Israel’s electoral system frequently features 10 or more political parties vying for seats. This is due to Israel’s proportional electoral system, where a party obtaining a percentage of the overall vote in an election result will give that party seats in the Knesset. However, the Israeli government has taken steps over the last decade to limit the amount of parties that can receive seats in an election. They have instituted what is called a minimum electoral threshold of 3.25% for any given Knesset election.
How does this function in practice? Let’s say, for instance that the United Torah Judaism party only receives 2.5% of the vote in a Knesset election. If there were no minimum electoral threshold, UTJ would receive 3 seats in the Knesset (.025 x 120= 3). But, because of the minimum threshold, UTJ would actually receive no seats in the Knesset in this scenario.
But, what happens to the percentage of the vote that went to UTJ? If in this scenario all the other political parties competing in this Knesset election received over 3.25% of the vote then that means only 117 Knesset seats would be assigned to these parties (.975 x 120=117). Does this mean that when a political party finishes below the minimum threshold that the Knesset simply has missing seats?
No, that’s not what happens. Instead, these voting percentages for parties under-the-threshold will be reallocated to the other parties. Let’s go back to our previous scenario- UTJ receives 2.5% of the vote. Let’s also say that only three other parties ran in this Knesset election: New Right, Likud and Shas. Let’s further say that all of them received 32.5% of the vote. That would mean that each of those parties would receive 39 Knesset seats total (.325 x 120= 39). But, because 2.5% of the vote went to UTJ, this 2.5% would be reallocated to these other parties based on their relative percentages of the vote. UTJ’s 2.5% translates to 3 total Knesset seats. Shas, Likud and New Right each received an equal amount of the vote. So, each of these parties who finished above the threshold would receive an extra Knesset seat.
To sum this up, in an election where the vote was UTJ- 2.5%, New Right- 32.5%, Likud- 32.5% and Shas- 32.5%, the seat distribution would be: UTJ- 0 seats, New Right 40 seats, Likud 40 seats, Shas 40 seats.
When votes are casted for parties that fail to get above the electoral threshold, then these votes are considered “wasted”. This threat of “wasted” votes presents a dilemma to smaller/fringe parties contemplating a Knesset run and their potential voters. On the one hand, having a party that, though fringe, would represent your interests specifically and effectively is useful. If you are a voter who believes in 100% of the UTJ policy platform and only 75% of the Likud policy platform, then voting for UTJ makes sense. Likewise, the parties themselves would rather have independent seats that they control instead of merging with a bigger party like Likud and being unable to effectively steer the direction of that party or, after the election, the coalition government.
On the other hand, if this party fails to get above the 3.25% threshold, then a vote for this party could backfire. These voters would not have their party in the Knesset and the politicians at the head of these parties not be able sit in the Knesset. Additionally, the votes that this party acquired could be distributed to parties that have the exact opposite ideology and policy preferences!
Let’s refer to the example we just used where UTJ finished below the threshold. Let’s also say that a large part of UTJ’s policy platform is concerned with maintaining gender separation in religious schools. Let’s also say that the New Right Party wants to end this practice of gender separation. In our example, voting for UTJ would help the New Right receive an extra Knesset seat. Thus, a voter or politician who desperately cares about maintaining genders separation would, through voting for or being a member of UTJ, have given more political power to a party that wants to defeat this policy.
As these examples show, both voters and politicians in Israel have a lot to risk when they support fringe parties. The fact that this has been a facet of Israeli elections for several Knesset elections means that voters and politicians are aware of this risk and open to messaging from larger parties to decrease the likelihood of wasted votes.
Additionally, when building a coalition government, large parties often attempt increase the chance that the smaller/fringe parties that would be natural coalition partners finish above the threshold or merge with other parties. Likewise, these larger parties also try to encourage smaller/fringe parties on the opposite political bloc to stay independent, in the hopes that the “wasted” votes of this election will for parties on the opposing political bloc.