Arab leader: Win for democracy, defeat for voter suppression

In blow to Likud, elections czar bans parties from filming at polling stations

Hanan Melcer green-lights recording by independent observers when voter fraud suspected and during ballot count, but puts kibosh on controversial Likud program

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A Bedouin Israeli woman votes in the southern city of Rahat, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
A Bedouin Israeli woman votes in the southern city of Rahat, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The country’s top election official barred parties from arming poll station representatives with cameras during the upcoming election Monday, handing a stinging defeat to the Likud party, which had been planning on sending more than a thousand activists into Arab community ballot booths with recording devices in hand.

Central Election Committee Chairman Hanan Melcer’s decision came after Likud said earlier this month that it would expand the controversial program first rolled out during April’s election, which critics said had chilled Arab participation in the vote.

Melcer adopted the view of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who expressed skepticism regarding the legality of the election committee allowing such a practice, when it is not already written in the current election law.

However the Supreme Court justice ordered that a pilot program be established in which the Central Election Committee will employ a large team of polling station observers who are equipped with body cameras to be turned on only in instances when there is a legitimate fear of voter fraud and when permission from Melcer himself has been granted.

Also to be given cameras as part of the pilot will be independent poll workers, unaffiliated with any party.

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, the head of the Central Elections Committee, is seen at the Knesset on April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli election regulations allow members of separate parties to make up three of the four poll workers at each ballot station. Another individual affiliated with an additional party not already represented can also be present as a designated observer.

During the April 9 vote, Likud equipped some 1,200 polling officials working at ballot stations in Arab population centers with hidden body cameras to prevent what the party claims was rampant fraud that has occurred in the community.

Critics charged that Likud’s efforts were a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the non-Jewish minority from the polls, a claim seemingly corroborated by the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation.

Responding to the decision, Likud said in a statement that it was looking into the possibility of passing legislation even before the upcoming election that would allow its polling committee representatives to be armed with cameras.

An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote during elections for the Knesset on April 9, 2019, at a polling station in the northern town of Tayibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh lauded the ruling in a tweet, saying, “The Likud’s loss is a victory for Arab citizens and the entire democratic arena. Right-wing voter suppression activists will have to sit at home – we will be sure to show to get out the vote.”

A straight-faced Ayman Odeh of the Hadash-Ta’al party delivers a speech in the Knesset on May 29, 2019. (Twitter screenshot)

According to the new rules, as the voting ends at 10 p.m., the pilot team of independent poll watchers will be stationed at specific stations flagged by the election committee as having shown inconsistencies in their vote counts during last April’s election.

After the last voter has left the station, these poll watchers will be required to film the entire ballot counting process. These officials will not be allowed to leave the station until the tally has been completed, Melcer said.

A hidden camera allegedly brought into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta’al)

The ruling reverses one by Melcer made as the voting was taking place on April 9, after Likud poll workers were caught with hidden cameras shortly after polls opened.

Melcer at that time okayed the use of such devices in cases where there was “considerable fear” of voter fraud, but did not explicitly outline what would justify “considerable fear.”

During a Central Elections Committee hearing earlier this month on the matter of the cameras, Melcer referenced the evidence handed over by Likud after the April vote and said that police were still looking into allegations.

Police have so far only opened two official investigations into suspected voter fraud: in Afula and the town of Kisra-Sumei, regarding two polling stations that were not targeted by Likud in its surveillance program.

An Arab Israeli woman serves beverages in front of an electoral poster at a polling station during Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, in Daliyat al-Carmel in northern Israel. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

The Times of Israel obtained records from over 100 polling stations that were found to have irregular voter turnouts relative to the figures at adjacent stations. While a portion of those polling stations were located in Arab towns, these made up for less than a third of the total, which also included irregular turnouts in the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, as well as the towns of Petah Tikva, Afula, Netanya and Rosh Ha’ayin.

Those records have also been transferred to the Central Election Committee, but no indictments have been filed on the matter. According to a legal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the total number of suspected fraudulent votes in April only added up to several thousand.

The Likud party had doubled its budget for the surveillance operation ahead of next month’s election, and intended to pump roughly NIS 2 million ($570,000) into the program, an official with knowledge of the operation said earlier this month.

With the expanded budget, the source said Likud would be able to place observers at polling stations where there had been none in April.

Tehila Shwartz Altshuler testifies before the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset on August 8, 2019. (Screen capture/Facebook)

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and one of the petitioners in the proceeding, welcomed Melcer’s decision. “It is inconceivable for a particular political party to place cameras in a specific sector, in the hands or on the bodies of observers who are posted on their behalf at polling stations,” she said.

“It is important to combat election fraud,” she said, but “there are better ways to deal with this issue than placing cameras in the polling stations. One possible alternative is, for example, to enact computerized analysis of the election results and scan the protocols. If in the future, there is interest in placing cameras in the voting stations such a move will have to be enacted only through legislation.”

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