Israeli GOP appears to dramatically inflate numbers of Israelis voting in US election
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Israeli GOP appears to dramatically inflate numbers of Israelis voting in US election

Local chapter of Republicans Overseas claims a record 120,000 American-Israelis registered to cast ballots, taking credit for 30,000 of them. Real numbers seem far lower

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Marc Zell, the head of Republicans Overseas Israel, at the opening of the campaign supporting Donald Trump in Modi'in, August 15, 2016. (Joe Davids/Flash90)
Marc Zell, the head of Republicans Overseas Israel, at the opening of the campaign supporting Donald Trump in Modi'in, August 15, 2016. (Joe Davids/Flash90)

The Israeli chapter of the Republican Party appears to be dramatically exaggerating the number of Americans in Israel who have registered to vote in the upcoming US presidential election. The GOP’s local branch also seems to be greatly inflating the numbers of overseas voters it has helped register through its website.

Republicans Overseas Israel estimates that up 120,000 US citizens in Israel registered to cast absentee ballots for the November 8 election, and boasts of having played a central role in signing up about 30,000 new voters this year. But according to those involved in get-out-the-vote campaigns in Israel — including local Republican activists — and other experts, these claims appear unfounded.

In a Hebrew-language press release issued Monday, the Republicans Overseas group — which is not officially affiliated with the American parent party — congratulated its activists for having helped bring about a “dramatic increase” in the number of American-Israelis who signed up to vote.

“According to party figures, some 120,000 Israelis registered for the purpose of voting,” the press release states.

“This means an increase of about 60 percent since the 2012 election, when only about 75,000 Israelis voted in Israel. Republican Overseas Israel considers this a significant success, due in part to the estimation that the vast majority of those registered in Israel will vote for Donald Trump and Republican candidates for Congress.”

In an interview Thursday with The Times of Israel, the co-chair of the Republicans’ Israel branch, Marc Zell, acknowledged that “nobody really knows” the exact numbers of Israelis registered to vote. But he insisted that, according to his assessment, the number must be somewhere between 100,00 and 120,000. Between 80,000 and 100,000 US citizens in Israel voted in the 2012 election, and his organization and other groups have signed up an additional 30,000 in the last few months, he said by way of explaining his estimate.

Zell said his group ran the largest get-out-the-vote effort in Israel, indicating that most of the 30,000 new voters registered “with our help or our encouragement.”

Marc Zell, the head of Republicans Overseas Israel at an event held by Republicans Overseas Israel in Jerusalem, October 26, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Marc Zell, the head of Republicans Overseas Israel at an event held by the group in Jerusalem, October 26, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Nobody has exact numbers. Those are my best estimates,” Zell said. “We’re out there. We’re talking to people. We’re not conducting scientific polls, we’re not saying that. This is our estimation of the situation.”

But Zell’s approximations seem deeply flawed, other experts said.

For one, US law requires Americans living abroad to request an absentee ballot before every single election. That means that even if 80,000 Israelis voted four years ago, it should not be taken for granted that they would automatically do so this year as well.

So far, I Vote Israel has assisted only about 12,000 Americans in Israel who requested absentee ballots for the 2016 election.

“Past numbers of overseas voters are not a valid indicator and should not be used for predictions about 2016,” said Eitan Charnoff, the national director of I Vote Israel, a nonprofit encouraging US expats to make use of their right to vote and helping them navigate the complicated registration process.

So far, Charnoff said Thursday in an interview, I Vote Israel has assisted only about 12,000 Americans in Israel who requested absentee ballots for the 2016 election. He noted, however, that “the final number is very likely to be higher than that, because many people are choosing to vote last minute who previously had not considered voting.”

Zell said that a majority of the 30,000 US citizens helped or encouraged to register by Republicans Overseas filled out the necessary paperwork by hand at the group’s “over a dozen” events held recently across the country. He said he himself printed 20,000 registration forms that were all given out, but noted he was unable to state exactly how many voters filled them out correctly. “We didn’t take a data poll of that information,” he said.

In addition to the handwritten registration forms, “several thousand” citizens registered over the Republicans Overseas Israel website, Zell said. He refused to provide the exact number of online registrants, saying he was very busy and would only have time to look it up after the election.

Zell’s claim to have signed up “several thousand” voters through his website appears highly exaggerated. The voter registration section of the Republicans’ website forwards users to the I Vote Israel site, and Charnoff said his digital analytics showed that only about 200 of the completed ballot request forms came from leads from the Republican Overseas websites.

I Vote Israel volunteers at voter registration stand in Tel Aviv (courtesy I Vote Israel)
I Vote Israel volunteers at voter registration stand in Tel Aviv (courtesy I Vote Israel)

According to American officials, it is unclear exactly how many American citizens live in Israel, how many register to vote, and how many actually send in their ballots.

“We actually don’t track the number of American citizens in Israel. It is really impossible to know at any given time how many there are,” the US ambassador in Tel Aviv, Dan Shapiro, said Thursday. “But those who are here, we absolutely encourage all Americans to vote and our embassy is doing everything we can to make it easy and possible for people to get their absentee ballots in on time.”

Most Israeli-Americans who want to do so, cast a ballot in the election register with the help of organizations such as I Vote Israel — which refuses to reveal its financial backers but insists it is entirely nonpartisan — and through other groups promoting overseas voting.

In addition, the local branches of the two major parties run their own get-out-the-vote drives.

Tally Zingher, an activist with Democrats Abroad Israel, said this week that her group probably helped register “a couple of thousand” voters. She said she doubts the Republicans’ claim that 120,000 American-Israelis are registered to vote in the upcoming elections. “It would be fantastic if those were the numbers. But I don’t see any way how this figure can be verified.”

Many US citizens living in Israel also register independently, without the help of any organization, or happen to be in their home state on Election Day. Others request and fill out absentee ballots but never send them in. It is therefore extremely difficult to estimate the number of votes cast by Israeli-Americans.

A sample ballot is seen October 11, 2016 in Fairfax, Virginia for the upcoming November 8 US general elections. (AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS)
A sample ballot is seen October 11, 2016 in Fairfax, Virginia for the upcoming November 8 US general elections. (AFP/ Paul J. Richards)

It is generally assumed, based on surveys and exit polls, that up to 80,000 US citizens living in Israel cast absentee ballots in 2012, which marked a drastic increase from 2008, when only 30,000 voted.

Despite the Republicans’ optimistic projections, several veteran observers of Americans in Israel said they expect the number of absentee ballots to be lower this time than in previous elections.

Chaim Waxman, a former sociology professor at Rutgers University who now lives in Jerusalem, said he strongly doubts that 120,000 American-Israelis registered to vote in this election.

“I find it extremely difficult to believe it’s anywhere near that figure. I believe the numbers of voters from Israel will not be higher, possibly even lower than in the past,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

“It could be that up until a month ago or so there was a greater interest among American Israelis in voting for the Republican candidate than previously,” Waxman said. But the televised presidential debates and recent revelations about lewd comments the Manhattan billionaire made about women have diminished Israeli voters’ desire to support GOP candidate Donald Trump, he asserted. “From everything that I’ve heard in the last few weeks — and I speak to a lot of people — the interest in voting for Trump has gone down significantly.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump kisses a "Women for Trump" placard during a rally at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland, Florida on October 12, 2016. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump kisses a ‘Women for Trump’ placard during a rally at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland, Florida on October 12, 2016. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The Republicans say that this year they for the first time made a concerted effort to reach out to second and third generation Americans in Israel. According to Zell, these are Hebrew speakers who never considered voting in a country they never lived in but now, fearing another Democrat in the White House, for the first time intend to cast absentee ballots. “I believe we persuaded large numbers of these people to sign up. Young people. And I am really proud of that,” he said.

But Waxman said he doubted that many Israeli-born US citizens who until now refrained from casting absentee ballots could be persuaded into doing so now. Immigrants are familiar with the American political system and deeply care about the election, but that cannot necessarily be said of Israeli-born US citizens, he argued.

Ultra-Orthodox men hold placards supporting US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at an event held by republicans Overseas Israel in Jerusalem, October 26, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men hold placards supporting US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at an event held by republicans Overseas Israel in Jerusalem, October 26, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

David London, the executive director of the nonpartisan Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, said he recalls noticing strong interest in the 2012 race, since many local voters strongly disliked one candidate — President Barack Obama — and supported his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. (According to survey conducted by I Vote Israel after the 2012 election, 85 percent of Israelis who cast ballots voted for Romney and only 14% for Obama.)

“At the beginning of the current campaign there was also a strong amount of interest but that seems to have softened,” London said Thursday. “I hear a lot of people telling me that maybe they won’t vote this time. I hear confusion and frustration, and see that more and people are less inclined to vote. We at AACI encourage people to vote for whoever candidate they might support, but we definitely see a decrease in interest.”

Charnoff, whose I Vote Israel organization’s only raison d’etre is to bring as many US citizens in Israel to register for absentee ballots, acknowledged that this year’s election will likely see a drastic drop in Israeli voters because Israelis are simply not thrilled about either option.

“There has been unprecedented interest in this election. I Vote Israel has experienced unparalleled reach on social media,” he said. “But despite all this interaction, we expect there to be lower voter turnout because a lot of voters have expressed a lack of enthusiasm regarding both candidates.”

US citizens at an I Vote Israel voter registration stand in Tel Aviv (courtesy I Vote Israel)
US citizens at an I Vote Israel voter registration stand in Tel Aviv (courtesy I Vote Israel)

The GOP’s Zell, however, firmly believes that the 2016 race will bring out record masses of Israeli voters, citing what he described as a widespread Israeli apprehension of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate.

“The level of interest in this election is dramatically higher than I’ve ever seen since I am doing this since 1992. And this is despite the fact that people have a low opinion of both candidates,” he said. “People really understand that this election, as opposed to previous ones, has serious ramifications for Israel’s future. Because they’re scared of what a Clinton administration would bring in terms of continuing, and even making worse, Obama’s policies over the last eight years.”

Americans living in Israel realize that there no longer is bipartisan consensus over Israel, Zell posited. “There’s only one party that really backs Israel, and that’s the Republicans. Israeli voters understand this.”

Unsurprisingly, the Democrats in Israel disagree, pointing to the fact that American Jews traditionally back their candidate. (In 2012, 69% voted for Obama, compared to 30% for Romney.)

“There is no reason to assume that there’s any difference between here and US,” said Zingher, of Democrats Abroad Israel, predicting 65% to 75% of the Israeli vote going to Clinton. “We see a lot of Republicans coming to volunteer for us. This is an election like no other.”

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