Likud doubles budget for program placing hidden cameras in Arab polling stations

Likud doubles budget for program placing hidden cameras in Arab polling stations

Central Election Committee head to be asked to detail what poll workers can do with cameras, after outcry during April vote and claims of voter suppression

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

An Arab Israeli man prepares to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, at a school-turned-polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
An Arab Israeli man prepares to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, at a school-turned-polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The Likud party has doubled its budget for a surveillance operation targeting balloting stations in Arab towns on election day in September, expanding a program critics have said is being used as a form of voter intimidation to keep Arabs from the polls.

In the last election in April, the Likud party armed 1,200 of its polling committee representatives with hidden cameras and placed them at polling stations throughout Arab communities across the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party will now pump roughly NIS 2 million ($570,000) into the program, a source with knowledge of the operation confirmed to The Times of Israel.

The stated goal of the project was to prevent voter fraud in Arab communities, which the program’s organizers assert to be rampant. But Supreme Court judge Hanan Melcer, who oversaw the April elections and is doing the same with the repeat poll, has raised concerns over the use of the cameras. In April, Arab parties and other critics slammed the cameras as meant to intimidate Arab citizens and prevent them from voting.

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

The Central Elections Committee is slated to meet later this week to discuss the matter, during which the Likud party — led by its representative on the electoral body MK David Bitan — will ask Melcer to detail in writing what their poll watchers can and cannot do with the surveillance cameras. The party will also ask that their polling officials in Arab towns be given extra police protection, the source said.

The expanded program was first reported on by Channel 13 news.

Israeli election regulations allow members of separate parties to make up three of the four poll workers at each ballot station. A fifth individual affiliated with an additional party can also be present as a designated poll watcher.

With the expanded budget, Likud will be able to place additional observers at polling stations where there were none in April, the source with knowledge of the operation said. Likud will seemingly be able to skirt the rule forbidding two workers from the same party being at a poll via deals with other parties, who essentially “lend out” their poll workers and observers.

While the poll watchers won’t be allowed to sit at the check-in table with the rest of polling committees, they will be allowed to remain in their respective station throughout the entire day. With the police reinforcement that they have requested, the operation’s organizers hope their activists will be able to surveil every polling station without interference or threats from Arab community members, the source said.

The operation is set to be run again by the Kaizler-Inbar communications firm, the source said. Kaizler-Inbar organized the April effort by recruiting activists mainly from national religious seminaries across the country and boasted in a Facebook post shortly after the vote  of “success” in bringing turnout among Arabs to below 50 percent, its lowest level in decades.

An Israeli man arrives at a polling station to vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 in the northern Israeli Arab town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

On Monday evening, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg filed a request to the Central Election Committee asking Melcer to intervene and prevent the Likud from carrying out the operation in September

Citing the April 10 Facebook post, she wrote to Melcer that “it is clear to everyone that this is a voter suppression project by the ruling party targeting a public who’s turnout rate it views as a major political threat.”

Likud polling officials said the cameras were intended to catch offenses of voter fraud by the other members of polling committees throughout the day as well as during the ballot counting after polls closed. The program was overseen by Likud minister Yoav Gallant, who regularly updated Netanyahu on it.

Shortly after polls opened on April 9, officials at Arab polling stations began noticing the cameras and subsequent news stories reporting on the until-then secret operation led to broad uproar from opposition members over the targeting of a minority community.

(Top R) Sagi Kaizler and Gadi De’ee pose for a photo with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (bottom L) and his wife Sara after election results announced on April 9, 2019. (Kaizler-Inbar))

After a complaint was filed, Melcer ordered that the Likud polling officials be removed from the Arab polling stations.

However, less than an hour later, he handed down a ruling green-lighting the use of the cameras, given that they weren’t being used to film voters themselves behind the voting booths, but rather to surveil other polling committee officials.

Melcer conditioned the continued use of the cameras during voting hours “only in cases in which there is a fear of substantial violation of the integrity of the elections.”

The use of audio recording was granted during all hours of the day.

Melcer ruled that during the ballot count, cameras would also be allowed, but only after the other members of the polling committee have been notified that they are being filmed.

Since the April election, police have opened investigations regarding suspicions of voter fraud in two polling stations: one in the city of Afula and another in the Druze town of Kisra-Sumei. Neither polling station was targeted by the Likud in its surveillance program.

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