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Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Flash90)
Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Flash90)
Photo essayElections 2019: 6,339,279 voters, 400 million voting slips

Boxing the ballot: Behind the planning of Israel’s largest-ever election

As politicians traverse the country wooing voters, intense preparations are underway to ensure every citizen can participate in the democratic process

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

As the clock struck midnight on February 22, marking the deadline for party registration to run in April’s elections, members of the Central Elections Committee celebrated the end of a long two days in which current and would-be lawmakers filed a record 47 electoral slates.

But as party representatives, lawyers, journalists and election officials trooped out of the committee’s temporary headquarters in the Knesset, the electoral commission’s director general, Orli Adass, had one crucial job to do before making her way home — putting in a call to Yossi Toren, the Central Elections Committee’s head of logistics.

When Adass delivered the news that close to 50 parties had filed, Toren let out a groan that resonated throughout the giant warehouse in the industrial park in the central city of Shoham, where he himself was only just packing up for the night. Having made projections based on 2015’s 22 registered parties, the news that more than twice that number would be running this time around meant that his work would be doubled too.

Though it began preparing for the coming election just days after the previous one ended, the Central Elections Committee logistics center been working nonstop since December — when the 20th Knesset dissolved itself and new elections were called — to ensure that on April 9, every one of the country’s 10,720 polling stations will be properly supplied.

Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

The implication of the large number of parties (which, even having since gone down from 47 to 43, is unprecedented in Israeli electoral history) can literally be weighed. The kits that now have to be prepared for each of the voting locations will be 17 kilos heavier than those of the last election due to the additional ballot slips needed for the greater number of parties.

With a paper balloting system still used in Israeli elections — notwithstanding its reputation as the Start-Up Nation — enough voting slips must be printed to allow every one of the 6,339,279 eligible voters to cast a vote for any of the parties running, plus extras just in case. That’s a whopping 400 million ballot slips in total, 140 million more than in the 2015 election.

The tray of Israeli election ballots used for the 2015 election. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

“With more voters and many more parties, this is Israel’s biggest ever election by far,” Toren said last week during a tour of the 8,000-square-foot facility where the vast amounts of materials are printed, organized and packaged before being sent out to 19 regional logistic centers around the country.

“When I got the call [from Adass], I realized instantly that we would be working on a new scale,” he said, explaining how, for example, new trays had to be designed to hold the ballot slips for each party since the current model only has 36 slots.

The massive scale of the operation can be felt best in the logistics center’s central loading bay, where 12,000 blue ballot boxes adorned with the state emblem are stacked from floor to ceiling in towers stretching almost as far as the eye can see.

Each of these boxes is filled by the center’s staff with every standard item required for a polling station to function: a box of the paper ballots (500 ballots for each of the parties running, plus an additional 500 blank “protest vote” ballots); the new tray to hold the total 22,000 ballots; ballot envelopes; a poster with the names and symbols of all the parties in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian; a privacy partition; a ballot counting tray; an Israeli flag; and more.

Ballot boxes at the Central Election Committee to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

In various work areas surrounding the giant store of ballot boxes, the approximately 100 workers employed for the three-month period ahead of the election carefully prepare each item needed for every bundle, from packs of paperclips for grouping voting slips to zip ties for hanging up signs.

In one room, 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. These lists are then compiled into tailor made packs that also go into the ballot boxes, making every single one unique and specific to its location.

Because Israel’s voting system is not computerized, voters must cast their ballot at their assigned station. So, not only can you not vote if you are out of the country, but if you live in Haifa but find yourself on vacation in Eilat on election day, you’ll have to cut your trip short and hurry back home in order to cast a ballot.

Reserve soldiers lining up to vote Tuesday at a base in central Israel. (photo credit: Times of Israel Staff)
Reserve soldiers lining up to vote at a base in central Israel on January 21, 2013. (Times of Israel Staff)

The Central Elections Committee, however, is also responsible for the some 400,000 Israeli citizens who are permitted to vote at a polling station that is not their assigned one. These include Israel Defense Forces soldiers, medical staff and patients in hospitals, prisoners and people with disabilities (who can vote in any of the 3,949 polling stations with full disability accessibility, a 50% increase from the last election).

Each of these groups present their own challenges. In the case of the military, for example, polling stations go to the soldiers instead of vice versa; some stations are set up on military bases, while 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 27, with their ballots counted together with all the others on the night of April 9 immediately after polling stations close.

Election day itself, while representing the pinnacle of the logistic team’s work, is also the day that the Shoham warehouse is transformed from a logistic center into a makeshift recycling plant for the estimated 250 tons of waste material left over after the vote.

While valid ballot slips are trucked to the Knesset, where they remain for two weeks in case any appeals are lodged and a recount required, reams of unused slips and envelopes, voter lists, polling station posters, cardboard partitions and any other recyclable materials are transported back to the logistics center where recycle trucks wait in the space once occupied by the piles of ballot boxes. From here the trucks take the waste to a number of recycling plants around the country.

And then, Toran says, after a few days’ rest “we start preparing for the next election,  whenever they may be.”

Ballot boxes at the Central Election Committee to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Voter lists at the Central Election Committee to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Voting materials at the Central Election Committee to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Central Election Committee workers prepare materials to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Ballot boxes at the Central Election Committee to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Renee Ghert-Zand contributed to this report.

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