The right to vote – even from abroad?

By: Yair Shachar, Intern at MQG

In the elections for the 20th Knesset that took place last Tuesday, the voter turnout rose for the third time in a row to approximately 72% – the highest since 1999. However, even this statistic, an increase of over 5% since the 2013 elections, leaves a large group of Israelis outside of the democratic process – Citizens who live, or are temporarily, abroad. All of these, with the exception of the 5,000 state officials working in Embassies and Consulates, are not permitted to vote in the elections for the Knesset. This raises the question of whether this situation is justified, whether it ought to be changed, and if so, to what extent should the existing law be altered? 

The issue of the right to vote for Israelis living abroad has been raised a number of times in the past. Since 1999, several proposals for amendments have been made, including some in recent years: in 2009, an amendment was proposed with the aim of granting Israelis living abroad the right to vote, though this amendment was never put to a vote. Two years later, the government brought the matter up for discussion again in an attempt to formulate conditions that would allow this demographic to vote. However, this move did not even lead to the proposal of another amendment to the existing law.

Those who support the law claim that granting the right to vote to those who reside abroad, safeguards their basic democratic right. Some even suggest that granting them this right may strengthen their connection to Israel, in that it would enable them to be actively involved in that which takes place there. Estimates show that approximately 500,000 Israeli citizens live abroad, and those eligible to vote translate to some 15 seats in the Knesset.


Is this a price that should be paid? Those who object to this prospect claim that those living abroad are not faced with the consequences of their decisions in the manner that local citizens must. This is one of the stronger objections to a comprehensive granting of voting rights to every citizen and precisely the opposite of the current state of affairs. If this stems from the fear that citizens are not forced to face the consequences of their votes will fundamentally alter the political arena, there is empirically little cause for concern. Voting patterns of those living outside a country are usually similar to those living within it, whilst voter turnout among them is also significantly lower.

Around the world, the votes of those temporarily or permanently residing outside of the country constitutes an integral part of its democracy. According to a May 2007 study, some 115 different countries grant this right to vote, provided the citizen has taken measures to properly register in advance. The United States, Germany, Britain, Canada, Spain, Australia, The Netherlands, Norway and Denmark are but a few of the democratic countries that have ensured that their citizens are not deprived of their right to vote, even if they are abroad on election day. There is also no differentiation on the basis of their line of work, as is currently the case in Israeli law. Lawmakers have ruled that those working as emissaries abroad are permitted to fulfill their democratic rights, whilst all others are not.

The world of 2015 is smaller and more open than the world of 1948, when the electoral laws were first drawn up. The necessity of mobility at any given moment is common to many in the commercial and educational sectors in Israel, and may well prevent them from being present here in the country on Election Day. This is the case despite their remaining full citizens in all other matters, who are affected by daily happenings in Israel. They deserve the basic civil right to make their voices heard and say who in their view is most fitting to run the country in the years ahead. How is it possible that law-abiding citizens are penalized, while prisoners who have broken the law are able to vote in elections? Depriving Israelis residing abroad of their right to vote is a disproportionate blow to the basic civil rights of every citizen in the country, though this is not necessarily irreparable.

Let us end with the words of Adv. Michael Partem, Deputy Chairman of the MQG:

“The time has come to consider an amendment to the law in order to grant voting rights to Israelis living abroad. The conceptions of the past are out of date. The world is a much smaller place and the barriers of distance and communication that once separated continents have fallen and are no more. There are no longer the technical obstacles that prevent the realization of the right to vote from a distance. Most important to note is the fact that a large population of Israelis who live abroad is closely connected to the happenings in Israel through a deep network of interests and emotions, not to mention thousands of students and travelers who stay abroad for short periods for the promotion of their commercial interests, and many who hold dual citizenship and that live both in Israel and abroad.

“Revoking the right to vote only distances law abiding citizen from involvement and responsibility for that which takes place in the public domain in Israel. Why are they not permitted to vote, when convicted criminals are? There is no ignoring the fact that not granting Israeli citizens residing abroad the right to vote constitutes the withholding of a fundamental democratic right in the absence any reasonable justification.”