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Ambassadors and diplomats worldwide set to begin early voting in election

First votes will be cast Wednesday night in New Zealand; voting will take place in four new diplomatic outposts: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Rabat and Bahrain

Anat Amichai, the wife of the head of security at Israel's embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, casting the first vote in the elections for the 21th Knesset, in early polling allowed for diplomats and their families, March 28, 2019. (Israel Foreign Ministry)
Illustrative: Anat Amichai, the wife of the head of security at Israel's embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, casting the first vote in the elections for the 21th Knesset, in early polling allowed for diplomats and their families, March 28, 2019. (Israel Foreign Ministry)

Voting for Israeli diplomats and staff at the country’s embassies abroad is set to begin on Wednesday ahead of the March 23 elections.

The first votes will be cast in Wellington, New Zealand, at 10 p.m., Israel time.

Following New Zealand, 103 other ballot stations will be opened at around 100 embassies and missions abroad, with the final votes taking place in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The ballot boxes at the embassies will remain open for two days, the Central Elections Committee announced on Tuesday.

Votes will be cast at four new diplomatic outposts: Morocco, Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Israel established diplomatic relations with the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain, as well as with Sudan and Bhutan, since the last national election in March 2020.

According to Israeli law, private citizens living abroad cannot vote unless they come to Israel, but exceptions are made for diplomats and their families. Some 4,000 Israelis will be allowed to vote at the diplomatic offices worldwide this week, according to the Maariv daily.

The law against voting while abroad caused controversy in recent weeks after Israel halted flights and barred international travelers due to the pandemic, stranding thousands of citizens abroad ahead of the election. Critics accused a committee that approved some entries of favoring right-wing voters.

The upcoming election is Israel’s second to take place under the shadow of the pandemic. The previous election, in March 2020, was held shortly after the coronavirus first reached the country, with several special polling stations serving the relatively few people who had then been suspected or confirmed to have contracted the virus or come in contact with confirmed carriers.

Workers at the Central Elections Committee warehouse in Modiin, ahead of the upcoming elections. February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Israel will fund special shuttles to polling stations for active COVID-19 patients during the upcoming vote, a top official said Monday, alongside further adaptations forced by the pandemic that will turn the election into the most expensive in the country’s history.

Central Elections Committee director Orly Adas also told reporters that dozens of buses will be converted into ballot stations for people in quarantine and to lower crowding in certain polling stations.

The committee is weighing placing voting stations at Ben Gurion Airport, so that arrivals to the country will be able to vote there before they enter home quarantine.

There are currently close to 40,000 active COVID-19 cases in the country, and tens of thousands of people are in quarantine.

The parliament’s Economic Affairs Committee approved the CEC’s budget, totaling NIS 674 million ($202 million), including NIS 237 million ($71 million) for facing the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis.

A bus converted into a polling station ahead of the Knesset elections, in a photo released March 8, 2021. (Chaim Levy/Central Elections Committee)

There will be some 15,000 voting stations throughout the country, more than the normal 11,000, Adas said, in hopes of limiting potential infections at crowded stations.

But Adas noted that there was still a shortage of thousands of employees for ballot stations serving COVID-19 patients and those in quarantine. She called on volunteers in first aid organizations, healthcare workers and medical students to fill that gap.

Adas added that the CEC was still devising a plan for how to count the ballots and verify the results, with the number of absentee ballots expected to be double the normal.

The week-long Passover festival also poses a challenge, starting three days after the election. Adas said the goal is to complete the tally within two days.

The election is Israel’s fourth in under two years, amid an unprecedented political crisis that failed to produce a government after the first two votes in 2019 and yielded a short-lived unity government after the third. The vote is largely regarded as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, including his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his trial on corruption charges.

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