Electoral reform part 2 – Regional vs proportional representation

Unlike FPTP, PR ensures that every vote in the country has equal value 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it


Electoral reform is in the air as it is widely accepted that our present system of government is in urgent need of overhaul. But caution is needed. It is vitally important to carefully consider any proposed changes so that we don’t end up with a cure worse than the disease as happened with the short-lived 1992 law for direct election of the Prime Minister.

Proposals for electoral reform have been made since the first Knesset, but none have progressed beyond the first reading except the abovementioned ill-fated law for direct election of the PM. The most recent concerted effort was made in 2005 by a commission for the Examination of the Structure of Government that was appointed by then President Katzav and headed by Hebrew University president Professor Menahem Magidor.

Magidor  presented the commission’s recommendations to the President on January 1, 2007. However, little is known about the major part played by The Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI) in motivating this study and in administering the work of the commission. On January 8, 2007 a function was held to mark the launching of the report and to pay tribute to CECI’s founder, Los Angeles-based industrialist Isaac Parviz Nazarian. CECI is a nonprofit, apolitical, nonpartisan center aimed at strengthening Israel and  empowering its citizens by educating them about their democratic rights and duties


Isaac Parviz Nazarian, founder of CECI

Many advocates of electoral reform, particularly those from Britain and the USA, insist on changing from our countrywide proportional representation system (PR) to the type of regional constituencies in their home countries. They believe that regionally elected Members of Knesset (MKs) would be directly accountable to the voters in their respective constituencies as opposed to the present system in which MK’s owe allegiance only to their own party apparatus.

But this belief is only partially true. Inherent in the proposed regional elections is the “winner takes all” or “first past the post” (FPTP) system, which has serious undemocratic flaws. For example, if four parties are standing and A gains 20%, B 30%, C 35% and D 15%, C wins the seat and the views of 65% of the voters in the district are effectively ignored; a distinctly undemocratic situation.

 This is not unrealistic speculation. In Britain for example, Labour won the 2005 election with only 36% of the popular vote. In 2000, George W Bush was elected president with 47.87% of the popular votes against Al Gore’s 48.38%.

The much-vaunted ability of a voter to appeal to the MK for his/her district is generally limited to mundane matters concerning the particular district. An MK is however, unlikely to respond positively in matters which diverge from his/her party’s political orientation, even though 65% of the voters, as in the abovementioned case, may feel strongly about the subject.

That adopting the FPTP system would be a retrogressive step is evident from the fact that in both Britain and the USA there are strong movements advocating a change to some form of PR as in use in most countries of Europe.

In the main, the Magidor report contains essential and valuable recommendations including raising the voting threshold in order to reduce the number of small parties as more fully discussed in my  January 27 article The 2013 election results and the importance of raising the election threshold” and reducing the size of our cabinet as discussed in part 1 of this series Trimming our obese cabinet

Regarding the concern that PR does not give the voter the direct connection to an MK that is claimed for a regionally elected MK, the commission deserve kudos for attempting to compensate by incorporating an element of voters’ personal preferences for candidates. In addition to the ballot paper for the list, a list will be provided of each party’s candidates on the national list and the regional list, and the voter will be entitled to mark his/her preference for up to three names in the national list and one name in the local regional list. This is provided according to the report because

 it is important to determine the principle that the voter will have an influence on the composition of the list for which he is voting. This can also serve as a substitute for preliminary elections in parties plagued by considerable structural problems“.

This suggestion partly resembles the Single Transferable Vote (STV) used inAustraliaand other countries and it is difficult to understand why the commission places a limitation on the numbers of candidates for whom preference can be expressed. In STV, which will be discussed in a separate article, the voter can express an order of preference for all candidates.

It is disappointing that the commission succumbed partially to the proponents of transplanting the British or American systems toIsrael, by proposing a hybrid compromise; 60 MKs to be elected on a regional basis in 17 regions, and 60 by the existing PR system.

In doing so, the commission unfortunately ignored valuable advice offered by visiting DukeUniversityprofessor Don Horowitz at a meeting of the commission in February 2006. “It’s best not to scratch where it doesn’t itch,” he said, cautioning against emulating other democracies without takingIsrael’s particular situation into account.

The commission also failed to draw lessons from the Palestine Authority elections, which used a similar mixture of regional and PR electoral systems. The 132 seats of the PLC were divided equally between the two systems. Media discussions on the Hamas election victory indicate an almost universal but erroneous belief that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians voted for Hamas. But a study of the web site of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission reveals that, in fact, a clear majority of Palestinians voted against Hamas in the electoral lists  in which Hamas received only 44.55% of the popular vote.   

What happened was that Hamas presented a unified list under the name “Change and Reform” in each district while Fatah and others had a multiplicity of candidates. The total number of valid votes in the electoral lists was 990,873. Hamas received 440,409 votes while 550,464 (including 440,409 for Fatah) voted for other parties.

The district voting favored Hamas and in the end result Change and Reform (Hamas)  obtained 74 seats; Fatah 45; Martyr Abu Ali Mustapha 3; the Alternative 2; Independent Palestine 2; the Third Way 2; and the Independents list 4 seats.

FPTP suffers from the additional disadvantage that an extremist party could win seats by exploiting local grievances and localized group prejudices in small districts leading to eventually gaining countrywide control with less than a majority of the popular vote. 

Gerrymandering. The proposal for regional constituencies ignores the extreme complexity of determining district boundaries in the Israeli context and the inevitable temptation to gerrymander or manipulate borders to gain an electoral advantage.

Interestingly the term gerrymander is derived from Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who was responsible for a law in 1812 defining a new voting district whose shape resembled a salamander; hence gerry-mander.

It is difficult to envisage agreement on the report’s recommendation to include the ArabvillageofTaibehin region 7 with Rishpon, Nordiya and Kadimah. It is similarly illogical to include Bnei Brak in region 9, together withRamat Gan, Kfar Shmaryahu and Herzliya. The difficulties posed are too obvious to require elaboration. It is almost certain, that it will be impossible to obtain agreement on the regions.

PR and STV. Under FPTP a vote for Meretz or Labor would have no value when cast by a person living in Bnei Brak and a vote for Shas would have no value if cast by a person located in Herzliya. But with PR every vote in the country has equal value and with variations like STV which will be discussed separately, voters are given an opportunity to express preferences for individual candidates in the party lists. This in turn results in accountability of the MK’s to voters rather than to the party bosses.


About the Author
Maurice Ostroff is a founder member of the international Coalition of Hasbara Volunteers, better known by its acronym CoHaV, (star in Hebrew), a world-wide umbrella organization of volunteers active in combating anti-Israel media and political bias and in promoting the positive side of Israel His web site is at www.maurice-ostroff.org