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Our democracy may be mature in age, pluralism, openness and many other respects, but in one it remains embarrassingly behind the times: its lack of an absentee ballot.
For generations, the United States, Canada, Australia and many European countries have been allowing overseas voting. What little has been allowed by Israel, namely the voting of military and civil servants that began yesterday, has been less than the minimum demanded by any democratic yardstick.
In the state's early years, absentee balloting seemed electorally irrelevant and logistically daunting, since at first our expatriate community was minuscule and the state's resources were painfully limited. In subsequent decades, when the expatriates already numbered in the hundreds of thousands, the argument against granting them the right to vote became ideological.
At a time when then-premier Yitzhak Rabin called expatriates "losers," the consensus was that they should be pitied at best, ostracized at worst. Allowing them to vote, according to that zeitgeist, would imply a legitimacy to the very act of yerida, itself a uniquely Israeli term that literally means "descending" and figuratively fingers those who emigrate from the Promised Land to the outer world.
Moreover, the deployment of ballots worldwide, and the painstaking process of collecting and counting thousands of votes from anywhere between Melbourne and Los Angeles, seemed like a massive operation that would cost dearly and offer opportunity for manipulation. This concern, judging by the cases our courts end up dealing with after every election, cannot be lightly dismissed.
Lastly, in the past decade the absentee ballot idea quietly became a partisan bone of contention, with Likud leaders like Moshe Arens supporting it, and Labor fiercely opposing it, both evidently sharing an assumption that the overseas vote would largely veer to one side of the political spectrum.
Now all these concerns should be addressed or set aside.
First, Israel has become sufficiently established, both demographically and economically, to not fear that an absentee ballot would be misinterpreted as a prize for leaving. In recent years Israel has seen many more immigrants than emigrants, so it is time that we shook off our abandonment complex.
Secondly, as with most other developed democracies, Israel has thousands of loyal citizens legitimately abroad for various periods of time, in the wake of their admirably productive work in a rapidly globalizing world. There is simply no democratic justification for stripping the right to vote from the thousands of Israeli doctoral students, professors on sabbaticals, engineers representing Israeli firms or businessmen on export missions worldwide.
Thirdly, for a country that can build jets, tanks and satellites as well as develop some of the world's most sophisticated computer technology, the task of deploying several hundred ballot boxes in a few dozen locations worldwide, and then counting their contents, should not be insurmountable. Similarly, for an economy with some $130 billion in GDP, it should also not be unaffordable.
And lastly, our old political structures are changing beyond recognition. The times when all was judged, and assessed, according to the territorial debate have ended, along with the debate itself. With yesteryear's ideologues, from both extremes, humbled, and the voters consistently embracing a new centrism, chances that the expatriate electorate would tip the scale in any direction are low and, in any case, immaterial.
Some technical and moral concerns will still need to be addressed. People who have been away longer than a certain maximum, say five consecutive years, will probably agree that before the state goes out of its way to grant them their democratic rights it has the right to seek a minimum level of connection to it and to the leaders they hope to choose.
Also, pre-registration in consulates - possibly via a one-line e-mail - can be required so that the Interior Ministry can scrutinize in advance an absentee voter's identity and absence. Those innocently absent and democratically motivated can be counted on to comply, and those concerned about our democratic purity should be reassured that if anything, an absentee ballot will only enhance it.
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