Oped | Victors’ Bonus: What Israel Could Learn From Athens

The following essay and original research first appeared in The Globalist.

On Tuesday, more than a dozen Israeli political parties are expected to win seats in the country’s snap parliamentary elections that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called after his coalition broke up last year.

These parties will vie for a total of 120 proportionally elected seats in the Knesset. Israel’s threshold to win seats has this year been raised to 3.25% of the vote (translating to 3-4 seats).

As a result of this fractious system, no single Israeli party or joint list has ever won a majority (61 seats) in an election.

No clear winners in Israeli elections

In the past five elections, the party or list that ended up forming the coalition won an average of just 30.2 seats out of 120 – i.e., only a quarter of the seats – with 11-14 other lists also winning seats.

To form a government thus requires coalition building among quite a few parties, usually with very different (if not diametrically opposed) policy views. No wonder that, under those circumstances, coalitions do not last very long.

The public has previously shown a desire for a stronger executive mandate. Israel briefly adopted direct elections for Prime Minister in the 1990s. To exclude unserious candidates, only major parties could nominate someone. In each of the three times Prime Ministers were directly elected, only two candidates competed.

This modification unfortunately did not fix the problem because the Prime Minister could win an outright majority of the vote but still lack a majority of legislators to support his cabinet or agenda.

Since then, other than tinkering with the electoral threshold very slightly, Israel has not tried to deal with the leadership and policy instability problem inherent in its system.

Where Athens does provide inspiration

One possible place to seek electoral reform inspiration for Israel might be Greece – the birthplace of democracy and a country with a similar population size – despite its own serious current political challenges.

Similarly to Israel, 250 members of Greece’s parliament are elected through a system that ensures fair geographic representation along with the proportional will of the national electorate, using a 3% threshold.

However, there is one big innovation to clarify the executive mandate. As of the 2008 revisions to Greek election laws, the top-finishing party is given a victory bonus of 50 extra seats – bringing the total to 300 seats in parliament – to help the winner get closer to a governing majority.

This represents a bonus equal to 20% of the proportionally elected seats. (An earlier law gave the winner 40 seats.)

It’s not a perfect setup, of course. A party earning relatively low percentage of the vote share can gain an extra 20% of the seats even if it falls well short of capturing the confidence of a majority of voters and even if another party were to capture just 1% less of the electorate than the winner.

However, it substantially boosts the chances of quickly forming a government and allowing that government to push through its major agenda items, rather than floundering along with the status quo due to internal gridlock.

Meanwhile, it still allows for diverse, multi-party elections — but constructively counteracts the growth of fringe, single-issue, or personality-centric parties that take up seats or weaken serious parties without actually contributing to the government or the opposition in any substantive way.

Israel’s political system, even more so than Greece, would benefit from being cleared of such parties. Politicians would have more incentive to remain inside a major party, rather than splintering, as often happens.

Applying Athens in Jerusalem

If a comparable bonus were applied in Israel, it could mean 120 seats would be elected proportionally with 24 additional seats awarded to the winning list. (The Knesset would expand to 144 members in this scenario, and 73 seats would be a majority.)
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March 11, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 119

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Topics: A hypothetical journey through reorganizing America’s representative democracy, from elections to a parliamentary system to unicameralism. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: March 9th, 2015.

Discussion Points:

– Should U.S. state legislatures all have only one chamber?
– What reforms could make State Senates more useful and the US Senate more fair?
– Should the legislative branch hold executive power like in a parliamentary system?
– When do checks and balances just become pointless gridlock?
– Should US states move toward proportional voting elections?

Episode 119 (47 min):
AFD 119

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US Supreme Court won’t stop plan to cut down Ohio early voting

Gregg Levine of Al Jazeera America reported on the abrupt end of Ohio’s same-day registration/early voting combo week and rollback of Sunday voting, after an emergency stay (of a lower ruling invalidating the reductions) by the Supreme Court:

[Tuesday] was to be the first day of Ohio’s “Golden Week,” a six-day overlap between the end of voter registration and the beginning of early voting for the November 4 General Election. But on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State and allowed to go forward a plan that significantly reduced the number of days voters could cast early ballots.

 
So what was being reduced and who was being affected most by the changes?

The [2005] provisions that allowed voters to register and vote the same day (the ballot counted only if the registration checked out) proved popular in African-American communities, as did weekend voting […] Ohio’s GOP-dominated government moved to cut the number of early voting days to 28, eliminating the Golden Week, some Sunday voting, and limiting operating times of polling stations to reduce availability outside traditional working hours.

 
This goes right back to the points Nate and I discussed on Episode 101 of Arsenal For Democracy, earlier this week, about the Republican efforts to suppress early voting options that benefited minorities.

And what happened when a lower court tried to block the reduction of early voting options on the grounds that it was a violation of the Voting Rights Act because of the disparate impact on minority and low-income voters?

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted rushed an appeal to the Supreme Court…

While his appeal is pending, he received an emergency stay, which allows the new, restrictive rules to go into effect, thereby reducing early voting options significantly in this year’s statewide elections in Ohio. Which is interesting because:

Husted is, himself, locked in a tight election battle with Democrat Nina Turner, an Ohio state senator.

 
Funny how that works. Looks like the Supreme Court just interfered in a close partisan election. Woops.

Levine also warns that this emergency stay may signal an impending second round of gutting the Voting Rights Act, possibly with the effective elimination of Section 2, which relates to changes in voting practice that have discriminatory effects, whether intended or not. The Supreme Court has never issued a written opinion on Section 2 since its amendment in 1982. Last year, of course, the court canceled the geographic formula in Section 4 that required special scrutiny and explicit Federal approval for changes in certain jurisdictions with a history of egregious discrimination.

October 1, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 101

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Topics: UAE and Russia milestones for women in air and space, illegal contraception co-pays in the US, death penalty in Kenya case, Big Ideas in voting and internet technology, Thai government’s food robot. People: Bill, Persephone, Nate. Produced: September 29th, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– The 1st UAE female combat pilot, the 4th female cosmonaut, CVS charging illegal co-pays on contraception, and more
– Big Idea: Could the U.S. use the goal of secure internet voting as a moonshot project to strengthen internet security in general? What interim measures should be taken to make voting easier?
– Why Thailand’s government is trying to build a robot to measure Thai food authenticity

Part 1 – UAE, Russia, US, Kenya:
Part 1 – UAE, Russia, US, Kenya – AFD 101
Part 2 – Big Ideas in Voting Tech:
Part 2 – Big Ideas in Voting Tech – AFD 101
Part 3 – Thai Food:
Part 3 – Thai Food – AFD 101

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links
Segment 1

AFD: Russia & UAE: A big week for women in air and space
Gawker: Fox News Host Calls Female Fighter Pilot “Boobs On the Ground”
House.gov: Congresswoman Speier Discovers CVS Illegally Charged 11,000 Women for Contraceptives
AFD: Kenya sentence an urgent reminder of the need for legal abortion

Segment 2

Wikipedia: Electronic voting in Estonia
ThinkProgress: Georgia State Senator Complains That Voting Is Too Convenient For Black People

Segment 3

New York Times: You Call This Thai Food? The Robotic Taster Will Be the Judge
The Globalist: Exporting Japanese Food Culture

Subscribe

RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.