Tuesday’s elections in Israel are a reminder that there is more than one way for a democracy to choose its representatives.
Unlike Americans and Britons, voters in Israel don’t choose a representative for their local geographical area. They vote on a national basis for a party, which publishes a list of candidates. As the website of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) explains: “The lists that have passed the qualifying threshold receive a number of Knesset seats which is proportional to their electoral strength.”
About that “threshold”: A party must receive at least 3.25% of the votes to enjoy any representation in the Knesset. In practice, this doesn’t prevent small parties from obtaining a small number of seats in the Knesset, and then using those seats as leverage with large parties when it comes time to cobble together a government. Small parties – including religious parties – thus can command disproportionate influence.
A national ballot arguably makes more sense for a small country such as Israel. But it might have some advantages even for a continental country like the U.S. (along with the obvious disadvantages of a multiplication of parties and the need for coalition governments).
Under the Constitution, members of the U.S. House of Representatives must be elected state by state -- although, contrary to popular belief, the Constitution doesn’t mandate the current practice of electing representatives in single-member districts.
A 1967 federal statute, the Uniform Congressional District Act, does require single-member districts, but it could be repealed. Then a state could choose to have voters elect the state’s House delegation at large or in multi-member districts. But, barring a constitutional amendment, you still couldn’t have a national, Israel-style ballot.
Before you object that that’s good because “all politics are local,” consider this: All members of the U.S. House, though part of their states’ delegations, are supposed to legislate in the national interest.
Beyond that, members of the House already see themselves as representing people who don’t necessarily live in their district. For example, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus probably views her constituents as including not only voters in her district but African Americans in general.
So what if the U.S. went even further in the direction of nationalizing congressional representation – say, a constitutional amendment that would provide for the nationwide election of some or all House members?
That might take the form of the party list system used in Israel, or it could involve a ballot with the names of individuals from several parties or none. On the latter sort of ballot a voter could maximize the chances of his or her preferred candidates by voting only for them – a practice known as plunking.
One result might be greater representation of racial and ethnic minorities. Another would be representation for political views now marginalized (in some cases for good reasons): Imagine a U.S. House with a handful of monarchists and Communists, a few representatives from animal- rights parties, a David Duke-style champion of “white rights,” a sizable group of Christian nationalists and maybe a few Scientologists. It might be the political equivalent of the bar scene in “Star Wars,” but it also might make for some interesting legislation.
If that scenario frightens you, I can understand. But in some ways it’s more democratic than the current arrangement, in which Democrats in a congressional district are effectively disenfranchised if the Republican candidate for Congress wins 51% of the vote. (Multi-member districts within a state could address that problem, but so would a national ballot.)
The truth is that all systems of representative government involve trade-offs between participation and other values such as stability or clarity.
Looking at Israel, with its plethora of parties and proportional representation, Americans might have reason to consider our system superior. But it’s not because it’s more democratic.
Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3