Why is voter participation in local elections in Israel so low? Assaf Shapira, of IDI's political reform research team, explains the reasons behind this phenomenon, discusses its implications, and offers possible remedies.
In the last two municipal elections in Israel (2008 and 2003), only 50% of eligible voters voted. This is an extremely low participation rate, both on its own and in comparison to previous years. From the early years of the State of Israel until the late 1960's, voter participation in local elections was approximately 80%. In the 1970's, voter turnout dropped below 60%, and in the last decade there has been further decline.
What caused this phenomenon?
The decline in political participation in local elections can be attributed to a general decline in political participation in Israel and to waning public trust in politics and politicians, as reflected in public opinion polls and in dwindling rates of voter participation in the Knesset elections. But there are also specific factors that harm public confidence in local authorities and in those who lead them. These include widespread exposure of corruption and the (justifiable) feeling that the power of local authorities in Israel is very limited, as compared to the central government. Local governments in Israel are also seen as dealing with "trivial," day-to-day matters that pale in comparison to issues that the Knesset and government deal with, which include foreign affairs, matters of national security, and economic issues.
Historically, there were two reforms that inadvertently had a negative impact on voting rates. The first was the separation of local elections from the national elections for the Knesset, which were held on the same day until 1978. The second was the decision taken in 1993 that the day of the local elections will no longer be considered a public holiday in Israel.
Low voter participation in municipal elections decreases the legitimacy of democratic government, which rests on having the widest public possible choose its leaders. Low participation rates may prevent the election of the most suitable candidates and may prevent unworthy incumbents from being punished by losing the election. Either way, when participation is low, elected representatives have less incentive to work on behalf of all residents.
There are those, however, who benefit from low election turnouts. These include representatives of specific sectors, because voter participation tends to be higher in those sectors, as members flock to the polls to support their candidates and parties. As important as it is for all sectors to be represented, it is equally important for elected representatives to consider the wider public interest and to address the needs of all residents. In this context, it should be noted that in recent decades, the strength of the major political parties has decreased in Israeli local politics, while the strength of "independent" lists and candidates, and the strength of candidates who are members of sectoral parties, has increased. This has accelerated the weakening of large parties on the national level as well, intensifying the damage that is being done to Israeli democracy on the whole, since it is harder for parties that have been weakened on the municipal level to hold activities in local branches, recruit members and activists, and keep up with what's going on in the field.
So what can we do?
The ideal solution is obviously to strive to improve public confidence in politics and politicians in general, through a series of reforms in the Knesset, the Government, and the local authorities, combined with intensification of education to democratic values and strengthening the rule of law. To this end, there are many proposals for structural reform in local government. These range from introducing a regional-personal component to local elections, such that big cities will have local representation of different areas and neighborhoods, through reinstating the status of regional community councils (which bring government closer to citizens), through increasing the status and authority of local government vis-à-vis the central government.
There are also simpler reforms, which are easier to implement, that could change this bleak picture. Holding municipal elections on the same day as national elections, as was the case in the past, such that the day of the local elections is a day off from work, would increase voter turnout for local elections almost automatically. This might also strengthen the standing of the large parties in Israel's local authorities—which would be a desirable outcome in itself.
None of the above proposals or possible reforms, however, can take the place of the basic duty of Israel's citizens and residents to go out and vote. Ultimately, that is the only sure way to raise the rates of participation in local elections, and to elect worthy representatives who will improve the quality of our lives.
Assaf Shapira is a member of the research team of IDI's Political Reform project.