Explained

Where Did My Vote Go: A Short Guide to How the Israeli Electoral System Works

How are the votes translated into Knesset seats – and when will we know the final results?

Israeli poll workers prepare a polling site on Election Day, April 9, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

The minute polling places all over Israel closed at 10 P.M. on Tuesday evening, the Central Elections Committee began counting the votes and translating them into Knesset seats. The complicated system that turns the raw votes into final, official results and from there into Knesset seats will have an important effect on the composition of the 21st Knesset — and the next government.

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Israelis vote by placing a physical slip of paper with the party’s symbol and name on it into an envelope, which they then put into a physical ballot box, the same way they have voted since the first election for the Knesset in January 1949. They vote in a proportional representation system only for parties and their Knesset slates, and not individuals.  

Which votes count for calculating how to allocate seats?

After all the votes are counted, by hand, and all the invalid ballots are weeded out, the “electoral threshold” can be calculated. The threshold is the minimum number of votes a party needs to enter the Knesset. The present electoral threshold was raised before the last election to 3.25 percent of all the valid votes, which keeps small parties out and means any party entering the Knesset will have no fewer than four seats.  

The next stage is to “erase” the votes for all the parties that did not pass the threshold — and these votes are not used in calculating the allocation of the seats. But all these initial calculations will change after the votes in “double envelopes” are counted later: the votes of soldiers, prisoners, Israelis voting overseas, those hospitalized and others. 

How are the Knesset seats allocated? 

After the electoral threshold is calculated and the number of votes for each party that passed the threshold is tabulated, the total number of valid votes is divided by 120. This number is called the “index.”

In the next stage, the number of valid votes for each party is divided by the index to calculate the number of seats each party has won. But these numbers do not necessarily work out exactly to 120, and usually come out to a number less than 120. 

Each party has a remainder of “excess” votes after the division into a whole number of seats — and these excess votes are then used to calculate the final allocation. Some parties will gain seats because of them. Parties are allowed — but not required — to sign “excess vote” agreements before the election, and the final calculations are made using what is known in Israel as the Bader-Ofer Method. 

So what is the Bader-Ofer Law?

The law, which has been in use since the December 1973 election, determines how these excess votes will be distributed and Knesset seats reallocated. Two factors are taken into account: The excess vote agreements signed between the parties and the relative sizes of the parties. The law is named after its two sponsors, MKs Yohanan Bader (Gahal) and Avraham Ofer (Alignment), and was passed in April 1973. 

Who benefits from the excess vote agreements?

The law allows any two parties to sign an excess vote agreement between them, with the idea being to prevent these excess votes “going to waste.”

Signing such an agreement increases the chances of the party winning an extra seat or two, but the method of calculation is a bit complicated.

According to the Bader-Ofer Law, each set of two parties that signed an excess vote agreement is — at this stage of the tabulating — considered as if they were a single party for the allocation of the excess votes, and then the excess vote seats are recalculated (in a somewhat complicated process). Once it is calculated which pairs of parties have won the excess seats, it must be decided which of the two parties get the additional seat.

Here, the votes are allocated to each party according to their relative size compared to the other — in another complicated calculation — but one that tends to favor the larger of the two parties, and not necessarily the one with greater number of excess votes — but not always.  

Which parties have signed excess vote agreement for this election?

Likud signed such an agreement with the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Labor signed with Meretz, Shas signed with United Torah Judaism, Hayamin Hehadash signed with Yisrael Beiteinu and Hadash-Ta’al signed with United Arab List-Balad. Kahol Lavan, Kulanu, Geshr and Zehut did not sign excess vote agreements with another party.

The excess votes of a party that did not sign an agreement will not be counted in the final stage of allocating seats according to the excess votes, which means they cannot increase their number of seats after the first stage of allocating Knesset seats. A party that signed an excess vote agreement with a party that did not pass the electoral threshold will also not be able to use that party’s votes in this stage of calculation seats.

What about the votes of soldiers, prisoners, etc?

Soldiers, prisoners, Foreign Ministry diplomats overseas, official representatives of national institutions working overseas, hospitalized patients, women in shelters for battered women, polling station workers, police officers on duty, some disabled persons and others are entitled to vote under special arrangements using what are called “double envelopes.” In this case, the original envelope with the voting slip is placed inside a second envelope, which is then signed and marked with the details of the person entitled to vote in this manner.

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These “double envelopes” are brought to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset where they are counted beginning on the day after the election. The envelopes are sorted by the identity numbers of these voters, and are checked against the computerized register of voters to ensure they did not vote twice.  

The exact number of double envelope voters is a secret, but in the last election it was over 280,000 people. The results from these double envelopes can cause major changes in the allocation of the Knesset seats because the entire set of calculations has to be redone from the beginning once all the votes are in and the final numbers have been counted: The electoral threshold is recalculated, and then the index must be recalculated along with the excess vote calculations — and lots of things can change.