts undermine political stability. Nevertheless, there are many examples that contradict this argument; coalition governments, too, can be stable (Laver and Schofield, 1990).
The choice between multi-member districts and single-member districts pits different and sometimes competing principles. Anyone who would like to modify the electoral system must closely examine the implications of each of these methods. But is a constituency system really needed in Israel? First I would like to survey the disadvantages of the nationwide system currently in force and then proceed to possible alternatives.
Those who advocate the adoption of a district system generally focus on six essential problems of the single constituency model currently followed in Israel and on proposals to resolve them:
- The concentration of political power: The system of government in Israel is highly centralized. The contributing factors include the nationwide proportional system and the rigidity of party lists, in which each party offers a national slate of candidates that cannot be modified by voters, with no flexibility or division into districts. The result is preference for national politics over regional voices and local interests.
- The lack of any bond between voters and representative: Knesset members have no commitment to any particular district, but only to supporters scattered throughout the country (Diskin and Diskin 1988). For the critics of the nationwide system, this all but rules out any personal commitment by parliamentarians to their voters. The introduction of districts could strengthen local party branches and establish a link between voters and their representatives without harming the principle of proportionality.
- The under-representation of the periphery: The fact that all members of Knesset are elected on nationwide party lists robs the geographic periphery of fair representation. The result is that its interests do not receive a fair hearing and its residents do not feel they are partners in what is done at the national level.
- An erosion of trust in elected representatives: Public trust in Knesset members in particular and in the institutions of government in general has been declining steadily over the last decade (for more on this, see Arian et al. 2008). This erosion stems in large measure from the fact that Knesset members are not motivated by any strong bond to the preferences of the people they are supposed to represent and feel no commitment to them. The adoption of a district system might help revive such ties, which have weakened over the years.
- A decline in voter turnout: In the first decades after independence, Israel had a very high voter turnout in general elections. A significant decline has been noted since the start of the new century, in the wake of frequent early elections. It is likely that voter turnout would increase were citizens to feel that political involvement on the local and district level had a direct influence on the national level.
- The number of parties: There are too many political parties in Israel. Adopting the constituency system and instituting appropriate thresholds should lead to a reduction in the number of parties and thus augment the stability of the government and political system.
The introduction of constituencies might not solve all of the problems listed above, but it could reduce them. But the thorny question remains: how many districts, and how many representatives from each? The answer to this is far from simple, and here too there are ideas in every direction. Those who favor electoral districts must make sure their solution respects the following principles:
- Number of districts: Every discussion of reforming the system of Knesset elections must begin with the number of districts: Should Israel be divided into 12, 17, 60, or 120 constituencies? The principle here is that the fewer districts there are, the easier it is to prevent radical distortions in the results and preserve a reasonable correlation between voters’ preferences and the composition of the Knesset. The more districts there are, the greater the possible deviation from proportionality. So an optimum division must do the least possible harm to the correlation between the vote totals for each party and the number of Knesset seats it wins.
- District boundaries: As noted, the larger the number of constituencies, the more difficult it is to come up with a fair geographic division into districts (and as stated, in many countries redistricting is subject to gross manipulation). There are also intermediate possibilities, such as the stipulation that district borders coincide with existing territorial divisions, like Interior Ministry districts or the wards defined by the Central Elections Committee. That would make it possible to avoid the debate that rages about the difficulty of demarcating the districts.
- The number of Knesset members elected by each district: The number of legislators returned by each district is another controversial matter. As stated, international experience shows that the larger the constituency, that is, the more representatives it has in the legislature, the easier it is to guarantee proportional results (and representation for minorities, women, etc.). With smaller districts, there is a greater chance for wide distortions in representation, because of the higher bar that this method sets for mid-sized and small parties. Several solutions for this are presented in Table 2 below, which offers four possible district magnitude options, on the basis of a division of the country into 12 electoral districts (for other alternatives, see Arian and Amir, 1997).
- A national pool for compensation: Another principle that requires thought is the number of nationwide seats to be awarded as compensation to the mid-sized and small parties in order to remedy the distortions (if any) in the outcome of the constituency-level elections. Should half the seats, one-third, or one-quarter be elected nationwide, with the rest (half, two-thirds, or three-quarters) elected in districts?
- The principles of representation: Finally, we must stress that in a deeply divided society like Israel’s, districts that are too small might diminish the representations of social sectors, particularly religious groups and minorities. Because of this, the number of districts and the number of representatives returned by each must guarantee that the election results do not substantially reduce the representation of small factions and diverse opinions. If this is not the case, the introduction of constituencies will not win the required legitimacy and support.
Everything that has been said thus far points to the breadth and depth of the issues that must be considered before any decision is made about changing the electoral system in general or adopting a constituency system in particular. Every modification will have far-reaching implications. But the key question remains: What are we trying to achieve?
Table 2: Division of the Country into Constituencies based on Existing Wards and Allocation of Knesset Seats to Each
|Electoral District||No. of citizens with right to vote*||No. of Seats (of 120)||No. of Seats (of 90)||
No. of Seats
No. of Seats
|Dan - North||347,769||8||6||6||4|
|Dan - South||345,686||8||6||5||4|
*Number of eligible voters, by Central Elections Committee wards, 2006
Blais Andre and Louise Massicotte, 2002. ‘Electoral Systems’, in Lawrence LeDuc et. al., Comparing Democracies 2: New Challenges in the Study of Elections and Voting, London: Sage Publications: 40–69.
Cox, Gary W., 1997. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Duverger, Maurice, 1959. Political Parties, their Organization and Activity in the Modern State², London: Methuen.
Lijphart, Arend, 1994. Electoral Systems and Party Systems: A Study of Twenty-Seven Democracies, 1945–1990, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taagepera, Rein, and Matthew S. Shugart, 1989. Seats and Votes: The Effects and Determinants of Electoral Systems, New Haven: Yale University Press.