What Is the Point of Repeat Elections?

Going to the electorate over and over again won’t necessarily reap different results.

A man's hand is pictured dropping his vote into a ballot box in an Israeli general election.
Corinna Kern / Reuters

Israel could be headed for its third general election in a year. Yes, you read that right: After two inconclusive contests left lawmakers unable to form a governing coalition, Israeli voters might return to the polls to consider many of the same parties, which are campaigning on the same platforms—again.

Repeat elections aren’t all that unusual. As political uncertainty and fragmentation become more commonplace, several countries have come to rely on them to break a political stalemate, or reaffirm a result. But does holding back-to-back elections serve much purpose—especially when the issues voters are being asked to consider remain unchanged? Put another way: How many elections are too many elections?

A third time could prove the charm in Israel, though that seems unlikely. The country’s electoral drama dates back to its April general election, which resulted in neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party nor former military chief Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance securing enough votes to form a government. This prompted a rerun of the vote five months later, which proved just as inconclusive as the first. Barring a unity coalition between the two leaders (which has thus far been ruled out) or the emergence of another lawmaker who can cobble together a coalition, the country will almost certainly hold another election next year. Early polling suggests that the results would scarcely differ from those of the first two elections.

It’s not hard to see why. The issues have not changed; nor have the candidates, platforms, or promises.

Electoral reruns rarely seem to change anything. Spain’s general election in April resulted in a deadlock similar to Israel’s: The ruling Socialist Party won the most seats, but lacked an absolute majority to form a government on its own. A repeat election this month, aimed at breaking the impasse, only resulted in further stalemate. Reruns are not new, either. Britain held two elections in 1974. The first, in February, resulted in a hung Parliament. The political instability prompted a second vote just eight months later, for which the Liberal Party adopted the slogan “One more heave.” In the end, the Labour Party won a three-seat majority.

So if repeat elections often lead to repeat results, why do countries resort to them? In the case of Israel, though turnout slightly increased, the outcome more or less remained the same. “There were absolutely no massive differences,” Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israel-based pollster and political analyst, told me, noting that both times, the election results aligned with long-standing ideological differences in Israeli society. Though these divisions within Israeli society are hardly new, political parties have traditionally been able to overcome them by reaching compromises with ideologically like-minded parties. This time, however, increased political fragmentation has made that all but impossible. “It’s almost like the social contradictions have gotten so deep that the political level is now manifesting them,” she said, “and that’s causing ... paralysis.”

Still, repeat elections could be seen as the best way of breaking that paralysis. At least that’s the argument Britain’s Labour Party has made in support of its campaign pledge to hold a second referendum over whether the country should leave the European Union, an issue that has embroiled British politics in a years-long stasis. Labour’s proposed public vote wouldn’t pose the same question as the original 2016 referendum, but the underlying issue—whether to stay in the EU or leave—remains unchanged. Similarly, the Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has called for holding a second referendum on Scotland’s independence from Britain; an initial bid for independence failed in 2014.

In both cases, the prospect of change is far from certain. Though support for Scottish secession has increased since 2014, according to recent polling, the issue has yet to achieve the backing of a clear majority. Similarly, while support for a second Brexit referendum has grown—with those in favor of staying in the EU slightly outnumbering those who wish to leave— most Britons’ views on the issue have only become more entrenched.

This political deadlock isn’t unique. Across Europe, traditional center-left and center-right parties have declined in popularity and smaller parties have emerged, resulting in more unstable coalitions. Such was the case in Germany, where the 2017 election resulted in a “nightmare victory” for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose ruling party won the most seats but failed to secure a governing alliance with smaller, like-minded parties. Though fresh elections were floated as a possible solution to the deadlock, they were avoided after the center-left Social Democrats begrudgingly agreed to reenter into a “grand coalition” with Merkel’s center-right party. “A lot of the people who just got elected simply don’t want to go through another election again,” Marcel Dirsus, a German political analyst, told me at the time.

After all, elections are expensive. They’re time consuming. More often than not, they cause voter fatigue. “You’re joking—not another one,” a British woman known simply as “Brenda From Bristol” famously exclaimed in 2017 after then–Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a snap election—the fourth national vote in as many years.

But perhaps the greatest issue facing any country repeating elections is that they’re less and less convincing. “Campaigns run on messages,” Scheindlin said, noting that after two campaigns, Israeli “parties are running out of new ideas of what to say to make their case, because, again, nothing has changed.”