A voting box in the last Israeli election in 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at last week’s cabinet meeting that he is serious about advancing a bill to allow Israelis living abroad to vote in general elections.
Netanyahu’s decision came after Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog told a conference in Miami that he has changed his mind on the issue. “In a mobile world, where people work and relocate and study, it’s about time for Israel to look differently at Israelis who are [living] abroad, so I think Israelis abroad should be eligible to vote in Israeli elections,” Herzog said.
“My camp for many years thought Israelis abroad would vote for only one side of the map,” Herzog continued. “But now I don’t accept that at all. Israelis abroad are linked to Israel through the Internet, Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter. It raises many questions, but the truth of the matter is countries all over the world enable their citizens abroad to vote.”
We agree with Herzog. Israel is no different than any other country which faces positive and negative migration. Some citizens leave for good, others for a period of a few years. If in the state’s early years, Israelis who left were referred to negatively as “yordim” (literally “those who descend”), today that is no longer the case. Israelis are like Americans, French and Japanese. They move around the world and integrate into other countries. Some return to the country. Others do not.
Allowing Israelis who live abroad to vote in elections was first proposed by the Likud’s Moshe Arens during his term as foreign minister in the late 1980s. MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) proposed legislation in 2015 that would only allow Israelis who voted in the previous election to vote from abroad. This criterion was meant to only allow Israelis who are overseas for a short period of time to vote.
Many countries allow expats to vote based on different criteria. These include the UK, Germany, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France, among others.
Last year, Netanyahu appointed Transportation Minister Israel Katz to lead a committee to review the issue, which has traditionally been supported by the Right and opposed by the Left, which has feared that the initiative is meant to dilute the power of the Arab vote in Israel.
And while we support the idea in principle, it is important to set guidelines and criteria for who should be eligible to vote.
Many supporters of the bill, for example, have cited the US absentee voting policy as a precedented Israel should follow. What they fail to mention though is that all US citizens are required by law to file tax returns, even if they live overseas. It makes sense for you to have the right to vote if you are contributing to your country’s economy.
That is why we agree with Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren that absentee voting should be considered but only if the Israeli citizens abroad contribute something to the country. Oren has proposed three possible criteria: paying Israeli taxes, owning property in Israel. or doing IDF reserve duty.
There might be other criteria as well, but the idea would be to give the right to determine Israel’s leadership and future only to those who carry the national burden.
As the government considers this law, we recommend it also give thought to legislation that would turn voting into a compulsory civic duty and not just an optional right. This would be like Australia, where voting is mandatory and citizens who don’t face a fine. In 2016, voter turnout in Australia was 87%, and that was considered low.
In comparison, voter turnout in Israel was only 55% in the recent municipal elections. In the 2015 general elections it was just over 70%.
Making voting compulsory ensures high civic participation as well as the election of parties or politicians who enjoy the highest level of public support. This is good for democracy.
More votes would make politicians work harder to engage the public and ensure they are acting in the public’s best interest. This would create a higher degree of accountability and that would be good for democracy.
So before Israel looks beyond its borders for new voters, it should consider ways to increase voting within the country.
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