Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Adding a ‘preferendum’ to the election system

The most important word regarding democratic elections that almost no one knows about is “salience.” The recent Judicial Reform brouhaha is a classic (counter-)case, highlighting one of the central flaws of modern electoral systems. The time has come to consider a not-so-radical solution.

On January 4, 2023, when Justice Minister Yuval Levin announced his planned series of new laws under the rubric of “Judicial Reform,” everyone was surprised (including PM Netanyahu, who was not told of the speech details). Among those taken aback were most of the Israelis who voted for the Likud, for the simple reason that the plan was not part of the party’s election campaign! Of course, this was not the first time a political party (Israeli or anywhere else) “hid” a major piece of legislation or policy during its campaign for votes. However, the Likud has taken this to an extreme: it has not published a party platform since 2009!!

This is not to say that Likud voters didn’t care about “judicial reform.” But how many of them? And of those who did care, was this their first or their fourth priority? And even if their first priority, what specific aspects of the current judiciary system bothered them? (Many would probably say “the long wait to get to trial” – the one important thing that Levin’s current series of proposed reforms does not deal with!)

In short, current election systems are very “gross” ways of determining or guiding government policy. One simple, albeit minor, solution would be to require parties standing for election to publish an official platform outlining its central policy proposals – and if we wanted to be even more demanding, make them publish actual drafts of legislation and regulations that they intend to introduce. Would most voters read this? Of course not, but the media would “synthesize” these – explaining as well as criticizing or supporting the various proposals. Still, one party could list a few economic policies, another might focus on security issues, and so we end up with a non-comparative cacophony.

Another “solution” is part of the electoral arsenal in various democracies: the referendum. Here a specific important policy (or law) is placed on the public agenda, and the public gets to vote on it. However, in most cases it is the legislature that initiates the process (a few enable broad-based, citizen initiatives). The real problem, here too, is that this specific issue might not be the one that the general public is most concerned about – what political scientists call “salience.” Another problem with referenda is the wording that can skew responses depending on how the referendum is phrased (an excellent, recent example: the misuse of the word “sarvanut”/refusal to serve in the army when we are really talking about volunteer reservists who no longer are willing to do non-compulsory service).

What then could be added to the democratic arsenal that has not yet been tried? It’s called the “Preferendum,” through which the public gets to prioritize the issues that most concern them i.e., which policy areas do they prefer the government deal with as an immediate priority?
Without getting bogged down in too many details, here is the general approach:

1) A permanent, non-partisan Preferendum Council is established by law with sufficient funding.

2) Once new elections are called (in Israel, around 100 days before Election Day), that Council chooses a representative cross-section of society (let’s say 120 people; the number can be larger) as a Citizen Assembly to discuss all the issues on the public agenda.

3) The Citizen Assembly can ask and receive from the Preferendum Council any and all information necessary for its deliberations.

4) The Citizen Assembly is charged with coming up with a complete list of the most important and pressing issues that the country faces and/or is found on the public agenda (media reporting, social media commentary etc.). This does NOT include any specific policy/legislative prescriptions but rather ONLY specifies which issues have the highest priority e.g., reducing inflation; expanding settlements; raising teachers’ salaries; lowering the cost-of-living; pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians; requiring all Israeli citizens (including haredim and the Arab sector) to do army or civil, national service; etc. etc.

5) This list must be published minimum 30 days before Election Day to enable widespread public discussion, media coverage, and the citizen’s consideration.

6) The list becomes part of (NOT a substitute for) the regular election ballot for preferred political party. Each voter casts the traditional political party ballot, and also prioritizes the Citizen Assembly’s list, writing “1” next to their highest priority, “2” aside their second most salient issue, and so on (no need to prioritize all of the alternatives) – until number 10 (this too could be lower or higher; the Citizen Assembly or the Preferendum Council decides that up front).

7) Each preference is added across all ballots. All #1 placements get 10 points; #2s receive 9 points; and so on in descending order until 1 point for a #10 preference vote.

8) The Preferendum results are not legally or constitutionally binding on the elected government; however, it is a clear indication of what the public wishes these newly elected representatives to deal with.

The result: from a purely “constitutional” standpoint, the present system stands as is: the same system for electing Knesset members and ultimately the Government. No “radical” change here. However, the additional Preferendum has the advantage of “forcing” the public to consider not only “WHO” will represent them, but also “WHAT” those representatives should concern themselves with. As such, it becomes a quasi-official cudgel with which to hit the Government and Knesset if and when they don’t generally adhere to the public’s salience preferences. And it certainly should minimize (perhaps even eliminate) future, major, out-of-the-blue legislative initiatives such as the current “Judicial Reform” that few voted for on November 1, 2022, or were even aware it being an election issue.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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