Likely dates for possible snap poll announced

Election official says next vote may require drive-thru ballots, several days

Orly Ades butts heads with Health Ministry over plans for pandemic-era vote, as Knesset committee seeks ways to cut down on travel, avoid repeat of US-style electoral chaos

People arrive to vote at a special polling station for voters quarantined due to possible exposure to the coronavirus in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, on March 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
People arrive to vote at a special polling station for voters quarantined due to possible exposure to the coronavirus in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, on March 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

With Israel seemingly headed to new elections in March, likely before vaccines can significantly mitigate the effects of the pandemic, safeguards will need to be put in place to ensure the vote does not cause significant coronavirus infections, the head of the Central Elections Committee cautioned Tuesday.

During a meeting of the State Control Committee in the Knesset, CEC director Orly Ades said there may have to be multiple days of voting, as well as drive-thru facilities where citizens who are ill with the virus or under quarantine can cast their ballots.

“We’re following the pandemic data and how they’re changing week to week, and we will be prepared for the possibility that ahead of election day there will be many quarantined and sick,” she said, according to Ynet. “We are talking about significant issues — whether there will be a need for one day of voting or more.”

Ades’s comments came days after a proposal to dissolve the Knesset passed in an initial plenum vote, heralding the end of the short-lived power-sharing coalition between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his alternate premier, Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Israel’s previous elections, in March of this year, were held under the shadow of the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country. At the time, 16 special polling stations across the country were set up for the more than 5,000 people who were under home quarantine after returning from trips abroad.

Orly Ades, director general of the Central Elections Committee. (Facebook)

In her comments Tuesday, Ades said her committee was “working on plans for ‘vote and drive’ compounds for coronavirus patients and quarantined [individuals],” as well as considering placing ballot boxes in nursing homes to reduce the risk to the elderly, who are especially vulnerable to the virus.

“We’re working on a voting station… where patients won’t be in proximity to other people,” she added, railing at the Health Ministry, whose representatives she said were unwilling to meet with her people to discuss those plans.

Ades also said that the current number of election committee workers — 50,000 — would have to swell considerably in order to accommodate the special requirements of an election day in the midst of the pandemic.

It’s unclear how a multi-day vote would look, given that election day in Israel is a public holiday.

During the meeting, a Health Ministry representative urged the committee to come up with ways to keep those who are sick or in quarantine from venturing out, according to a Knesset spokesperson.

However, Ades rejected that, saying creating a special system for the sick and isolated was “not realistic.”

“There’s no time for overturning our voting model,” she said.

Israel has only a very small amount of absentee voting, limited to diplomats abroad, soldiers stationed away from home and those hospitalized, and all others are assigned a specific polling place.

But committee head Ofer Shelach (Yesh Atid) urged that the law be changed to keep people from needing to travel to the place of residence listed on their ID cards in order to vote, by giving them the ability to add a second place of residence.

But he also warned of fears of electoral chaos as seen in the United States last month.

“In the US there’s been a loss of trust in the electoral system. We’re also heading toward the elections being delegitimized,” he warned.

Gantz’s Blue and White party won control Monday of the schedule of the bill to dissolve the Knesset, meaning it will decide when and how new elections will be called, as well as when the national vote will be held — likely sometime in the first half of March.

The Knesset House Committee, where the Blue and White-led bloc has a majority over Netanyahu’s bloc, voted to keep the discussions on the bill in its hands rather than hand it over to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, where the Likud bloc has a majority and where it could have held up the bill for weeks.

Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg, the head of the committee, told Adas that even though the snap poll has not yet been approved, officials should begin planning as if it has been. He listed February 23, March 2, March 9 and March 23 as likely possible dates for elections.

After the bill is approved by the committee, it will go up for three more plenum votes before passing into law, but even without the bill, the Knesset is already on track to dissolve — and send Israelis to the ballot box for the fourth time in two years — later this month due to an impasse over the state budget.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base near Beersheba, June 25, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/ Pool/AFP)

The budget has long been held up by Likud, with Netanyahu widely believed to be planning to dissolve the government anyway before the 2021 budget must be passed in March, so as to prevent a scenario where, as stipulated by their power-sharing agreement, Gantz will succeed him as prime minister.

Blue and White have been demanding that a two-year state budget be passed for 2020 and 2021 together — also as the coalition deal stipulates — in a bid to force Netanyahu to honor the premiership rotation clause. If Likud continues to resist those demands, elections will be triggered on December 23 at the latest and held three months later.

Likud prefers the elections be postponed to summer, when much of the population is expected to already be vaccinated against the coronavirus and criticism of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic may ease.

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