Only in Israel. Moments before presenting the new government for its swearing-in, the Speaker of the Knesset inveighed from the rostrum against the system whereby that very government had gained power. The prime minister thereupon took the rostrum and rather than defending the system that put him there, he also inveighed against it. His complaint, like many complaints against our electoral system, had to do with the ease by which voters can put a small party into the Knesset just because they like it better than a big one.
There are various ways of handicapping small parties, and various pros and cons for each way, but because districting came up in the Jerusalem Post a few days ago (“For Zion’s Sake,” by Daniel Tauber, May 13), here are three counter-arguments about districting — quite aside from its effect on small parties.
- “Every voter, and every voting bloc in that district, could be the key to victory,” Mr. Tauber writes. But experience contradicts the notion that because of constant anxiety over the next election, each district’s representative will eagerly attend to every voter’s voice. In fact a district’s representative may feel little anxiety. In the USA, when members of the House of Representatives seek election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics the percentage re-elected has averaged 93% over the past twenty-five years, hitting as low as 85% only twice and as high as 98% four times. The continual re-election of representatives may have something to do with the next counter-argument.
- “The party chairmen demanding their supposed fair share would be replaced with a far larger number of representatives who expect less, have less to prove, and are accountable to a voting bloc which does not necessarily represent any particular sector,” Mr. Tauber writes. But by definition, the representative of a district represents a sector: a geographical sector. The late Ted Kennedy’s campaign slogan “He can do more for Massachusetts” was perhaps unusually blunt, but every representative knows that part of the job is channeling benefits from the national government— sometimes known as “pork” — to the community back home. If we consider that the districts of Israel will be roughly equal in population, then a problem arises in that moving jobs and financial support out of densely populated areas and into sparsely populated areas, where development is more necessary, would run contrary to the local interests of most Knesset members. Even the expense of strengthening the border communities would be a harder sell in the offices of the non-border MKs. But that brings us to the third counter-argument and an issue that Mr. Tauber omitted.
- How is the map of districts drawn? Two hundred years ago in the USA, the term “gerrymandering” was coined to describe electoral districts that, by their preposterous shape, wound up favoring one party or another. But even without any stretching or bending, differently delimited districts can produce different results. And if they are based purely on population, then in a country as dynamic as Israel they will need to be redrawn continually, even without the complications that would come from trying to balance the priority of equally weighted votes against the priority of properly representing the periphery and the minorities. Judea and Samaria are a special problem. If they are to contain electoral districts, then it will seem that Israel has taken a controversial step toward annexing them. But if their residents are somehow assigned — by imaginary arrows pointing West, for example — to districts inside the Green Line, then it will seem that Israel is disowning their territory, and they will not have voices in the Knesset that are wholly their own.
Although the big parties would benefit from carving the country into districts, it is far from clear that the voters would benefit. And what’s most sobering is that such a change would be close to irreversible, because the big parties would not likely vote to weaken their own advantage.