In thinking about Israeli electoral reform it might be wise to draw upon the experiences of Australia. The way to enable voters to form opinions about individual candidates is by presenting them with fewer choices, and by dividing the country into districts.
To overcome the winner-takes-all situation of the UK and the US, where minority parties are largely excluded, each district would be represented by a number of members, elected on a proportional basis. While providing local representatives for voters to turn to, this would also raise the threshold for election to more reasonable levels than the recent timid increase to two percent did. Districts need not all return the same number of members.
The Hare-Clark system, used in the state of Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, provides for fair elections that produce representative parliaments and stable governments.
THE VOTER is presented with a ballot paper that lists the candidates for his district by name and identifies party affiliation. All she or he has to do is number the candidates in order of preference.
Candidates are elected if they receive a quota of votes. The Hare-Clark quota is 1 + (number of valid votes cast divided by one more than the number of vacancies to be filled). This quota is the minimum that, if received by the required number of candidates, no other candidate can reach.
In the simplest case of a district returning a single candidate, the quota is 50% of total valid votes + 1; for the current Knesset, it would be about 0.833% of total valid votes.
If the required number of candidates each receives a quota of first preferences, then the election is over. In practice, candidates receive more or fewer votes than a quota, leaving us with insufficient elected candidates.
Hare-Clark keeps votes in play until the last possible moment - until all the required candidates are elected, thereby minimizing wastage of votes. It does this by distributing surplus (above-quota) votes from an already elected candidate to unelected candidates, who may then achieve a quota and be elected.
Surplus votes are transferred according to the preference shown on the ballot by the voter and not according to some deal between parties. It is, after all, the voter's vote, not some party's.
Surplus votes may be transferred more than once. Transfer continues until the required number of winners is reached, or until there are no further surpluses.
If insufficient candidates have been elected at this stage, the next phase is started - the elimination of losing candidates and the distribution of their votes. The candidate with least votes is eliminated and his votes are distributed, again according to the preference expressed by the voter, to the remaining unelected candidates. Any candidates meeting the quota at this stage are declared elected.
The process is repeated until the required number of candidates is elected (the final successful candidate may have less than a quota due to exhaustion of preferences).
This may be understood by imagining an election conducted in Teddy Stadium, where candidates stand in the field and voters cluster around their favorite. As they notice that their candidate has more than enough supporters, some will move to their second favorites, and so on, to the point where some see that their candidate cannot succeed and redistribute themselves to their next choice. This shows that some people are getting more than one vote.
KNESSET MEMBERS known to their constituents by name have an incentive to represent them faithfully, or face defeat at the next election; there is no hiding in a party list. This is real representative democracy.
Parties can select candidates however they like. The voters will have the final say as to whether a candidate gets into the Knesset.
Hare-Clark sets an effective threshold determined by the number of members in a district (e.g. 16.7% for five members).
Minorities in geographical concentrations, such as Bnei Brak or Um al-Fahm, would not be disenfranchised. Other minorities could work within larger parties to have their policies adopted within a wider framework. This might promote policy platforms that would not be bargained away in post-election coalition building, so a voter could reasonably hope the policies he voted for will persist into government.
Finally, a word about the alternative of 60 single-member districts and 60 members elected by party lists. This retains the bad features of the present system (party lists and a 2% threshold) and adds the winner-take-all method that causes vote wastage in the British House of Commons and the American House of Representatives.
Go to www.elections.act.gov.au if you want to know more about this electoral approach and what else would be needed in order to implement Hare-Clark in Israel (refinements like the Robson rotation of candidates).
Hare-Clark provides the opportunity for getting better MKs. Whether it would actually succeed in Israel depends on us.
The writer retired as a Senior Officer of the Australian Public Service after 25 years service, including in the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet.