What would happen if America’s 2008 Presidential election had run under Israel’s election rules?
Hillary Clinton’s Progressive Democrat Party, composed of centrist defectors from the Democratic and Republican parties, wins 100 seats in the 435-seat lower house of Congress. But Barack Obama, winner of the Democratic Party nomination, picks up 47 seats that otherwise would have gone to Hillary.
The leading right-wing parties, composed of Republican Fred Thompson’s 96 votes, Libertarian Ron Paul’s 54 and Christian Conservative Mike Huckabee’s 34, totals 184 seats. Adding seats from John McCain’s National Service Party (19), Mitt Romney’s New Economy Party (15), Sarah Palin’s Energy Independence Party (12) and Newt Gingrich’s Win the Future Party (10), all right-wing parties total 240 seats, a clear majority.
As no single party won a solo majority, the Speaker of the House would have to decide which party’s Presidential candidate should be invited to try to form a government. Nancy Pelosi could ask Hillary to form a government, but the right-wing parties could respond by forming a “blocking coalition” of 240 votes to guarantee that Hillary’s coalition would fail. If Pelosi refused to invite Thompson to form a government, candidates would gear up for a re-run of the Presidential contest. Thus the cycle would begin again and we would still not have chosen a President.
If that kind of process seems chaotic, that’s because it is.
Today, Israel’s right-wing parties total about 55 percent of the seats in the newly chosen Knesset. That’s enough to block Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni from forming a left-wing government. Several right-wing parties split Israel’s right of center voters, who clearly are fed up with the Palestinian negotiation policy of the sitting government. Thus Livni finished first by a single seat in the party-list total.
Second-place finisher, Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, a former Prime Minster, can try to negotiate a right-wing coalition or, as reports indicate, may seek a broader coalition including Livni’s Kadima Party, with Livni in his government.
Behold the insanity of Israel’s electoral system. It combines the worst features of parliamentary and party-list systems. Party-list voting deprives voters of the opportunity to “split their tickets” by voting for one party in the legislative chamber, while choosing a different party’s candidate at the top of the ticket. It empowers, in vast disproportion to their vote share, minority parties who may thus decide the composition of the government, at times not necessarily in line with how the electorate voted. It gives the government in power the authority to call a “snap” election when the Prime Minister finds convenient, or to delay until the full term runs its course. The President can designate who gets a crack at forming a government, and if no one can do so, the process starts again.
America’s system of government has many defects—all political systems do—but setting aside issues arising out of an honest and accurate vote count, complete chaos rarely occurs. The closest analogue was America’s 1824 election. Four candidates divided 261 electoral votes and 365,833 popular votes: Andrew Jackson had 99 votes with 41.3 percent of the popular vote; John Quincy Adams, 84 and 30.9 percent; William Harris Crawford, 41 and 11.2 percent; and Henry Clay, 37 and 13.0 percent.
With March 4, 1825 set as Inauguration Day, the House of Representatives met in February 1825 to choose a President. Its choice was constitutionally limited to the top three finishers. No longer eligible, Senate titan Clay threw his support to Adams. The House balloting then went by majority vote within each state delegation, with Adams winning 13, Jackson 7 and Crawford 4. Clay was rewarded with the position of Secretary of State, in what Jackson and his supporters called a “corrupt bargain.” The deal poisoned the well during the Adams presidency. To this day, it remains the only time no candidate won a majority in the Electoral College.
Failure to win an outright majority is commonplace in parliamentary systems, and is now the norm in Israel. Watching their elections makes America’s system, with all its warts, look better every day.
John Wohlstetter is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute's Technology and Democracy Project