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The Great Absentee-Ballot Debate

A perennial Israeli debate erupted anew yesterday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he supported a proposal to extend the franchise to Israelis living abroad. What makes this debate so baffling is that both sides are partly right — meaning it should be easy to strike a compromise somewhere in the middle. But in 62 years, it hasn’t happened.

The proposal put forth by Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner, Yisrael Beiteinu, would allow absentee ballots for anyone who has held a valid Israeli passport for the past 10 years — about 500,000 people. And opponents are right that this is far too broad. First, in terms of sheer numbers, that constitutes 7 percent of the total population and fully 10 percent of eligible voters — a far higher proportion than is the norm in other countries that allow absentee voting.

Moreover, many of the 500,000 people in question have been living abroad full-time for many years. Indeed, you can have a valid Israeli passport for 10 years without setting foot in the country that entire time. Thus people who are not living in Israel and whose daily lives are unaffected by the country’s policies would have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of any election.

This is particularly problematic because Israel is a country at war. Overseas residents are not the ones who will suffer daily rocket fire if a territorial pullout goes wrong, nor will their sons’ lives be at risk if the government launches a military operation. Thus it is completely inappropriate to give them a major voice in electing those who will make such decisions.

Yet at the same time, proponents of absenting voting are right that the current system is irredeemably unfair. Under current law, the only people allowed to vote absentee are sailors and diplomats (and their families). Hence a businessman who lives in Israel year-round but happens to be abroad attending a major trade fair on Election Day cannot vote. Ditto for a professor who has taught for 20 years at an Israeli university but happens to be on sabbatical abroad during election year — unless he is willing to pay $1,000 to fly to Israel for Election Day and cast his ballot there. It is long past time for Israel to stop disenfranchising such citizens.

It is not technically difficult to distinguish permanent overseas residents from Israelis there temporarily, as it was in days gone by. The law could simply require absentee voters to have spent a specified proportion of the past five (or seven or 10) years in Israel, and ballot applications could be checked against border-control data to see if the applicant qualified.

The good news is that whereas Yisrael Beiteinu and Netanyahu’s Likud party largely support the bill, the other two main coalition partners, Labor and Shas, oppose it. That means there’s a chance that the government will at long last pass a reasonable compromise — one that will help those unfairly disenfranchised by current law while excluding those whose homes are permanently overseas.


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