InterviewAs elections chair mulls whether to again allow cameras

Likud’s election cameras motivated by desire to suppress Arab vote, expert says

Israel Democracy Institute’s senior fellow says filming of a minority demographic at polling stations is no way to address ostensible fraud

Jacob Magid

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

A family votes during elections in a predominantly Bedouin city of Rahat on April 9, 2019. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
A family votes during elections in a predominantly Bedouin city of Rahat on April 9, 2019. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

In equipping its polling officials stationed in Arab towns with cameras during last April’s election, a democracy expert maintains, the Likud party was motivated not by its proclaimed desire to prevent voter fraud, but rather by a desire to suppress turnout in those targeted communities.

Citing a Facebook post by one of the organizers who boasted the project’s success in dropping Arab voter turnout to below 50 percent, Israel Democracy Institute senior fellow Tehila Shwartz Altshuler said in a Monday interview with The Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party “intended to suppress the Arab vote. There’s no way to skirt around that point.”

“Holding a debate on voter fraud while ignoring the real intention of those behind the cameras is only looking at half the picture,” she added.

Last week, Altshuler submitted a legal opinion on behalf of IDI recommending the Central Elections Committee bar Likud from once again carrying out what it dubbed “Operation Moral Standards” in the upcoming September election.

Tehila Shwartz Altshuler. (Courtesy)

Likud has defended its surveillance activities, arguing that they are critical in preventing what it claims is massive voting fraud in Arab communities, and has allocated twice as much funding for a renewed cameras campaign in September.

In April, Central Elections Committee chairman Hanan Melcer okayed the use of cameras in cases where there was “considerable fear” of voter fraud, but did not explicitly outline what constituted “considerable fear” beyond two examples. The snap ruling came on election day, after Likud poll workers were caught with hidden cameras and were briefly pulled out of ballot stations by police.

Due to a plethora of requests from left-wing parties and rights groups that opposed his decision, Melcer held a hearing on the matter last week, during which Altshuler, who heads the Democracy in the Information Age program at the Jerusalem-based IDI, was called to testify.

How to catch a fraudster

At the hearing, as well as during her Monday interview, Altshuler argued that a substantive discussion on voter fraud is worth having, but clarified that cameras employed by politically motivated officials solely in communities of a particular demographic does little to address the problem.

“There are more than enough technological solutions that can be adopted to prevent fraud without allowing a political party to create a massive data archive on all Arab voters,” she said.

To prevent voters from submitting a ballot for someone who is deceased or abroad, Altshuler proposed having an algorithm-programmed computer scan the voting records at each ballot station and compare them with the Interior Ministry’s official records.

“The same method could be used to prevent fraud carried out by members of the polling committees themselves,” Altshuler suggested, referring to alleged attempts by polling officials to edit voting records after the ballot count had been completed.

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)

While the IDI fellow was skeptical about whether cameras would be able to catch such fraud in real time, she said there were far fewer legal issues with having them used by impartial committee members during the ballot count, after the last voter has left the polling station.

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

However, Altshuler admitted to flying somewhat blind with her recommendations because Melcer, the election committee head, has refused to reveal the information gathered by Likud in the last election. Instead, the Supreme Court justice announced at last week’s hearing that he had transferred the evidence gathered from the party’s cameras to the police, who were looking into the matter.

Since the April elections, police have announced the opening of investigations into suspected voter fraud at two polling stations: one in the city of Afula and another in the Druze town of Kisra-Sumei. Neither polling station was targeted by Likud’s surveillance program.

“The Central Elections Committee is not telling us what types of fraud were committed or the scope of the problem,” Altshuler lamented. “How can we determine what means are justified if we don’t know how serious the problem is?”

The Times of Israel obtained records from over 100 polling stations, which 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, this number 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.

While not diminishing the seriousness of the alleged crimes, Altshuler clarified that all of the alleged attempts only added up to several thousand extra votes.

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

Damned if you do…

Beyond the question of cameras’ effectiveness in preventing voter fraud is whether the Central Elections Committee has the authority to sanction their use.

The idea that the polling stations are supposed to be a ‘sterile’ zone is the very central idea behind the elections in Israel

The law grants the committee “special powers” to make decisions not explicitly granted in the election regulations, but Altshuler argued that allowing cameras during voting hours goes way beyond the scope of what the original legislators intended.

“The idea that the polling stations are supposed to be a ‘sterile’ zone is the very central idea behind the elections in Israel,” she explained, referencing regulations that bar polling officials from turning on a TV or radio or speaking on the telephone while on the job.

“The legislators at the time the law was written [1959] did not foresee us reaching a day in which every individual carries a phone with a camera. From my understanding, if they had foreseen this, they would have outlawed cameras just like they outlawed other devices,” Altshuler argued.

This does not mean that legislators would have opposed a polling official filming an incident of fraud if it were to unfold in front of his or her eyes, she clarified. “But this is a far cry from turning on a camera for the entire day and filming every single person that enters the polling station as Likud intends to do.”

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)

What is it about the cameras that inherently suppresses the vote, some supporters of the surveillance operation have asked. Altshuler acknowledged that she did not have a definitive answer to that question.

“But that is exactly the point. Not enough research has been done,” she said, asserting that this should have further convinced Melcer not to allow the use of cameras in the scope that he did in his snap ruling on election day, April 9, before properly probing the issue.

“To say that [the cameras] absolutely cause voter suppression is incorrect but to say that they absolutely do not is not necessarily true either,” Altshuler said. She was adamant, however, that lowering Arab turnout had been Likud’s intention.

As for why no updates to election regulations in the era of ubiquitous smartphones and cameras have been made until now, Altshuler presented two possibilities. “Either [lawmakers] were politically motivated not to act or they simply didn’t manage to get to it.”

The IDI fellow suggested that the latter was more likely the case, but she insists that the election committee has the prerogative to stamp out attempts by any particular party seeking to take advantage of the loophole.

Altshuler pointed out that even with warnings from State Comptroller Yosef Shapira, who in reports following the 2013 and 2015 elections detailed problems of voter fraud, law enforcement failed to issue a single indictment in light of what was published.

“Even if you change the law, you’ll still need a legal system that cares enough to enforce it,” she said.

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

To look east or west?

As Altshuler testified during last week’s hearing about the potential risks that could arise if the election committee once again allowed Likud officials to employ surveillance cameras at polling stations, Melcer cut her off to point out that during a general election earlier this year authorities in India carried out a successful pilot program using such surveillance tactics. He said voter turnout actually increased, to its highest ever rate of 67.5 percent.

“India is a developing democracy, and we have a lot to learn from it, but I’m not so sure that we should be looking to it on this particular issue,” Altshuler responded. “Perhaps it would be better to look at more developed democracies like Canada, Australia and the UK, where such practices are banned.”

Reflecting on the encounter during her Monday interview, the IDI fellow admitted to having been somewhat floored that the Supreme Court justice had chosen India to set as the standard on the matter.

She pointed out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government installed the cameras at polling stations not in order to thwart voter fraud, but to prevent the violence that had plagued many ballot locations in recent elections.

(Top R) Operation Moral Standards organizers Sagi Kaizler and Gadi De’ee with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (bottom L) and his wife Sara after election results are announced on April 9, 2019. (Kaizler-Inbar))

“Of course we can learn from them how an impartial body could install the cameras and under what guidelines it can be done, but to go from that to saying that the pilot program there demonstrates how cameras do not suppress the vote?” Altshuler asked rhetorically. She pointing out that in India, every voter is required to dip one finger in ink to prevent them from voting twice.

“We don’t do this because we assume it’s primitive, but it would be much more effective [at preventing fraud] than using cameras,” Altshuler argued.

While she acknowledged that several states in the US have avoided outlawing cameras altogether, she maintained that instead, local legislatures had sought to tighten voter ID requirements in an effort to crack down on alleged voter fraud. In Wisconsin, critics blame the stricter legislation for a 19% drop in black voter turnout during the 2016 presidential election.

“While we can’t learn anything from the US regarding cameras, we can learn that when you set guidelines that are allegedly neutral, the application of those guidelines never ends up being neutral and is more damaging to particular sectors than others,” Altshuler said.

The IDI fellow went on to lament what she claimed was a recent tendency in Netanyahu’s Likud to mimic the tactics employed by President Donald Trump and other politicians in the US.

“Whatever was done there, they want to try here. Trump criticized the physical traits of competing candidates, so Likud talked about [Blue and White chairman Benny] Gantz’s mental stability and how he [allegedly] saw a psychiatrist,” said Altshuler. “Now we’re seeing it with the micro-targeting of specific voters.”

Eyes on Melcer

A spokesman for the Central Elections Committee said that Melcer will hand down his decision on the cameras next week.

Based on her assessment of the Supreme Court justice from last week’s hearing, Altshuler predicted that Melcer would again allow the use of cameras, but, significantly, only during the ballot count after voting is over, only by an impartial representative, and not only in the polling stations of one particular sector.

Such a ruling would echo parts of the snap decision made by Melcer on the day of the April vote, but, she pointed out, Likud is hoping for authorization to return to its original plan in which its cameras could be used nonstop throughout the entire day.

“I truly hope that we’re past that point,” Alshuler said.

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer (C) arrives at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem for a hearing about public transportation on Shabbat, on September 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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