Voter Fatigue and Empowered Extremists: The Possible Effects of Israel's Constant Elections

Israeli citizens will head to the polls on September 17 for the third (and even fourth) time within less than 11 months

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man votes for Israel's parliamentary election at a polling station in Bnei Brak, Israel, Tuesday, April 9, 2019.
Oded Balilty,AP

The planned do-over election has pushed Israel to an electoral nadir. Because the 21st Knesset was dissolved so quickly, the average frequency of elections in the country has plunged to one every 2.6 years; among other democracies only Greece, at one every 2.4 years, has a lower average, after having two elections in one year twice in recent years.

Italy, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mocked during the vote on dissolving the Knesset when he said, “What are we, Italy?” in fact has a relatively high average of an election every 4.4 years. That’s because while the prime ministers there do fall frequently, they don’t necessarily bring down parliament with them.

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According to data collected by Dr. Ofer Kenig, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, repeat elections aren’t actually such an unusual process in modern democracies. Britain in 1974 held two election campaigns; Ireland during the 1980s had three in less than three-and-a-half years. Greece had two elections in 1989, 2012 and 2015, while Spain recently had three elections in three-and-a-half years.

The main risk of frequent elections is that voter turnout plunges during the later campaigns, reducing confidence in the results and the legitimacy of the government that’s subsequently established. Will two elections in less than half a year bring down voter turnout in Israel? Kenig says it’s hard to predict, although this has in fact happened in almost all instances of elections held so close together.

“Political scientists call this ‘voter fatigue,” he says. “Voters who are asked to come and vote frequently are liable to develop apathy, equanimity and even aversion to the democratic process, and will prefer not to participate. We must remember that for Israeli citizens it will be the third time within less than 11 months that they are being called to the polls because there were also local elections [on October 30].”

Indeed, for some Israelis it will actually be the fourth vote because in many localities there was a run-off election on November 13. While during the first round of the local elections, turnout was around 60 percent, during the second round it was only 45 percent. In 2013 turnout also dropped slightly in the 38 local authorities that held a second round of balloting. Dr. Assaf Shapira of the IDI found that those who don’t turn out for the run-off include “those who supported a candidate in the first round who didn’t make it to the run-off,” and that “the more frequently elections are held, voters develop apathy and fatigue and turnout rates drop.”

So who wins and who loses when voter turnout is low? When it comes to confidence in the democratic system, in its institutions and the legitimacy that the public grants to the government of the winning party, it’s customary to say that higher turnout enhances them. But what about the political camps themselves? Is there a universal preference that emerges when voter turnout rates rise or fall? In Israel specifically, does high voter turnout benefit the right or the left?

The “silent majority,” or “moderate majority” theory states that as voter turnout rises, the moderate, centrist parties do better at the expense of the more extreme parties. Accordingly, as the turnout rate drops, the more extreme parties, which are good at getting their voters to the polls, do better. However, these studies are based on the assumption that most potential voters are moderates, which is not necessarily the case in every country or at any given time. Compulsory voting, for example, doesn’t always accurately predict the parties’ results in those countries that have it.

Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, the pollster who came closest to predicting the results of Israel’s April election, believes that voter turnout will be “one of the most important factors in determining the results of this election,” along with the identity of those parties that will hover around the electoral threshold. Fuchs believe that voter turnout will indeed be lower on September 17 than it was in April, but it’s much too early to assess how much or where.

“In the past the greatest fluctuations have been in the sector that we know the least about, and that’s the non-Jewish sector, because of decisions to boycott, or the opposite,” he said. In theory, he added, if the voter turnout rates drop among the entire population at the same rate, then nothing will happen. But he agrees that “unequivocally, those whose position is more cohesive vote more,” like the ultra-Orthodox community, for example.

During the mayoral elections in Jerusalem, Fuchs recalled, the turnout rate plunged but it was the secular people in the capital who stayed home. “People in the middle say that it will turn out the same without me, that my vote isn’t important, and they are right, of course. But when a lot of people say the same thing, it tips the scales in the end.”