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Gatekeeping

What does 3.25% mean? What was all that merging of parties to make the threshold? And what happens if a party doesn't make it after all?
Sheets of newly printed ballots at a printing house in Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)
Sheets of newly printed ballots at a printing house in Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

The electoral threshold is one of the most basic parts of the Israeli electoral system. Before I explain how Knesset seats are allocated, before I explain vote-sharing agreements, before I explain anything else, there needs to be an understanding of what the threshold is, what it does, and what ways there are around it.

The Target

Put simply, the threshold is the minimum percent of the vote your list needs to reach in order to get Knesset seats. It started out at 1%, and was gradually increased until it reached its current level of 3.25%.

And there is no way around it.

I’m going to repeat this, because this is one of the most common mistakes I see in Knesset reporting. There is no way around the threshold. It doesn’t matter what vote-sharing agreements you signed, how many votes other parties did not or did not receive, or how many cigars and bottles of champagne you bought for the Prime Minister, if you received 3.24999999% of the vote you will not be in the Knesset.

3.25% of what?

The threshold is calculated based on the number of valid votes for valid parties — not the total number of people who voted in the election.

Some voters submit blank ballots as a sort of protest; other ballots can be invalidated for various reasons, such as if you try to vote for two parties. Even though the number of blank and invalid ballots is published by the electoral authorities, those ballots do not matter when calculating the threshold.

So, for instance, Israel’s last election saw 4,254,738 voters go to the polls – but 43,854 of these posted blank or invalid ballots, leaving 4,210,884 kosher votes. The threshold was 3.25% of the kosher votes, or 136,853.73.

You therefore needed more than this, or 136,854 votes, to enter the Knesset. Parties who received less had their votes thrown out. The Yachad party famously failed to enter the Knesset while coming excruciatingly close, with 125,158 votes – less than 12,000 away.

(I should make it clear that all the parties who don’t reach the threshold are eliminated at the same time. You can’t find yourself at 3.249% and try to claim, “Wait wait wait, don’t eliminate our votes yet, first eliminate the votes of all the other parties that didn’t make it, and then we’ll be 3.25% of what’s left.” I know that sounds stupid, but I actually saw a reporter argue this in advance of the last election.)

Falling Below

Now, what happens when a party gets enough votes for 1, 2, or 3 Knesset seats, but doesn’t actually get to sit in the Knesset because it didn’t cross the threshold? Well, the Knesset still has 120 seats in it, so those seats don’t just disappear. Instead, other parties will pick them up through a process governed by the Bader-Ofer law.

The Bader-Ofer law is very complicated (I will explain it in a later post), but the important thing to know about it for now is that if a party falls below the threshold, its Knesset seats are distributed more or less randomly among the other parties; it’s impossible to predict in advance who will get them.

What does this mean? It means that seats that are lost to a party are not the same thing as seats that are lost to a bloc. If a left-wing party that doesn’t cross the threshold got enough votes for 1 Knesset seat, that doesn’t mean it lost a seat for the left-wing bloc; for all you know, a different left-wing party picked that seat up instead! With the number of parties on each side approximately equal, the chances are about 50/50 that this will happen.

And in the last election, this is for the most part exactly what did happen. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the three seats that the Yachad party supposedly lost for the right-wing bloc in the election in 2015. But it is very easy to calculate which parties picked up those seats instead (I’ll show you how when I explain Bader-Ofer). One seat went to the Likud, one went to the Zionist Union, and one went to Kulanu. With two of Yachad’s three lost seats going to right-wing parties, that means the right bloc as a whole lost a grand total of one measly seat! (And this is less talked about, but if the threshold had been even lower, the Green Leaf party would have made it into the Knesset, taking its one seat from Yesh Atid.)

Yet it’s a myth that will not die: the belief that Yachad lost three seats for the right in 2015, or that a party polling at 3 seats in the current election (just below the threshold) is at risk of losing three seats for its bloc, or similar claims. Sometimes it’s a genuine mistake by somebody who didn’t do the research, but other times it’s a partisan hack deliberately fearmongering, misrepresenting the facts in an effort to change the behavior of the voters or the parties. How else can you explain articles that claim that Eli Yishai’s party lost the right “at least four seats”, which is not only false but literally impossible? If the party had received enough votes for four seats, they would have passed the threshold!

Which brings me to how much the threshold is worth, in seats. 3.25% of 120 is equal to 3.9 – which is extremely close to four seats. The vast, vast, vast, vast majority of the time, if you pass the threshold you’ll have at least four seats. (I’ve seen articles that claim the threshold is equivalent to five seats; these are incorrect. The mistake comes from the fact that no party happened to get four this time around.) However, there are two ways that a party can cross the threshold yet end up with fewer than four seats; I’ll explain these in future posts.

About the Author
Daniel Sterman lives in Jerusalem with his wife and four children. By day he is a not-so-mild-mannered technical writer; by night he dons a cape and mask and sends strongly-worded emails to news organizations to complain about minor mathematical errors.
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