After banning Likud’s cameras from polling stations, state now wants to buy them

After banning Likud’s cameras from polling stations, state now wants to buy them

Election overseer gives go ahead for pilot project for state observers to film when there is suspicion of fraud, and reportedly turns to the only source with enough body cameras

A hidden camera allegedly snuck into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta'al)
A hidden camera allegedly snuck into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta'al)

A day after banning political parties from arming polling station representatives with cameras during the upcoming election, the Central Election Committee is now reportedly trying to buy some 1,000 cameras for its own observers, from the Likud party.

Committee members have approached the party to try to purchase the cameras for independent poll observers to use, Channel 13 reported Tuesday.

The ban came following Likud’s use of the cameras in the last elections at Arab polling stations and plans to expand the controversial program, which critics said had chilled Arab participation in the vote.

Central Election Committee Chairman Hanan Melcer adopted the view of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who expressed skepticism regarding the legality of the election committee allowing such a practice, when it is not already written in the current election law.

However, Melcer, a Supreme Court justice, ordered that a pilot program be established in which the Central Election Committee will employ a large team of polling station observers who are equipped with body cameras to be turned on only in instances when there is a legitimate fear of voter fraud and when permission from Melcer himself has been granted.

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, the head of the Central Elections Committee, is seen at the Knesset on April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But committee members were having trouble finding someone who could supply enough of the devices before the September 17 vote and turned to Likud, the report said, adding that they were also being taught how to use and conceal the cameras.

Also to be given cameras as part of the pilot will be independent poll workers, unaffiliated with any party.

Israeli election regulations allow members of separate parties to make up three of the four poll workers at each ballot station. Another individual affiliated with an additional party not already represented can also be present as a designated observer.

During the previous elections, on April 9, Likud equipped some 1,200 polling officials working at ballot stations in Arab population centers with hidden body cameras, claiming they were meant to prevent what the party said was rampant fraud in the community.

Critics charged that Likud’s efforts were a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the non-Jewish minority from the polls, a claim seemingly corroborated by the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation.

Responding to the decision to ban the operation in September’s vote, Likud said in a statement that it was looking into the possibility of passing legislation even before the upcoming election that would allow its polling committee representatives to be armed with cameras.

An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote during elections for the Knesset on April 9, 2019, at a polling station in the northern town of Tayibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Joint (Arab) List chairman Ayman Odeh lauded the ruling in a tweet, saying, “The Likud’s loss is a victory for Arab citizens and the entire democratic arena. Right-wing voter suppression activists will have to sit at home — we will be sure to show to get out the vote.”

According to the new rules, as the voting ends at 10 p.m., the pilot team of independent poll watchers will be stationed at specific stations flagged by the election committee as having shown inconsistencies in their vote counts during last April’s election.

A straight-faced Ayman Odeh of the Hadash-Ta’al party delivers a speech in the Knesset on May 29, 2019. (Twitter screenshot)

After the last voter has left the station, the poll watchers will be required to film the entire ballot counting process. They will not be allowed to leave the station until the tally has been completed, Melcer said.

The ruling reverses one Melcer made as the voting was taking place on April 9, after Likud poll workers were caught with hidden cameras shortly after polls opened.

Melcer at the time okayed the use of such devices in cases where there was “considerable fear” of voter fraud, but did not explicitly outline what would justify “considerable fear.”

During a Central Elections Committee hearing earlier this month on the matter of the cameras, Melcer referenced the evidence handed over by Likud after the April vote and said that police were still looking into allegations.

Police have so far only opened two official investigations into suspected voter fraud: in Afula and the town of Kisra-Sumei, regarding two polling stations that were not targeted by Likud in its surveillance program.

An Arab Israeli woman serves beverages in front of an electoral poster at a polling station during Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, in Daliyat al-Carmel in northern Israel. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

The Times of Israel obtained records from over 100 polling stations that were found to have irregular voter turnouts relative to the figures at adjacent stations. While a portion of those polling stations were located in Arab towns, they made up less than a third of the total, which also included irregular turnouts in the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, as well as the cities of Petah Tikva, Afula, Netanya and Rosh Ha’ayin.

Those records have also been transferred to the Central Election Committee, but no indictments have been filed. According to a legal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the total number of suspected fraudulent votes in April only added up to several thousand.

Before Melcer’s ruling, the Likud party had doubled its budget for the surveillance operation ahead of next month’s election, and intended to pump roughly NIS 2 million ($570,000) into the program, an official with knowledge of the operation said earlier this month.

With the expanded budget, the source said Likud would be able to place observers at polling stations where there had been none in April.

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