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Fight to the end: How parties plan on driving (literally) turnout at the polls

From voter tracking apps to phone banks, stump tours and free rides, parties are planning a variety of tactics to push their supporters to the ballot boxes on March 23

Ballots being counted on March 4, 2020. (Flash90)
Ballots being counted on March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

In the run-up to the March 2020 Knesset election, one major question was what voter turnout would look like. Israel had never had a political stalemate that led to two consecutive elections, let alone three, and many feared that voter apathy and disapproval of the gridlock would keep people at home.

In the end, over 71.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, one of the highest turnouts in decades, topping the 68.46% that showed up in April 2019 and 69.83% that voted less than six months later.

One thing that may have helped turnout was the coronavirus. While most restrictions on travel were not yet in place, by March 2, the Health Ministry was already urging Israelis to not go abroad, El Al was laying off employees and Israelis who had been in China, Italy and some other destinations were being forced into a 14-day quarantine, with expectations that the roster of destinations would only expand. Many who had travel plans would up canceling them and staying home — and voting.

With a fresh round of elections looming, voter turnout is once again a major concern, and the uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis has hindered any cogent analysis of how voters will act on March 23. Will people coming out of a year that saw three grueling lockdowns, the decimation of the economy and a virtual freeze on social and family life shy away from the ballot box? Will Israelis who normally take advantage of the vacation day by jetting off, but are now stuck at home, go to the polls instead?

A worker of the Central Election Committee wearing protective gear during a demonstration of special polling station ahead of the upcoming elections, at the central elections committee logistics center near Shoham on February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Add into the mix the popularity of the Elector app, which allows parties to track turnout in real time, showing data on individual voters polling station by polling station. The app, and others like it, are key for parties looking to send out text-message blasts, which have become standard in most campaigns.

Screenshot of the website of the Elector elections data app, taken February 10, 2020.

The Justice Ministry has ruled that in the last election, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu compromised voter privacy with the app, which had a flaw that gave easy administrator access to the entire database, allowing anybody to see and copy voter information.

Nonetheless, Likud, Yamina and Religious Zionism will be using the app to direct resources aimed at getting their bases to the voting booths. Other parties will be looking to utilize street operations and experience garnered over the previous three elections to drive turnout.

Presented is a look at what all major parties are doing to get voters to the polls, from phone banks to giving potential supporters a lift.

Likud: Punking pollsters

Several attempts to find out from the campaign’s press team what Likud is planning in order to get out the vote yielded only a “We do not comment on the Likud’s campaign or our plans at all.”

Nonetheless, several of the right-wing party’s Knesset members and ministers have spoken to the media about their roles in the campaign, most of them tailored to ethnicities. MK Gadi Yevarkan, for instance, is leading the effort to reach out to the Ethiopian communities; Deputy Minister Fateen Mulla leads the Druze desk; Nail Zoabi is heading the Muslim voter drive. Others are assigned to specific geographic areas.

Large campaign posters of the head of the head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu being printed at a press in Rosh Haayin on March 9, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Likud has an impressive system of hundreds of WhatsApp groups of party supporters, which it uses to push talking points and other information. There have been unverified claims that party officials ask members of some groups to provide misleading answers to pollsters, in order to inflate opponents’ polling numbers and give them a false sense of confidence in their ability to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Since lockdown restrictions were eased, Netanyahu has begun meeting supporters face to face, with gatherings of up to 300 people. He is planning to travel the country and make three to four campaign stops a day as the election nears.

Yesh Atid: Hitting the streets

Less than a decade after being formed by former journalist Yair Lapid, center-left Yesh Atid boasts an extensive ground operation. Polling as the second-largest party behind Likud, Yesh Atid points to a vast field effort, which includes 200 local chapters manned by paid staff and volunteer activists.

The party has recently begun distributing, via volunteer couriers, a printed 178-page book with its party platform, the only party doing so.

Yesh Atid-Telem MK Yair Lapid at a protest self-employed Israelis calling for financial support from the government, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A party spokesperson insisted that Yesh Atid is not relying on an app to drive voter turnout or reach potential supporters, and only those who expressed interest in being involved have been entered into the party’s database.

“We are abiding by the law. That’s why we always kept our distance from [the Elector app],” the spokesperson said.

As in the past three elections, MK Miki Levy is heading the party’s effort to get voters to the polls. He has been meeting with branch heads and drivers, who will ferry voters to ballot boxes or blast campaign messages on mounted speakers.

In addition, geographic areas and local branches have been divvied up and assigned to individual MKs.

New Hope: Uphill battle

Top officials in the New Hope party admit to The Times of Israel that they face  a tough challenge in getting voters out. The right-wing party, led by Gideon Sa’ar and populated by fellow disgruntled former Likud members, is brand new, with no infrastructure for a ground operation or experience from the previous rounds of votes.

Their digital assets — email lists, phone numbers for text message blasts and a network of WhatsApp groups — have had only a few months to accumulate data, and what’s more, the effort recently ran into trouble. According to a recent report in The Marker, the Canvasser app used by the party to track supporters was breached and voters’ names and even credit card info was leaked. A party spokesperson denied any personal information had been stolen, but said the app had been taken offline for several days out of an abundance of caution.

A senior official asked about the breach claimed they did not even know the app was being used until the story came out in The Marker.

New Hope party members tour Jerusalem’s Mamilla mall on March 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The New Hope spokesperson claimed that the party also had a strong network of mayors and other local politicians in its corner, which would help make up for any deficit of ground or digital operations. In addition, Sa’ar himself has reams of experience in campaigning, having been Likud’s point man on PR and field operations in past elections.

Yamina: No vote left behind

Yamina still bears the scars of the first 2019 election, when it fell a mere 1,400 votes shy of entering the Knesset, and is operating under the idea that every vote is critical.

Party leader Naftali Bennett has worked to preempt having votes from his right-wing base snatched away by Likud at the last minute, including with a recent promise not to join a government headed by Lapid, whom Netanyahu has portrayed as a dyed-in-the-wool leftist.

Yamina is making use of Elector, and a spokesperson told ToI that the party is not worried about a data breach. “We work on the app in a safe manner. We have done tests and we take care to keep the data guarded.”

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a protest against the state’s intention to close the Hilla Project, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One of Yamina’s strengths is its access to activists and data from Jewish Home, which is not running in the election but has thrown its support behind Bennett. Jewish Home is a reincarnation of Mafdal, which used to be the main party of the national-religious camp and has a support network that includes influential municipal rabbis and yeshiva administrators, as well as some mayors and council members.

Abir Kara, a seasoned activist whose Shulmanim group briefly led protests pushing for more government support for businesses during the first coronavirus lockdown, has joined Yamina and is trying to bring the same energy to a get-out-the-vote drive. Kara has stopped appearing on TV and radio and instead reportedly drives around the country in a caravan of supporters meeting local business leaders with the hopes of winning their votes.

Religious Zionism, the other major right-wing party, declined to speak on the subject to The Times of Israel.

Joint List: Fighting history and the right

The Joint List of three majority-Arab parties has the most acute turnout challenge. Arab voting numbers are traditionally lower than among the general public, and recent history has shown splits within the camp also keep voters away. In April 2019, when the party was split into two rival factions, estimated Arab turnout dropped to 49.2%, down from 63.5% when the Joint List was one big alliance in 2015. In the March 2020 election, when the parties were once again united, Arab turnout hit a historical high of 64.8%.

Leader of the Joint list Ayman Odeh, left, and Ahmad Tibi present the Joint List’s campaign in Nof HaGalil on February 20, 2021. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

This time though, the Ra’am party has left the fold, leading to fears of lower turnout for the Joint List, likely meaning fewer seats. Ra’am itself, which declined to speak about its voter turnout drive, is in serious danger of not getting the necessary votes to cross the 3.25% threshold to enter the Knesset.

The Joint List will not be using a voter tracking app to drive turnout, a party official said, but is instead using more traditional methods to pump up its base, such as in-person street events and phone calls to potential supporters, pushing talking points about the party’s commitment to oppose the right wing and fight for full equal rights for Arabs.

An electoral billboard by the predominantly Arab Israeli electoral alliance the Joint List depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a caption reading in Arabic “the father of the nation-state law, says ‘a new approach’, whom is he fooling?” is seen above protesters during a demonstration by Arab Israelis in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel on March 5, 2021, against organized crime and calling upon the Israeli police to stop a wave of intra-communal violence. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The party is also emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated against the coronavirus and maintaining health guidelines.

United Torah Judaism: Is Twitter the ticket?

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party has moved slowly toward modern campaign methods. It was only a week ago that the UTJ spokesman opened a WhatsApp group to brief reporters, a first for the party.

It has also opened an official Twitter account for the first time, after a long internal debate. Party MKs still do not have any social media presence as a rule.

The tentative step into the 21st century comes as the party is trying to keep younger ultra-Orthodox voters from drifting away. Many in the community are unhappy with the way the ultra-Orthodox leadership dealt with the coronavirus crisis and politicians fear disgruntled voters will cast ballots for the Religious Zionism party instead.

The United Torah Judaism party headquarters in Jerusalem on March 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A UTJ spokesperson said the party is planning to make use of a network of neighborhood and citywide campaign offices in ultra-Orthodox communities, and has calculated where potential voters are. On election day, local activists will call potential supporters within their zone and make sure they know where to vote and have a way to get there.

Shas, the other major ultra-Orthodox party, declined to speak to the Times of Israel.

Yisrael Beytenu: A drive without drivers

If there’s one thing Yisrael Beytenu’s veteran campaigners know how to do, it’s how to drive turnout to the polls, specifically elderly turnout. The party has a long history of having volunteer drivers park outside nursing homes, offering voters a ride to the polling station and even a pre-filled Yisrael Beytenu voting slip to drop in the ballot box. This year, though, polling stations will be inside many nursing homes due to the coronavirus, meaning no lift necessary.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman tours at Hacarmel Market in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In the run-up to voting day, Avigdor Liberman’s party is working on stumping as the defender of the secular, pushing out messaging focused on the needs of the nonreligious public via digital advertising and Zoom meetings.

Labor: New life into an old party

The center-left Labor Party started its campaign later than many other parties due to a change at the top, with Merav Michaeli taking the reins and insisting on a primary to determine the party’s Knesset slate.

While late out of the gate, the decision to hold a primary ended up netting Labor 8,000 new members who signed up to participate in the internal vote last month.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli speaks to press after casting her vote in the Labor primaries, in Tel Aviv on February 1, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Until recently, Labor was in danger of fading into obscurity, though Michaeli has injected new energy into the campaign, and polls now show it comfortably clearing the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset.

Labor party member Ibtisam Mara’ana arrives for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 24, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A party spokesperson said there were efforts underway to revive the storied party’s ossified local branches and other institutions. However, it has also had to battle an exodus of old party hands who are unhappy with past comments made by Ibtisam Mara’ana, No. 7 on the Labor slate.

The party is investing in digital activities and says there have been a large number of WhatsApp groups formed for supporters.

It also has some star power on its side, enlisting what it says are prominent Israelis willing to publicly stump for the party. This includes Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who aborted his own Knesset run, though it’s unclear how much he will contribute on election day.

The effort on election day will be led by Shimon Batat, a veteran strategist who in 2015 helped the party (then called Zionist Union) snag 24 seats, its best result since 1999.

Meretz: Trying to stay afloat

The left-wing party is hovering just around the electoral threshold, and is focusing on getting votes from the Arab community and from undecideds in the center-left camp, where there are thought to be several seats up for grabs.

Among its talking points is the fact that the party kept its word to stay out of a Netanyahu-led government, which Labor and Blue and White did not do.

Meretz head Nitzan Horowitz manning a phone bank with then-Labor head Amir Peretz and Gesher head Orly Levy-Abukasis in Tel Aviv on March 1, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White: Hunting for actual supporters

A year ago Blue and White (which was then in an alliance with Yesh Atid) was neck and neck with Likud in a race for the prime minister’s chair. But today it is tens of thousands of votes shy of even entering the Knesset, according to recent polling.

It gets worse. Party officials believe that even those numbers are being inflated by Likud activists misleading pollsters, in order to give the anti-Netanyahu camp a false sense of security.

Blue and White election campaign posters outside the home of party head Benny Gantz in Rosh Ha’ayin on February 28, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

To battle the phenomenon, the party is focused on reaching pockets of real supporters. On election day, some 150 local offices will man phones to reach out to potential supporters and make sure they go vote.

The party is also making use of two digital platforms to track activists and supporters: Smarti and Dor L’Dor, both of which are designed to facilitate logistics for large campaigns.

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