Wasted Votes, the Electoral Threshold, and the Relationship between Them

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From a comparative perspective, the electoral threshold in Israel (3.25%) seems perfectly reasonable. In the vast majority of democracies, this figure ranges from 2% to 5%. Every percent plus or minus comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. When the threshold is higher, there is a greater danger that votes will go to waste. This is what just happened in Israel, where the lists that came up short of the threshold now find themselves out of the Knesset. But this is not predestined: whether parties clear the threshold or not, depends on their use of their political intelligence.

In the recent elections, the electoral threshold had a knockout effect: Two lists that were represented in the previous Knesset came very close, but ultimately fell short—Meretz and Balad. Since both belong to the anti-Netanyahu bloc (if we include Balad in this category), this means that many votes cast for the bloc were wasted-around 300,000 in total. The result is that although the vote counts for the two blocs were almost identical, the Netanyahu camp will have a clear majority of 64 seats in the new Knesset.

However, we must bear in mind, that the electoral threshold is an intrinsic feature of the proportional representation system. Even if the threshold is not defined by the law, in practice it derives from the number of seats in the parliament. In Israel this means 1120, or 0.83%. This was the situation in the first general election in Israel, in 1949. Lists that came very close but did not clear the hurdle included the “Working Bloc,” which missed by only a few hundred votes.

Of course one can debate the appropriate value for the electoral threshold. In Israel it was raised to 1% in advance of the elections in 1951, to 1.5% before the 1992 elections, to 2% ahead of the elections in 2006, and to the current value of 3.25% in 2015. From a comparative perspective, the electoral threshold in Israel is perfectly reasonable. In the vast majority of democracies, the figure ranges from 2% to 5%. Every percent higher or lower comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Too high a threshold is likely to eliminate the representation of small minority sectors; but one that is too low - encourages extreme political fragmentation, which has a negative effect on the parliament’s performance and stability and contributes to social "disintegration."

At the end of the day, as long as the electoral threshold is set at a reasonable level and known in advance, all the political actors as well as the voting public are aware of it and can be expected to conduct themselves accordingly; for example, by forming joint lists. (Here it is important to note that it is unacceptable to modify the threshold, like all the other rules of the political competition, shortly before an election, in order to serve specific political interests.) Parties that cannot adapt themselves to the reality of an electoral threshold must pay the price, as was the case for the New Right in 2019 and for Meretz and Balad this year. This holds for any electoral threshold. Just like last week and in April 2019, its value determined the outcome of Israeli elections in the past as well. The best-known example is 1992, when the threshold had just been raised to 1.5% (still very low). The rightwing Hatehiya list fell short (gaining only 1.2% of the votes), making it possible for Yitzhak Rabin and Labor to form a Government. The Oslo Accords followed, and Israel’s history took a different path. There were similar cases in the 1980s, when the threshold stood at only 1%.

It is true that a higher threshold increases the danger of wasted votes: lists that gain a substantial number of votes may still not make it into the parliament, as just happened in Israel. However, here too, it doesn’t have to be that way, and the outcome depends on the parties’ use of their political intelligence. Even though this year the percentage of wasted votes reached an all-time high (about 8.7%), in the two preceding elections the figure was very low (0.8% and 1.5%). During the 1990s, when the threshold was much lower (1.5%), in some years there were many wasted votes all the same: 5% in 1992 and 6% in 1999.

In the final analysis, it is hard to predict the effect of tinkering with the electoral threshold. Moreover, this is not what we should be focused on. There are much more important changes that should be made to the Israeli system; starting with a Basic Law: Legislation, which would entrench constitutional principles and rules of government, through a devolution of powers from the central to local government, and on to a modification of the electoral system that would strengthen the link between the public and its representatives and the latter’s responsiveness and accountability (for example, by incorporating an individual and regional component into the system).

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.