Analysis from Israel
‘Open-list’ systems combine proportional representation with voter say over individual candidates.
Last week, I argued that Israel needs a new electoral system, but shouldn’t adopt the Anglo-American one. Instead, it should retain a fully proportional system while also giving voters a say over individual candidates – a system known as open-list proportional representation. Most European countries already use some version of this system, which has numerous variants. While the precise variant that would best suit Israel requires further study, there are two basic options: letting voters choose either single candidates or multiple candidates.

In multiple-candidate systems, each ballot, instead of merely bearing the party’s name, lists the party’s candidates. Voters then select some number of those candidates (in some systems, as many as there are seats in parliament).

Seats are divided among the parties just as they are currently: If, say, 25% of all voters cast their ballots for Likud, then Likud gets 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. But the occupants of those seats are determined by which candidates receive the most votes. So if 500,000 Likud voters marked Reuven Rivlin on their ballot and only 200,000 marked Danny Danon, Rivlin would place higher than Danon. The 30 highest-placed candidates would then become MKs.

A variant of this system lets voters rank the candidates, with a first-place ranking giving the candidate more points than a tenth-place ranking. The candidate’s final placement on the list depends on how many points he accumulates. Yet another variant permits casting multiple votes for the same candidate: If a voter were allowed to mark 20 names, for instance, he could choose 20 different people or cast two votes each for 10 people, thereby increasing those candidates’ chances of placing high.

In the single-seat option, each voter casts his ballot for a single candidate, which doubles as a vote for that candidate’s party. Again, seats are divided among the parties just as they are currently. In addition, parties would still submit ranked candidate slates before the election. However, those slates aren’t final: they depend on the outcome of the balloting.

Usually, a quota is set – say, 25% of all votes cast for that party. Any candidate who wins more votes than the quota is automatically bumped to the top of his party’s list, with the highest vote-receivers placing highest. Only if a party wins more seats than the number of candidates who pass the quota are the remaining seats filled from the preexisting list. Thus if 400,000 voters cast ballots for Labor, entitling it to 15 seats, and 10 candidates were chosen by more than 25% of those voters, those 10 candidates would get Labor’s first 10 seats. The other seats would go to the first five candidates on the slate who didn’t pass the quota.

Both options can also be combined with district voting, using either single-seat or multi-seat districts. Germany, for instance, uses single-seat districts, in which every voter casts one ballot for a party and one for a candidate running in his district. Seats in parliament are allocated proportionally, based on what percentage of the vote each party received in the first ballot. But the seats are filled first by candidates who won their districts. Only if a party didn’t produce enough district winners to fill all its seats can it fill the remainder from a party slate. 

Open-list systems have almost endless permutations, but all share one crucial characteristic: They give every single voter some influence over who his party’s representatives in parliament will be. In Israel’s system, known as closed-list proportional representation, most voters have no such influence: Party slates are determined either by the party leadership or by party members in a primary. The vast majority of voters, who don’t belong to any party, can only vote for or against the entire slate rather than for or against individual candidates.

Open-list systems therefore give voters much more power to oust corrupt and incompetent MKs. As an example, consider Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, who was convicted of perjury in 2010. Hanegbi remains wildly popular among many influential Likud activists, having provided them and their relatives with dozens of government jobs during his years in office. These activists managed to recruit enough primary votes in his favor that he ranked 16th on Likud’s 2013 Knesset slate, high enough to reenter the Knesset. But Likud primary voters constitute less than a tenth of all the people who voted Likud in the 2013 election, and among this larger voting pool, few would consider Hanegbi’s skill at providing taxpayer-funded jobs for Likud hacks a plus. Had these voters been given a say, his chances of winning reelection would likely have been much lower.

While the Knesset has many hard-working, dedicated MKs who genuinely try to make Israel a better place according to their own lights, it also has many whose activity consists chiefly of making provocative and offensive remarks that earn them disproportionate media coverage. The Hebrew-language Open Knesset website, which ranks MKs by parameters such as attendance at committee sessions and votes, reveals some MKs who diligently attend almost every scheduled committee session and others who deign to attend only one or two per month; some who diligently show up for votes on bills and others who rarely do. Some of the Knesset no-shows are hard-working ministers. But others are doing almost nothing to earn their generous taxpayer-funded salaries.

These freeloaders are often veteran MKs with excellent connections to party leaders and activists, so under the current system, they’re unlikely ever to be ousted: They’ll consistently place high enough on their party’s slates to win reelection. But if ordinary voters were given a say, they would likely prefer MKs who actually work for their paychecks.

Scrapping proportional representation altogether would be a mistake, as I explained last week. But there’s no reason why Israel should continue being one of the last democracies in the world to use a closed-list system. Most other countries that use proportional representation have switched to open-list systems, out of an understanding that giving voters a say on individual candidates ultimately produces parliaments more accountable to the electorate. It’s long past time for Israel to do the same.

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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