Election explainer'Maybe the biggest civil operation in the State of Israel'

How Israel’s low-tech voting system helps ensure the integrity of the count

From the casting of the ballot to its arrival and counting at the Central Elections Committee, Israel uses a variety of means to ensure the accuracy of its election results

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Central Elections Committee Director-General Orly Adas speaks at a press conference at the Knesset, October 26, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Central Elections Committee Director-General Orly Adas speaks at a press conference at the Knesset, October 26, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Nearly 6.8 million Israelis are eligible to vote in the November 1 election for Israel’s 25th Knesset. But who is responsible for counting their paper ballots across the country’s 11,707 physical polling stations, and how do election authorities guarantee the sanctity of both the vote and the count?

Last Thursday, President Isaac Herzog made a public call to all political parties to accept the election results. On Sunday his entreaty was echoed by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who said he feared his political rivals in Likud will cast doubt on the results. Likud dismissed the claims and said it would respect the “will of the voter.”

Orly Adas, director-general of the Central Elections Committee responsible for managing the voting and its integrity, said on Wednesday that several features of the Israeli system create a system of oversight and expressed confidence the elections will remain free and fair.

Within polling stations themselves, Adas explained to reporters at the Knesset, are several key figures entrusted with overseeing a fair process. Under a polling station secretary — employed by the CEC — sits a committee of three party-affiliated overseers and a state-funded inspector. Outside of the station, a police officer is deployed.

The party-affiliated overseers — representing the outgoing Knesset’s 13 parties — are deployed by the CEC, never with more than one member of a party at a polling station. They are meant to check each other and prevent politically motivated alternation of ballots or other malfeasance.

Also within the polling station and during vote counts, the inspector is authorized by the CEC to film, with limitations including preserving the privacy of voters. The inspector is the only person authorized to film within the polling station, a point that both Adas and the CEC reiterated after Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu expressed interest in sending camera-armed inspectors to polls to oversee counting.

MK Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra’am, votes in Israel’s parliamentary election at a polling station in Maghar, Israel, March 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean, File)

In a Twitter Space discussion last week, Netanyahu said that Likud would send overseers and be “filming the counting… This time there will be recordings of the counting.” A party spokesman later said that Likud would be operating in accordance with the law.

“The authority to film in a polling station is given only by the chair of the CEC,” said Adas, in response to reporter questions about whether parties can film counting procedures.

Once the polls close on election night, counting is done, in location, by the same team. It’s an arduous process, by which the political and state-funded committee members open each ballot together, take separate tallies, and then stick each paper ballot into a long, party-specific chain, before the ballots are all collected in sacks and rushed to the Knesset for registration along with their results.

Double voting is prevented by low-tech methods, including forcing Israelis to poll at their assigned polling stations. Voters who poll at a special station cast a double-envelope ballot, and their names can be checked against their home station rolls to make sure they did not appear twice.

Workers prepare ballot boxes for the upcoming Israeli elections, at the central elections committee warehouse in Shoham, before they are shipped to polling stations, October 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Adas said that it’s “a shame to make the effort” to try to vote twice. “It’s a criminal offense, and each envelope is tracked” and will be figured out. However, she did not specify how the individual’s ballots could then be disqualified.

In terms of more widespread election tampering, Adas said that the notorious paper ballot system — which has raised more than one eyebrow in the start-up nation — helps preserve election integrity.

“It’s not possible when the voting and counting are by hand” to tamper at a systematic level, she said.

The CEC’s budget for the upcoming election is NIS 538 million ($154 million) and a total of NIS 2.2 billion for the five election cycles since Israel’s politics first went into a tailspin at the end of 2018, according to Adas. This figure does not include the additional costs incurred in the economy, heightened because election day is a national holiday.

This hefty budget supports what Adas called “maybe the biggest civil operation in the State of Israel,” one that voters will help decide whether or not it will be repeated for the 26th time very soon.

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