Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned Wednesday that the placement of hidden cameras at polling stations in Israel could be a criminal offense, ahead of a hearing on the legality of the Likud party’s controversial surveillance of Arab voters to prevent, what they claim, is widespread voter fraud.
In a legal opinion submitted to Central Elections Committee chairman Justice Hanan Melcer, the attorney general said that while the country’s election law does not explicitly prohibit filming polling stations, the ruling party’s monitoring of voting on election day could be struck down.
Critics have charged that Likud’s efforts to surveil Arabs during the April 9 elections was a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the non-Jewish minority from the polls. The leading human rights NGO Adalah is taking legal action against Likud for “inciting against the Arab public.”
“Though its not possible to say definitively that placing cameras at polling stations constitutes a criminal offense, in certain circumstances they would be considered a crime as they interfere with the voting process,” Mandelblit wrote in his opinion.
Mandelblit told Mercer that as chairman of the Knesset’s elections committee, he had the authority to ban Likud from sending “poll watchers” to Arab-majority towns if he believed it would be “disruptive to the voting process.”
The attorney general noted that legal petitions about the voting surveillance had yet to be settled by the courts, and underscored that its legality was a matter of interpretation.
In April, Melcer okayed the use of such devices in cases where there was “considerable fear” of voter fraud, but did not explicitly outline what constituted a “considerable fear.” The ruling came on election day, after Likud poll workers were caught with hidden cameras.
On April 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party equipped over 1,200 party representatives with hidden cameras and dispatched them to polling stations in Arab communities across the country. Though the activists were filming from the check-in table and not behind voting booths, their presence led to arguments at dozens of stations, requiring police intervention.
Israeli election regulations allow members of separate parties to make up three of the four poll workers at each ballot station. A fifth individual affiliated with an additional party can also be present as a designated poll watcher.
Likud’s stated goal of the project, which they are seeking to expand for the September 17 vote, is to prevent voter fraud, which organizers of the campaign claim is rampant in Arab communities.
But Arab and left-wing parties have slammed the cameras as a means to intimidate Arab citizens and prevent them from voting.
The Israel Democracy Institute calculated the Arab turnout in April to be 49.2%, compared to the national rate of 68.5%. (In the 2015 election, the IDI reported those figures as 63.8% and 68.5%, respectively.)
The committee will meet later on Thursday to discuss whether it will change its position on the cameras, but a Likud source with knowledge of the project told The Times of Israel last week that the party was confident they would be able to film at the polling stations during the upcoming election.
Netanyahu’s party has doubled its budget for the surveillance operation ahead of next month’s election, and intends to pump roughly NIS 2 million ($570,000) into the program, the source said.
With the expanded budget, the source said Likud would be able to place additional observers at polling stations, where there had been none in April.
According to the source, Likud representatives intend to ask Melcer during Thursday’s hearing to detail in writing what their poll watchers can and cannot do with the surveillance cameras. The party will also ask that their polling officials in Arab towns be given extra police protection, the source said.
Since the April election, police have opened investigations into suspected voter fraud at two polling stations: one in the city of Afula and another in the Druze town of Kisra-Sumei. Neither polling station was targeted by Likud in its surveillance program.