Examining the voter threshold

In 2008, when 131,000,000 Americans voted, 100 senators represented, on average, 1,300,000 million voters each.

Knesset 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
Knesset 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
A proposed Governability Law stipulates that, in future national elections, any Israeli political party must receive four percent of all votes cast before it will receive even one seat in the Knesset. The proposal has been approved on first reading by the Knesset, but needs second and third reading approvals to become law.
Politicians like David Rotem (Likud-Beytenu) and Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) promote this new threshold by claiming that Western democracies do not permit small groups of voters to gain representation. According to enthusiasts for the change, such small groups are an obvious danger to political stability and national solidarity.
But that is simply not so. For example, approximately 131,000,000 American citizens voted in 2008. They elected 435 members of Congress (in the House of Representatives) who we may regard as comparable to our 120 Knesset members.
This means that, using rounded-off figures, the average member of Congress represented roughly 301,000 citizens in his or her district. Lots of people, right? Obvious confirmation of the thesis that large groups of voters are needed to prevent fragmentation of political power, right? Well, actually, no. In the average congressional district of 301,000 voters, with one Republican and one Democratic candidate running against each other, the winner is usually elected by around 55% of the votes.
This means that, as a member of Congress, he or she represents about 165,000 people (or less than that if several candidates are running and only a plurality of the votes is necessary to gain election).
In which case the average collection of American voters who send one representative to the lower House of the world’s most successful democracy is roughly 165,000, which equals 0.1266% of the 131,000,000 national voting population. And that, of course, is considerably less than the 4% now being proposed for Israel.
But what about the Senate, America’s upper legislative House? In 2008, when 131,000,000 Americans voted, 100 senators represented, on average, 1,300,000 million voters each.
Of course, in populous states like New York, California, Ohio, Florida and Texas, the specific number of votes needed to win a senatorial election was far larger. But, on average, American senators gain their seats by enlisting a 55% majority, which was 840,000 voters in 2008, or even fewer in plurality elections. That is, each senator was supported, on average, by no more than 0.641% of the 131,000,000 national voting population. Once again, that percentage is far lower than the 4% threshold now being proposed for Israel.
Such numbers will not stop some of our politicians from continuing to cite America as proof of the need for a 4% voting threshold in Israel. This is because the second America-based argument for raising the threshold in Israel is that, in America, there are very few parties.
Indeed, usually only two.
According to this argument, Israelis should assume that American democracy has worked well for two centuries because it has so few parties, and fewer parties is exactly what Israel needs to provide smooth and effective government that cannot be destabilized constantly by small party politicians (think Shaul Mofaz) who can threaten to bring down the ruling coalition. So let’s raise Israel’s electoral threshold so that we will have fewer political parties.
Again, the argument is ill-informed. America does not have two major parties because it has high thresholds.
After all, it doesn’t have any thresholds, high or low. The reason America has two major parties is that local politicians join forces across state lines every four years to contest the presidency, where only a majority of votes in the nation-wide Electoral College can produce an electoral victory.
Furthermore, despite its apparent tidiness, the present line-up of few major parties in America is not necessarily something we should want to imitate. After all, driven by ideological fervor, it has recently produced not smooth and effective government but gridlock, stalemate, intense bitterness and mindless budget cuts.
The truth is that it is not the number of parties that lead to deplorable government. Such government is, instead, the outcome of how politicians behave and what motivations inspire them.
Therefore, tinkering with Israel’s electoral system may help some of our politicians suppress unpopular opinions – for example, those of Arab voters – and acquire more power than they have today. But it is Israeli politicians themselves, rather than the technical way they are elected, who generate the poor quality of our public life (think Menachem Porush).
That fact seems clear when our MKs – and our journalists, scholars, think-tankers and former generals discuss the case of Egypt. There is a country that ran a reasonably honest election and then discovered that its voters, elected officials and armed forces lack a healthy democratic culture.
That we might have similar behavioral problems at home is something our politicians don’t want to discuss publicly. For example, if they began such a discussion, they might have to address the possibility of passing laws to separate matters of religion from matters of state, thus ending farces like the recent election of chief rabbis; or they might have to talk about the possibility of abolishing proportional representation and establishing electoral districts where MKs might have to get acquainted with ordinary and moderate Israelis.The writer is a professor of History and Political Science at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.