Increasing voter turnout

There is no doubt that the key to increasing voter turnout lies in the public’s trust in its representatives.

August 6, 2019 21:51
3 minute read.
An Israeli Arab stands behind a voting booth before casting her ballot at a polling station in the n

An Israeli Arab stands behind a voting booth before casting her ballot at a polling station in the northern town of Umm el-Fahm March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

The elections to the 21st Knesset in April saw an unprecedented low turnout of the Arab vote, at just 49.2%, compared with 68% voter turnout in the general population. An examination of the data reveals that the most significant decline in voting was among young Arabs, aged 35 and under, who make up 45% of eligible voters in the Israeli-Arab population. According to an analysis carried out by Arik Rudnitzky at the Israel Democracy Institute, this low level of voter turnout resulted in the loss of at least two Knesset seats for Arab parties. 
There were many factors that kept young Arab voters at home, including calls to boycott the elections, apathy, skepticism as to the extent their votes would make a real difference and disillusionment with the parties or lists they had voted for in the past. In addition, we cannot overestimate the effectiveness of the deliberate efforts to malign Arab MKs and Arab voters: the warnings about the devastating consequences of voting for opposition parties that are liable to form coalitions with the Arabs and, of course, the successful attempts to bring cameras into Arab polling stations in order to ensure “honest elections.”
However, another possible factor relates to the Central Elections Committee’s unequal allocation of budgets to campaign to encourage voter turnout. 
According to data from the Government Advertising Agency (which we obtained in response to a freedom of information request that we submitted to the Central Elections Committee), only 7.3% of the budget targeted at encouraging voter turnout at the 21st Knesset elections (that is – producing a campaign video and promotional campaign contents on the Internet and in social media) was spent on content in Arabic. Specifically, the cost of Hebrew-language promotional content for the campaign was NIS 140,000, while that of promotional content in Arabic was just NIS 14,000, or 10%. Hebrew-language websites were allocated a promotional budget of NIS 425,000, while only NIS 71,000 was spent on websites in Arabic.
While it is difficult to assess the impact of these figures on voting patterns in the Arab sector overall, and among young Arab voters in particular, it is clear that a more balanced allocation of resources – which would at least reflect the relative proportion of Arab voters in Israel – along with adaptation of campaign content to the specific characteristics of Arab society, would have been helpful in encouraging Arab voters to go to the polls. 
There is no doubt that the key to increasing voter turnout lies in the public’s trust in its representatives, as well as in its sense that it is possible to effect positive change in the day-to-day reality of Israel’s citizens, both Jews and Arabs. However, achieving these outcomes is a long-term process. The immediate steps that can be taken to address the issue relate to government agencies, including the Central Elections Committee, which don’t take 20% of the population into account. 
In this context, we have the right to expect the committee to openly declare its commitment to ensuring that, in the campaign to encourage voter turnout at the upcoming elections, which will most likely be launched in the coming month, every effort will be made to repair the flaws we have identified here in order to produce effective content that will also reach young Arabs in the specific “digital forums” they frequent: social media and Internet sites. This not only requires greater equality in budgetary allocations, but also adapting the campaign to the distinctive characteristics of the Arab population in Israel.
Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya is the director of the Jewish-Arab Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute. 

Oded Ron is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

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