'Elections Today: Fears Of Low Turnout,' said the front-page headlines beside my morning coffee. Thirty-four percent of eligible Israeli voters, continued the story beneath the headlines, did not intend to vote this year, making voter participation the smallest in Israel's history.
Well, that remained to be seen. Maybe it would turn out to have been only the next-to-smallest, or the next-to-next-to-smallest. But the trend, even if it's simply bringing Israel in line with much of the rest of the world, isn't good.
Why do people not vote in elections? We all know the familiar excuses:
"Because it doesn't matter who wins."
"Because the results are a foregone conclusion."
"Because no party stands for what I believe in."
"Because the politicians are all lying to us anyway."
"Because my vote won't make any difference."
The first of these reasons certainly didn't apply to this week's elections in Israel. Who won or lost them, and by how much or how little, mattered enormously, because fundamental matters of policy, social, economic, and (above all) having to do with our conflict with the Palestinians, with different parties representing starkly divergent positions, were at stake. In terms of their probable consequences, few elections in Israel's history have ever mattered so much.
Nor was it a logical reason not to vote because everyone knew Kadima would win. Everyone also knew that, having won, Kadima would have to form a coalition, and that this coalition and the decisions it would make would be determined by the relative strength of the parties in it, which was not a foregone conclusion at all.
Neither, with 31 parties in the running, could one take seriously the "No party stands for what I believe in" argument. True, if you happened to be for the annexation of all the territories, a return to a welfare-state economy, civil marriage, the legalization of marijuana, the expulsion of Israel's Arabs, and a drastic lowering of taxes, you may not have found the perfect party to represent you. In most cases, however, there was someone to vote for in Tuesday's elections for everyone.
The politicians were all lying? Indeed they were. So what else is new? Politicians generally lie about some things and tell the truth about others, and intelligent voters have always sought to discriminate between the two. Why should it have been less so last Tuesday?
This leaves us with "My vote won't make any difference." And here at last, it has to be admitted, our non-voter has a point. His vote indeed wouldn't make any difference. No one's vote ever does. When did you last hear of a parliamentary election won or lost by a single vote? When did you even hear of a party gaining or forfeiting a seat in parliament because of a single vote? Even the closest of national elections - think of Bush-Gore - end up being decided by hundreds or thousands of ballots. The statistical probability of one vote out of millions making the difference is infinitesimal.
SEEN FROM this perspective, the correct question would seem to be not "Why don't people vote in elections?" but rather "Why do they?" Why bother when the results would be exactly the same if they didn't?
And yet they do - sometimes going to extraordinary lengths. At the time of our previous elections, the 2003 ones, a friend of the family's was dying of cancer. Bedridden and full of tubes, he ordered an ambulance at his expense to take him to the polls. He voted and died a week later.
But why go back to 2003? Another friend fell last month and broke both her legs. She's in a wheelchair unable to walk, she lives at the bottom of a hill, and the nearest polling station to her was, last Tuesday, at its top. Which wasn't a problem, because she asked her son, who lives in the next town, to come and push her to the polls. Moreover, while he's a slender fellow, she happens to be a hefty woman and the road up the hill is a long one.
And then there's the Israeli couple I know whom I met at Ben-Gurion Airport the day after the elections of 2000. The three of us were flying to America. "It's good to see you," I said. "It's time my wife and I paid you a visit." Yes, they answered, they'd love that, but we'd have to visit them in the house they were renovating in Brooklyn, because they had left Israel for good.
"Oh," I said, letting that sink in. "And what brought you here now?"
"The elections," they said. "We came to vote in them."
Why do people vote in elections? For the same reason, I suppose, that they go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, even though they know no one is really listening to their prayers or inscribing them in the Book of Life or Death. It's because voting is the most solemn ritual - perhaps the only real equivalent of a religious ritual - that our secular society has to offer.
Secular societies are not rich in solemn rituals. There are some, of course: The singing of the national anthem before an important football match, for example, or filing past the coffin of a national leader who has died. It's possible to feel not only deeply moved at such moments, but part of a body that beats with one heart.
But in voting we experience more than that. We are being actors in the sacred drama of democracy - that drama in which, as equal members of the same community, we decide together our fate for the years to come. The Book of Life, the Book of Death, are being written this time by ourselves.
If you have ever stood in line at a polling booth among people many of whom are your neighbors or acquaintances, you will know what I mean. There's a seriousness, almost an awe, that pervades even the chitchat and the small talk while you wait your turn to cast your ballot. It's a religious moment, even if you'd only be greeted with nervous laughter for saying that.
Which is why, when my wife and I went to the polls on Tuesday and there was, for the first time ever, no line at all, we felt less relieved - how nice, no need to wait! - than let down. The other actors had failed to turn up. It was like going to shul on Yom Kippur and finding you didn't have a minyan.
Yet the Book of Life, the Book of Death, were being written by us nonetheless. Know that, you who didn't vote this year.