AG says cameras could endanger integrity of elections, cause chaos

As Likud turns to legislation to permit filming of polling stations, Mandelblit calls move inconceivable, stresses there are already enough tools in place to prevent voter fraud

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a conference in Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at a conference in Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday doubled down on his opposition to legislation that would allow poll observers from competing political parties to bring cameras into polling stations during the September 17 elections, warning it could undermine the integrity of the vote.

Speaking at Channel 12’s Influencers Conference in Tel Aviv, Mandelblit said the Central Elections Committee had sufficient and effective tools at its disposal to prevent election fraud.

He said it was inconceivable that the government would pass last-minute legislation which the committee, the professional body charged with ensuring the validity of the process, has warned could cause “chaos.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to advance the bill despite Mandelblit’s objections, but the government will likely find it more difficult to defend a law that the attorney general vehemently opposes if and when petitions are filed against the law at the High Court of Justice.

In his speech Thursday, Mandelblit noted that he had not initially been opposed to the idea, and that he fully supports employing technological tools to thwart election fraud.

But the professional recommendation of the Central Elections Committee against allowing political parties to deploy thousands of cameras to polling stations changed his mind, he said. He said he was especially swayed by the committee’s warning that with so little time left until the elections, it would not be possible to determine proper procedures, train officials at polling stations or make public “information required to prevent confusion and malpractice.”

He quoted from the committee’s position that the legislation would therefore “prevent the committee from properly conducting the proceedings on election day, and may even, in all probability, prevent some voters from voting and even cause confusion and chaos when conducting the election process.”

An Israeli man arrives at a polling station to vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 in the northern Arab Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Mandelblit said he could not ignore the position of the agency tasked with ensuring the election is conducted properly.

“Is it conceivable to pass legislation now that will only be completed just days before the elections, and according to the expert authority may result in the denial of the right to vote from some of the country’s citizens?” he said.

Mandelblit also noted that multiple procedures and tools were in place to prevent any fraudulent activity, including a new initiative by the committee itself that will send thousands of its own inspectors to polling stations, many of them armed with body cameras; double-checks of the ballot counts in thousands of ballot boxes where high turnout or lopsided results raise a red flag; the placement of police officers at many polling stations; and an expanded review process with “dozens of lawyers and attorneys who will work to review the results and protocols of the polling station committees before the official results are published.”

Supporters plan to advance the bill on Sunday in an expedited procedure meant to enable its passage before election day. The bill was drafted by Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.

The legislation was advanced after the Central Elections Committee late last month banned political parties from arming polling station representatives with cameras during the upcoming elections.

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

During the April 9 elections, Likud equipped some 1,200 polling officials working at ballot stations in Arab population centers with hidden body cameras to prevent what the party claims is rampant fraud in the community.

Critics have charged that Likud’s efforts were a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the minority from the polls, a claim seemingly corroborated by statements from the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation, public relations firm Kaizler Inbar.

In another potentially inflammatory step, a Thursday report said Likud hired the same firm to train women to check the identities of Arab women who keep their faces covered.

The women will reportedly be official Likud observers at the polls and their role will be to check under women’s veils if it is deemed necessary to prevent voter fraud, the Channel 12 report said.

The party hired Kaizler Inbar to do the training for “tens” of women. The company previously took credit for placing hidden cameras at polling stations in Arab towns shortly after the April elections, and boasted that it was responsible for reduced turnout among Arab Israeli voters.

The Likud-sponsored scheme was condemned by the Central Elections Committee and Arab political parties.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said Wednesday that he wants surveillance cameras installed in all Arab and ultra-Orthodox polling stations in the coming elections on September 17 because he doesn’t trust either minority group to count the votes honestly.

“I very much don’t trust the vote count among the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs,” Liberman told Channel 13 news. “We must install cameras, as far as I am concerned across the country,” he said, and not just in Arab and ultra-Orthodox polling stations.

Netanyahu was quick to express disapproval of Mandelblit’s legal opinion, posting a video online in which he promised that he would not be deterred and would continue to promote the bill.

“This is the only way to prevent voter fraud,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on September 5, 2019 after a meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

“We were amazed at the attorney general’s position against the bill to allow cameras to be placed in polling stations in a way that would certainly prevent voting fraud,” the Likud party said in a statement.

“The legal system is supposed to protect against voter fraud in every way, yet they are doing the exact opposite for reasons that remain unclear. What is more, the bill for placing cameras makes it clear that there would be no recording behind the voting booth and that the privacy of voting would be ensured.”

Calling Mandelblit’s opinion “alarming,” the statement said that Justice Minister Ohana would “continue the legislative process and bring the proposal to the government.”

In his Thursday speech, Mandelblit also defended the legal system against a spate of criticism from right-wing politicians. Noting that an election is “a period characterized by the deepening of disputes and the sharpening of rivalries,” he nevertheless lamented public discourse that “included unacceptable attacks on this country’s law enforcement agencies… the Supreme Court, the attorney general, the State Attorney’s Office, the State Prosecution, the Israel Police.”

He stressed that the state’s legal and judicial bodies were professional agencies which “derive legitimacy for our work and our decisions from public trust, based on the fact that we act in an matter-of-fact, impartial and unbiased manner and without any political leanings.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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