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Three Elections, More Voters: Why have increasing numbers of Israelis voted in recent elections?

Photo for Three Elections, More Voters: Why

Israeli ballot box. (Photo: Jacob via Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 3.0

After a year of political deadlock and three elections, Israel is on the brink of finally getting a new government. Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies research fellow Liron Lavi explains what motivated Israelis to vote time and again and why, despite predictions, voter turnout actually increased, especially among Arab citizens of Israel.

UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, March 30, 2020 – On March 9, 2020, Israelis went to the polls for the third time in less than a year. The first two elections – held in April and September last year – did not result in the formation of a new government, as neither the Likud party nor its main rival, Blue and White, were able to assemble a parliamentary majority. Despite widespread predictions that voter turnout would decrease significantly, in fact, each election brought more Israeli voters to the ballot box, particularly Arab citizens of Israel. In the April 2019 election, voter turnout was 68.5%; in September 2019, turnout increased to 69.4%; and in March 2020, it rose to 71.3% of voters (the last time so many Israelis voted was in 1999, when Ehud Barak defeated Benjamin Netanyahu). These numbers represent a total increase of almost 3% from the first election to the third. Among Arab voters, the increase in turnout was even more dramatic – going from 49.2% in April to 59.2% in September, and then skyrocketing to 67% in March, an overall increase of 18%.

What motivated so many Israelis to go out and vote? There are a few possible factors – political, psychological, and sociological – that help explain this surprising increase in turnout. First, from a political perspective, Israelis might simply be good democratic citizens – when elections are called, they do their part and show up. Indeed, turnout in Israel is historically high, with an average of 75.2%. In the U.S., by comparison, turnout in 2016 was only 55.7%, and in 2008 it was 58.2%. Furthermore, according to The 2019 Israeli Democracy Index, Israelis are very involved in politics compared to the citizens of other countries. Be that as it may, the question remains – what has kept Israelis’ commitment to electoral politics through three consecutive elections?

Psychological mechanisms may help address this conundrum. The psychological reinforcement model teaches us that a habit is formed and further reinforced, especially when the expected outcome is highly desired. Since voting is a habitual behavior, people who voted in the past are more likely to vote again. Studies show that voters tend to turn out when the expected benefit – i.e., the probability of affecting the electoral outcome – is high. When the race is close, and there is a marked difference between the candidates, citizens feel their vote is more likely to influence the results and are more motivated to get out and vote. Neuro-psychological studies have found this habitual behavior is anchored in biology and might even intensify under stress. This means that under the stress of a malfunctioning political system, voting may continue even though it does not generate a clear political outcome. Hence, the close results of the previous two elections, coupled with the effect of stress on habitual behavior, continue to drive Israelis to the ballot box.

How long would this habitual behavior continue to produce high turnout given the negative reinforcement of a political deadlock? Sociological theories of political rituals suggest that high voter turnout may persist longer than we might expect due to the ritualistic qualities of elections as political events. As political rituals, elections reaffirm belief in democracy, draw attention to collective identities, and increase legitimacy for public policies. Put simply, elections remind citizens that they belong to the same political system, sharing the same political past and the same future horizon. In a polarized political system, elections may reinforce rival political identities, further increasing polarization. Studies also show that citizens with strong political identities are more likely to participate in politics, especially when their party may face an electoral loss. The repetitive election ritual over the past year reminded Israelis time and again of the political identities that set them apart. Emphasizing political identities and people’s commitment to their preferred party, the electoral cycles therefore increased the number of Israeli voters going to the polls.

The political, psychological, and sociological models suggest that as long as elections continue to be competitive and close, effectively strengthening political identities, voter turnout will remain high, even if the political outcome is continued deadlock. This is only partially good news for Israeli democracy since representative democracy works in two stages: first, voters go out and vote, and then, in the second stage, their elected representatives form a government. In Israel over the past year, the first stage has worked well, but the second one hasn’t. Only time will tell whether the March election will finally bring about the second stage of representation, if a new Israeli government is formed.

A political scientist, Liron Lavi is a research fellow at the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. She also is co-founder and managing editor of the center's Currents: Briefs on Contemporary Israel - a bi-annual series comprised of short and informative analyses that explore pressing issues and emerging trends in Israel. Lavi received her Ph.D. in Political Science in 2017 from Tel Aviv University, where she studied the role of time in elections and democracy in Israel.