Likud rejects AG’s opinion that hidden cameras at polls could be illegal

Ruling party slams Mandelblit’s legal guidance as ‘unacceptable,’ says barring cameras ‘could hurt democracy and the purity of elections’

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)

The Likud party on Tuesday lambasted a legal opinion from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit stating that the party’s camera surveillance operation targeting polling stations in Arab towns could constitute a criminal offense.

Mandelblit submitted the opinion last week ahead of a Central Elections Committee hearing on whether to allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party to resume its operation, begun in April, in the upcoming September 17 election.

During the April 9 elections, 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 have 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.

In April, Hanan Melcer, the Supreme Court justice who heads the Central Elections Committee, 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.” His ruling came on election day, after Likud poll workers were caught with the hidden cameras.

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)

“Though it’s not possible to say definitively that placing cameras at polling stations constitutes a criminal offense, in certain circumstances they would be considered a crime as they interfere with the voting process,” Mandelblit wrote last week to the Central Election Committee.

Mandelblit told Melcer that as chairman of the elections committee, he had the authority to ban the Likud practice if he believed it would be “disruptive to the voting process.”

In its response to the attorney general’s opinion, which was publicized in full on Tuesday, Likud claimed any guidance “that does not allow voting supervision at the polling stations is unacceptable.”

“Likud has sought to check hundreds of polling stations in which suspicions of fraud in the Arab sector emerged in the last elections – and they have not been examined until now,” it said.

Ostensibly referring to officials in the Attorney General’s Office, Likud claimed that “now, in every way, they are trying to prevent basic polling supervision in a way that could hurt democracy and the purity of elections. This is unacceptable.”

During last week’s hearing, Melcer referenced the evidence handed over by Likud after the April vote and said that police were still looking into the matter.

That was not to say that authorities have not opened probes regarding voter fraud. Such investigations have been opened in Afula and the town of Kisra-Sumei, regarding two polling stations that were not targeted by Likud in its surveillance program.

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.

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)

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 fraudulent votes in April only added up to several thousand.

A spokesman for the Central Elections Committee said that Melcer would reach a decision on the matter next week.

The Likud party has doubled its budget for the surveillance operation ahead of next month’s election, and intends to pump roughly NIS 2 million ($570,000) into the program, the source said.

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

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