Monday, May 12, 2008

Most Americans in Israel are in favor of personal elections for the Knesset. It's what we are used to and, having experienced both proportional and direct elections, we know that directly elected politicians tend to be more responsive to their constituents. But a sober evaluation of the alternatives suggests that the issue is not as clear-cut as some think.

Consider, for example, the election reform bill recently proposed by four MKs from across a spectrum of political parties. Briefly, the idea is that only 60 of 120 MKs would be elected in the proportional method currently used; the other 60 will be elected one each from 60 regions in first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections. (FPTP means simply that each voter chooses one candidate and the one with most votes wins -- the method we are used to.) In other words, each voter has two ballots: one is for voting for a regional candidate affiliated with one of the parties and the other is for voting for a party.

Sounds pretty innocent. Sort of half-way between the current proportional method and the American method of voting for congressmen. What could be bad? But you might have second thoughts if you look at the results of a simple simulation done by my friend Avram D. Avram computed what the distribution of Knesset seats would have been in the 2003 and 2006 elections had the proposed new method been used instead of the old one. (He assumed that every voter would have simply used both ballots to vote for the same party; experience in other countries with similar methods suggests that this is a plausible assumption -- but see caveats below.)

Here is what would have happened (actual results are in parentheses):
In 2003, Likud (38) would have gotten 87 seats. Shinui (15), Shas (11), Ichud Leumi (7), Mafdal (6), Meretz (6) all would have been wiped off the map. In 2006, Kadima (29) would have gotten 58 seats and the Likud would have been wiped off the map.

How does the thought of Sharon with 87 seats grab your fancy? Or Olmert with 58?

The reason this happens is plain to see. A party that has a slight edge in each region gets all the regional seats in a disproportional manner. (In the case of the particular method proposed here, the problem is exacerbated by a stipulation that a party that doesn't win any regions is disqualified from getting any seats in the proportional part as well.)

It should be noted that what will really happen if the proposed method were adopted is a bit different than these numbers suggest. According to a straightforward principle known as Duverger's law, FPTP elections inevitably result in a two party system, or at the very least each region becomes a two-party race, because voters will simply stop voting (in the regionals) for any party that has no chance of winning. So it is likely that some of the votes that went to small parties in the regions where they lost badly would actually go to a larger party such as Likud.

While I understand perfectly well the huge advantage in terms of accountability conferred by direct elections, I am scared to death of the thought of any party having 87 seats. I think a plethora of parties is a blessing not a curse; it makes compromise both necessary and possible. (The more parties the more potential coalitions.) To be sure, I think datiim would be better served by having clout in the major parties than by being represented by ineffective politruks (same for Arabs, Russians, etc.), but even so I'm not ready to contemplate a two-party system here quite yet.

One very partial remedy would be for the regional elections to use some system other than FPTP. There are many such systems, each with advantages and disadvantages. In my next post, I'll give an overview.

7 Comments:

Blogger Ben Bayit said...

why are some proposals suggesting a one-ballot vote - i.e. same ballot goes for the regional candidate of that party as well as the national election for that party - so that voters can't split their votes?

also why have a split system in a unicameral legislature. This makes no sense to me. I can understand having regional elections for 120 seats or proportional elections for 120 setas, but it seems to me that the 60/60 split makes no sense for a unicameral legislature.

Naturally all of this is academic so long as Israel remains a state ruled by an elite oligarchy. ANY system of elections is largely irrelevant in that case.

10:57 AM  
Blogger D.C. said...

Here's my idea:

No districts. Every voter in Israel votes for the one person who he feels best represents him. The top 120 vote getters get in, and each MK's voting power in the Knesset is proportional to the number of votes that he got in the election.

The benefits:

1. Accountability. Each additional voter that an MK can get to vote for him means greater power in the Knesset.

2. None of the distortion that's caused when people vote for someone besides their first choice because the first choice candidate "will get in anyway."

3. There could still be parties for organizational purposes, but the electoral sysem wouldn't be conducive to their having to vote as a bloc. This leaves more room for independent thinking, and no more having to vote for bad ideas because your party committed you to doing so.

The major disadvantage, as I see it, is the potential for a few very popular candates to end up with more legislative power than I would be comfortable with in the hands of a few individuals.

What do you think?

11:29 PM  
Anonymous harrykann said...

With respect to your concern about any one party having 87 seats, that is indeed what often happens in those countries that have a parliamentary system -- i.e. the party that wins a majority of seats gets to impose their party's platform on the electorate, without any checks or balances (until the next election).

I much prefer the American system of government, with it built-in checks and balances, and its division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

12:53 AM  
Anonymous Ben-David said...

Ummmm - none of those little parties did diddly to stop Ariel Sharon - so who cares how many votes he would have had?

The point is the accountability.

It's much more likely that people WITHIN the Likud would have stood up to Sharon - if it were clear that their own political fortunes hung in the balance, that the voters who specifically elected *THEM* were outraged.

The small parties can only blackmail the larger parties at specific, crucial junctions - effectively letting minorities shake down/hamstring the majority. Not very democratic, and incredibly corrupting.

(And the current sorry, polarized state of religious affairs can be traced directly to small-party extortionist culture.)

I have absolutely no problem with 3 large parties - Likud, Labor, Haredi. Probably some far left/green party will persist as an urban oddity. Maybe Shas and a unified Arab party, too.

Let the politicians grow up, listen to constituents, and hammer out compromises and workable platforms before the elections.

Yes, let them have the security of a full term to implement those platforms (can parliamentary systems have midterm elections?) - with the countervailing awareness that if they betray the public's trust, their political careers are over - the Mateh Artzi can't save you.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

DC,
Your proposal is exactly equivalent to the proportional party system now in effect, in which the head of the party is a dictator within the party. The two properties about this that you like, monotonicity and strategy-proofness, are properties of all proportional systems. The added feature of the leader being a dictator is a clear disadvantage, in my opinion.

Ben-David,
I tried to address the points you raised in a post I just put up. I look forward to your response.

11:22 PM  
Anonymous yoni r. said...

You're missing a major point - in a FPTP system, the individual MKs do not have to vote with their party. So Likud having 87 seats does not automatically mean that Likud policies would automatically get 87 votes. When a bill comes up which is against the Likud party line, but Sharon wants it to pass, he can't force those who were regionally elected to vote for it. They have to convince their constituents, not the party, to let them in Knesset the next time.

For a summary of how such a political system would work, see here.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Yoni,

I understand, but, as I explained in the next post, parties still have a lot of leverage. If a representative snubs his party, the culture here is such that the party is unlikely to let him represent them as a candidate in the next election. Experience in other countries suggests that voters are more loyal to their parties (subject to constraints of electability) than they are to individual candidates, so such party support is crucial.

10:20 AM  

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