Not all Israelis have decided how they will vote in the general elections on March 17, but in the meantime their ballot boxes are ready and waiting.
Since last December, when the 19th Knesset dissolved itself and new elections were called, the Central Elections Committee has been working to ensure that, come Election Day, each and every one of the country’s 10,150 polling stations will be properly supplied.
The CEC headquarters are located at the Knesset, but a lot of the heavy lifting is being done at the election committee’s logistics center located in the Hevel Modiin Industrial Park in Shoham, not far from Ben Gurion International Airport. This is where the materials delivered to the voting locations are organized and packaged. Notwithstanding Israel’s reputation as the Start-Up Nation, the country still uses a paper balloting system, making the work rather old school.
In one part of the logistics center — basically a warehouse facility that comes to life three months before Election Day — 11,500 blue ballot boxes adorned with the state emblem are stacked from floor to ceiling.
Each box is filled by the center’s staff with the standard items required for a polling place to function: a box of paper ballots (500 ballots for each of the 26 parties running, plus an additional 500 blank “protest vote” ballots); a tray to hold the total 13,500 ballots; ballot envelopes; a poster with the names and symbols of all the parties in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian; a privacy partition; ballot counting tray; and an Israeli flag.
Once a ballot box is packed, it is locked with a tamper-proof metal tie.
In another area, workers pore over voter lists, checking and double-checking that every name and identification number matches, and that each voter is assigned to the correct polling station located near their home.
Because Israel’s voting system is not computerized, voters must cast their ballot at their assigned station. So, if you live in Haifa but happen to be on vacation in Eilat on Election Day, you won’t be able to vote — unless you cut your trip short and hurry back home. And if you are out of the country, you can forget about it altogether. Israelis may not vote by absentee ballot, which can be a disappointment for those among the 12 percent of the 5.9 million eligible voters (citizens aged 18 and older) who are typically outside Israel on Election Day and want to exercise their democratic rights.
The only citizens on Election Day permitted to vote at a polling station that is not their assigned one are Israel Defense Forces soldiers, medical staff and patients in hospitals, prisoners and disabled people (1,600 polling places are accessible to people with disabilities, and blind individuals are permitted to bring one person behind the partition to help them cast their vote).
In the case of the military, sometimes polling stations go to the soldiers instead of vice versa; while some stations are set up on military bases, others are brought out to the soldiers in the field.
Another exception is Israeli diplomats on assignment at embassies and consulates around the world. They will vote on March 5, with their ballots counted together with all the others on March 17.
While the state does not foot the cost of flying Israelis home from abroad to vote, it does provide a free bus ticket to anyone who needs to undertake inter-city travel to their assigned polling station. University students, for instance, can take advantage of this offer if they don’t study in the same city as their permanent residence.
“You just need to request the free ticket at the post office ahead of time,” said Motti Geistman, a senior CEC employee, as he recently showed a group of journalists around the logistics center.
While schlepping home on public transportation may not be ideal, at least Election Day is a national holiday and most Israelis are off from work and school. Of course, no one would have to schlep if the voting system were computerized, but according to CEC spokesman Giora Pordes, Israel isn’t ready yet for that.
“We haven’t been able to achieve the required level of cybersecurity, or infrastructure security,” Pordes told The Times of Israel in an interview at his office at the Knesset.
“We can’t yet completely prevent sabotage, whether malicious or accidental. During a primary election not too long ago, a tractor working in a field accidentally cut a cable and downed the computerized system being used,” he said.
According to Pordes, the CEC does not dismiss the idea of eventually transitioning to computerized voting.
“But we have to go slowly,” he explained. “So far we have found paper ballots — which has been our system since the establishment of the state and is also the system still used in some European countries — to be the most secure and reliable way to go.”
When voters cast their ballots at these special polling places, they place their voting slips in two envelopes. The first envelope is the standard blue one that all voters place their ballots into before dropping them into the ballot box. The second, outer envelope is necessary so that elections workers can cross-check that the person did not vote twice — both at the special site and at their regular assigned site near their home, thus invalidating the ballot. Once the identification information is checked, the outer envelope is separated from the anonymous blue envelope with the ballot inside in order to ensure voter privacy.
The special ballots are counted at the Knesset by CEC workers. All other votes are counted by elections officials at either the polling places, or at one of 18 regional CEC headquarters. All the counting is done manually following the closing of the polling stations at 10 p.m., with results usually in by 6 or 7 o’clock the next morning.
Since Israelis do not mark their ballots, what the ballot counters look for are the symbols printed on the ballots that voters place inside the blue envelopes. Each political party running for the Knesset is assigned a symbol made up of usually one to three letters. Although the party’s name is printed on the slip of paper (in Hebrew or Arabic, depending on the location of the polling place), most voters know to look for their preferred party’s symbol.
Parties that have run in the previous election get to keep their letters. For example, Alef-Mem-Taf has long been the tag for the Labor Party (renamed the Zionist Union this time around), and Mem-Het-Lamed has been “owned” by the Likud for decades. New parties need to adopt letters that have not already been taken, or else ask permission from other parties to borrow their letters.
This may all seem arcane to citizens of other countries not used to such a system, but the Israeli political parties take this aspect of their identity seriously, with arguments in CEC meetings over who gets which letters reportedly becoming heated at times.
In the end, there are many parties and a lot of letter combinations to keep track of.
“Even I can’t remember them all,” admitted Pordes, who has been the CEC spokesman since 1999.
According to Pordes, the law permits parties to print up their own ballots, so long as they adhere to the specific requirements regarding size, type of paper, ink and the like. Although it is rare for parties to meet these specific printing specifications, if they do, then they are legally allowed to hand out these ballots to potential voters before they head in to the polling station.
Geistman had never heard of this legal provision and was under the assumption that all voters used only the 162 million ballots printed by the CEC’s official printer (this time the contract went to Israphot Industries, Ltd. in the Karnei Shomron settlement in the West Bank) and provided at the polling stations. Still, he wasn’t concerned.
“We know if a ballot is counterfeit. Anything that is not a legitimate ballot is disqualified and not counted,” said Motti Geistman.
Unused ballots are either discarded or returned to the logistics center. Cast and counted ballots are held by the CEC at the Knesset for two weeks in case any appeals are lodged and a recount required. The counted ballots are then typically held on to for another half-year before being destroyed.
Not surprisingly, an election with paper ballots produces a lot of paper. According to Geistman, all materials used are recycled, with 20 percent of the ballot boxes saved for use in the next elections, which, in Israel, is usually not more than two or three years away.
Making sure that Israeli citizens have what they need in order to vote on Election Day is second nature to Geistman, who is doing this for the fifth consecutive time and is more than familiar with the drill.
“We’re used to short periods between elections,” he said.