Israeli soldiers on Wednesday began casting their ballots ahead of the March 23 general elections.
Some 335 ballot boxes were stationed at military bases around the country for earlier voting, with polls open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Soldiers who chose to vote early could only do so Wednesday.
While most troops vote on election day, some soldiers voted early to help speed up ballot-counting, as military personnel use the “double envelope” system for absentee votes that ensures their anonymity but is more time-consuming to count.
Authorities expect a much higher rate of absentee votes this year because of the many Israelis in quarantine or hospitalized due to coronavirus.
The early voting was held at the Central Elections Committee’s request, according to the Israel Defense Forces, which said 550 ballot boxes would be deployed at bases throughout Israel on election day.
The start of voting in the military came after diplomats began filing their ballots last week, with the ambassador to New Zealand casting the first vote.
According to Israeli law, private citizens living abroad cannot vote unless they come to Israel, but exceptions are made for diplomats and their families.
The law against absentee voting caused controversy in recent weeks after Israel halted flights and barred international travelers due to the pandemic, stranding thousands of citizens abroad ahead of the election. The High Court of Justice ruled Wednesday that the restrictions on entry, which have since been slightly eased, were unconstitutional.
The upcoming election is Israel’s second to take place under the shadow of the pandemic. The previous election, in March 2020, was held shortly after the coronavirus first reached the country, with several special polling stations serving the relatively few people who had then been suspected or confirmed to have contracted the virus or come in contact with confirmed carriers.
Israel will fund special shuttles to polling stations for active COVID-19 patients during the upcoming vote, a top official said last week, alongside further adaptations forced by the pandemic that will turn the election into the most expensive in the country’s history.
Central Elections Committee (CEC) director Orly Adas also told reporters that dozens of buses will be converted into ballot stations for people in quarantine and to lower crowding in certain polling stations.
Adas added that the CEC was still devising a plan for how to count the ballots and verify the results, with the number of absentee ballots expected to be double the normal amount.
The week-long Passover festival also poses a challenge, starting three days after the election. Adas said the goal is to complete the tally within two days.
The election is Israel’s fourth in under two years, amid an unprecedented political crisis that failed to produce a government after the first two votes in 2019 and yielded a short-lived unity government after the third. The vote is largely regarded as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, including his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his trial on corruption charges.