A more realistic electoral reform plan

Politics is the art of compromise. Add 30 more legislators and maybe we get reform. I think it’s worth the price.

Netanyahu and cabinet 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu and cabinet 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
It’s that time of the year again when voters’ minds begin to think about “What if?” What if we had a better election system? What if our representatives were elected from districts instead of nationwide? In response, “good government” groups and political parties propose various electoral reform ideas, all of them doomed to go down in flames because the reformers forget a basic rule of politics (and of life, I suppose): No one is going to vote to put themselves out of a job.
I’m not against electoral reform. In fact, as a former participant/member of the Cook County Democratic Party (a.k.a. the “Machine”), I believe in the late Mayor Richard J. Daley’s adage, “Good government is good politics.” But you’ve got to be realistic about what you can accomplish.
In light of that, I propose an electoral reform plan that can maybe, just possibly, pass, because, counter-intuitively, it adds 30 more Knesset seats, thus preserving the jobs of many current MKs. Here’s how it would work:
1: Israel would be divided into 25 electoral districts of roughly equal population. The districts would be drawn by a committee consisting of Knesset representatives, judges and respected “public” members to be chosen by the president. The committee would be instructed to keep districts compact and neighborhoods intact in order to prevent American-style gerrymandering.
Each district would elect three representatives. However, no more than two of a district’s representatives could be from the same party. A voter would have three votes at his disposal.
S/he could give one candidate all three votes or split the votes between two candidates or give three candidates one vote each. This will prevent one party from dominating any single district.
This system worked very well in Illinois for decades, making minority voters such as suburban Democrats and inner-city Republicans feel represented in the State House.
2: The other 75 seats would be voted on as we do now, as a national ticket. However, the threshold requirement would be 4 percent of the vote, giving a party three seats. This would still give the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab parties representation in the Knesset, but would force other smaller parties to consolidate or die.
3: The head of the national ticket (that is, the non-district seats) would be that party’s candidate for prime minister. However, if a party gets fewer than 25 “national” seats, its candidate for prime minister would be forced into a runoff against the second-highest party’s candidate.
Unlike today, the winner would automatically be named prime minister for a four-year term. To give the government stability, a noconfidence vote in the government’s first year would require 100 votes; in the second year, 90 votes; in the third year, 80 votes; and in the fourth year, a mere majority.
4: Cabinet members would be appointed by the prime minister and approved by the Knesset. However, a cabinet minister or deputy minister could not also serve as a Knesset member. That would enable ministers to concentrate on their ministries, not general Knesset affairs.
In addition, while Knesset members from districts will receive an office allotment and funds for a secretary and aide, MKs elected on the party slate, not having district responsibilities, will be allotted only one secretary and share a receptionist with other MKs. Another advantage: With the increase in numbers of MKs, each one will have fewer committee assignments, allowing the MK to concentrate on that committee’s work.
The raising of the Knesset from 120 to 150 seats will be controversial, but it is a necessary price to get this proposal passed because it would still give smaller parties representation. And we would not be “over-represented.”
According to research done by former Jerusalem Post executive editor Amotz Asa- El in his must-read study of Israeli electoral reform (“Israel’s Electoral Complex,” Azure Magazine, Winter, 2008), mixed legislative systems used in other western countries have the following legislators per citizen: Finland and Sweden have about 26,000 citizens per legislator, Denmark has 29,000, New Zealand has 31,000, and Austria has 32,000. Right now there is one Knesset member for every 62,500 Israelis. The change would make it one MK per 50,000 Israelis, still fewer legislators than the countries listed above.
Politics is the art of compromise. Add 30 more legislators and maybe we get reform. I think it’s worth the price. And when former Ra’anana mayor Ze’ev Bielski realizes that he could easily run and win from a Ra’anana district more easily than as a generic Kadima member, and when Tzipi Hotovely realizes that her Rehovot neighbors will vote for her without the need to deal with Likud vote contractors, we may see MKs come to the same conclusion that “Good government is good politics.”
The writer is an attorney, historian and author living in Jerusalem.