Drawing a Blank

Messrs Mofaz and Netanyahu announced this week that their newly forged union intends to change the system of government. Here is my humble contribution to that mission.

During the short period when elections were looming large on the horizon, I was taking stock of my voting record in local elections since 1969, and came to the rather sad - but unsurprising - conclusion that my vote doesn't count. I am not claiming that it was not counted: I'm sure that it was, and my name was ticked off the list every time I cast my vote. It's just that never once did the results go my way: Either the party or candidate I backed didn't pass the voting threshold, or it and he/she didn't garner enough support to do things that count.

The one exception was in 1999 when, following three years of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud at the helm, I voted for One Israel and Ehud Barak. On the morning after the elections, when I realized that for once in my life I was with the majority, a thought crossed my mind, when recalling my previous voting record: Maybe I (and the majority as well) had been wrong? Alas, the ensuing events proved that I was, indeed, right (about being wrong).

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.

I hasten to add that I went into the voting booth in those elections repeating to myself what had been the mantra of people like me since the early 1970s: that the Labor Party and its leaders were not worth much, but that all other options would be (and eventually indeed were) worse. Thus, when pondering over whom to vote for, we like-minded people would advise each other to "take a pill against nausea - and vote for Labor."

The problem with pills of any kind is that one eventually becomes immune to their effects, and the nausea caused by the candidates and parties vying for my (and many others' ) vote, still persists today. Some of the people and parties have never changed, and the new ones that have sprouted up on the political scene all these years did not bode any better.

That fact, and the way this year's early elections vanished into very polluted air, has set me thinking that there must be a way for me - along with my ideological sisters and brothers, of whom I'm pretty sure there are more than an unhappy few - to effectively express disapproval via a vote.

The best possibility we have for doing that is abstention, an act that is usually noted, but not actually taken into account when the results of elections are announced. In 2009, for instance, 1,862,398 Israelis - 33.28 percent of the electorate - did not show up at polling stations. De facto, they abstained, but that does not necessarily mean they disapproved of any or all of the parties or candidates. Every citizen has a vote in a democratic election, but he or she is not obliged to cast it or to justify abstaining.

Some voters entertain the notion that when they cast a blank, or "white," vote, it will be interpreted as a protest. Not so: In most, if not all, popular elections around the democratic world, including in Israel, such votes are considered invalid and thus not taken into account during the divvying up of the political spoils (the mandates or seats ). There were 43,097 such votes in Israel's 2009 elections (1.26 percent of the electorate - a rate that seems to be about the norm around here ), and if they were supposed to indicate protest or disapproval, it was pretty negligible.

In advance of two out of three recent elections (i.e., in 1996 and 2001 ) in which each Israeli had the opportunity to vote separately for a prime ministerial candidate, petitions were submitted to the High Court of Justice demanding that blank votes be counted, as their volume could have had an influence in the case of a second round of voting for the PM.

Both petitions were rejected, and there was no need for a second round in either case: Barak and One Israel (formerly Labor ) won in 1999, with 179,458 blank (yellow ) votes for premier, and 64,000 blank (white ) ones for the Knesset. These slips of paper may or may not have reflected a protest vote. If it was a protest it is impossible to decide against whom, or what. The situation was clearer, however, during the 2001 elections for prime minister: Then 16 percent of Arab Israeli voters cast blank (yellow ) votes in protest of the fact that 12 members of their community had been killed by Israeli police during riots in October 2000, at the outset of the second intifada. Then 83,917 blank votes - 3 percent of the entire electorate - were cast, and declared invalid.

Ultimately, had that number of people cast valid votes, it would not have tipped the balance: Ariel Sharon was elected premier with 62.4 percent of the votes, after a 62.3-percent voting turnout (the lowest ever in local elections ). Which means of course that 37.7 percent of the electorate, or 1,697,975 Israelis, did not vote in that election. We will never know if that was a sign of protest, or merely of indifference.

Messrs Mofaz and Netanyahu announced that their newly forged union intends to change Israel's system of government. So here is my humble contribution to that valiant mission: Why not allow each voter to cast his vote for or against any party or personality running in the next elections, now set for sometime late next year. That would necessitate two print runs of ballot papers for each party, with the letters representing each one printed black on white (in favor ), or white on black (or any other contrasting color scheme, for those against ). I would suggest that score would be made public and the outcome of such a vote should be determined calculating the net total - i.e., the votes in favor minus the votes against - garnered by any party or person.

As I am fully cognizant of the fact that if the world were waiting for me to invent the wheel we would all still be walking, I figured that my idea was introduced and implemented somewhere before. I thus checked with political scientist Dan S. Felsenthal, professor emeritus at the University of Haifa, who has researched and published papers and books on voting theory and behavior. To the best of his knowledge such a scheme was never implemented in popular elections in the world. He himself wrote a paper on what he terms as "combined approval voting" 23 years ago, but that dealt with voting directly for candidates within a small electorate (an association or society ) - not in popular, proportional national elections.

The professor was doubtful about the feasibility of implementing the sort of voting scheme I suggested in Israel, with its proportional elections. He pointed out that there are three possible outcomes of such elections. In the first case (Outcome A ) the net total (approval minus disapproval votes ) for all participating parties would be a positive number. Such a result would not, in principle, differ much from one achieved by the existing system, according to Felsenthal. It may merely require a redefinition of the voting threshold (the minimum number of votes for a seat in parliament ).

Problems may arise, however, if some of the parties reach a "positive" number of votes, while others end up "in the red," with more voters casting "anti" votes, (Outcome B), or if all contenders end up with more negative than positive votes (Outcome C).

Felsenthal is right about all this, of course. But for my purpose such a scheme works perfectly: It allows voters like me, who don't see any electable party around, to at least express disapproval and vote against the one element which in their view is liable to cause the most damage if elected. I may not know whom to vote for, but I sure know those whom I have to vote against. Alas, I'm allowed only one vote.

If elections are supposed, in theory, to help "heal" our political woes, votes of disapproval - hopefully a chorus of them - could ensure that we act according to the Hippocratic oath of abstaining from doing harm. That is the most one can hope for in our Jewish democracy.