Myth Busting: The Israeli Example

Israel is often quoted as an example of the dangers of electoral reform.

In essence Israel is treated as a single constituency country and members are elected in strict proportion to the votes cast.  A consequence of this is that parties with very little support can get elected and have a possibly disproportionate impact on the government.  However, no one is suggesting this particular system for the UK – Proportional Representation is not a “single system”.

The Knesset has 120 seats elected by strict proportional representation:

Israel has an electoral system based on nation-wide proportional representation, and the number of seats which every list receives in the Knesset is proportional to the number of voters who voted for it. The only limitation is the 2% qualifying threshold. In other words, a party must receive at least 2% of the votes in order to be elected. According to this system, the voters vote for a party list, and not for a particular person on the list. Since the institution of the primaries system in some of the parties, these parties directly elect their candidates for the Knesset. Some of the parties elect their candidates via the party’s institutions. In the ultra-religious parties their spiritual leaders appoint the candidates.

ref: Knesset Website: The Electoral System in Israel

So the Israeli system can lead to a huge variety of parties jousting for office, and MPs are elected off party controlled lists.  But it is not being proposed for the UK.

The problem with “one big constituency” (like Israel) is that the threshold to win a seat is very low (which can lead to lack of cohesion due to the fragmentation of the parties and the election of fringe candidates who may hold too great a veto).  Without an artificial threshold (Israel has a 2% threshold), to get elected you need a fraction equivalent to the reciprocal of the number of seats plus one.

“the reciprocal of the number of seats plus one” !!

120 seats in a constituency – you need 1/121 of the vote to get one seat – a small fraction

4 seats in a constituency – you need 1/5 of the vote to get one seat – a far larger fraction

So if you introduce a form of Proportional Representation based on constituencies of around 4 seats, you find that for a fringe candidate to get elected he or she has to achieve 20% (1/5th) of the vote across an area the size of four existing constituencies – which is more votes than they would need in a single seat situation.

The maths:

Say that in a single seat constituency approximately 40,000 vote: to get elected you may need about 40% of the vote to get elected – 16,000 votes.

In a multi-member four-seat constituency approximately 160,000 vote: to get elected you need 20% of that 160,000 to get elected – 32,000 votes. It is actually 20% of the vote + 1.  32,001

The proof: Once 4 people have been elected with 32,001 votes each, 128,004 votes have been used; this leaves 31,996 votes unused – even if they all went to a fifth candidate, he or she would not have more votes that the four successful candidates.  The “plus 1” bit avoids an unlikely five-way tie from arising.

With 5 seat constituencies, the threshold is 1/6th of the vote, with a 3 seat constituency it will be 1/4 of the vote.  This avoids the sort of result that occurs in Israel.

Perhaps the advocates of voting reform should not  use the term “PR” when advocating reform – unless of course strict proportionality is one of their main objectives.

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  • By Laboured understanding of AV | Enfranchise me! on 27 September 2010 at 7:11 pm

    […] single whole-nation multi-member constituency (like Israel) but with a list system where you delegate the choice of representative to the […]

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