Netanyahu claims his Knesset majority was stolen from him. Does that add up?

Netanyahu claims his Knesset majority was stolen from him. Does that add up?

Could cameras placed in polling stations to stamp out alleged voter fraud have actually won the April ballot for the PM? ToI does the math

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Counting ballots from soldiers and absentees at the Knesset in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections for the 20th Israeli parliament. March 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)
Counting ballots from soldiers and absentees at the Knesset in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections for the 20th Israeli parliament. March 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Friday that the reason his opponents are against allowing political parties to bring cameras into polling stations is that they are fraudulently trying to remove him from power.

“Only someone who wants to steal the election would oppose the placement of cameras,” said Netanyahu, who, in the waning days of the 21st Knesset, has been pushing a bill that would allow the use of cameras on election day. It was approved by the cabinet on Sunday morning, despite opposition from the attorney general, the Knesset’s legal adviser, and the Supreme Court justice overseeing the elections, but failed to gain a majority in the Knesset committee Monday, stymieing its progress. The proposed legislation comes after the Central Elections Committee banned Likud activists from using the cameras.

If the subtext for the prime minister’s claim wasn’t immediately clear, the ruling party openly asserted that one of the country’s Arab parties, Ra’am-Balad, cleared the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the total vote — equivalent to four seats in Knesset — only thanks to fraudulent votes in April’s election. And Likud is warning that the same will happen again if cameras at polling stations are not permitted.

“It has been established that if [voter] fraud had been prevented, Balad would not have passed the threshold percentage, and the right-wing bloc under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu would have had 61 seats. This would have kept Israel from unnecessary elections,” Likud said in a statement on Thursday. The “unnecessary elections” were a reference to the upcoming September vote, which was initiated by Netanyahu after he fell one seat short of forming a ruling majority composed of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 23, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Other Likud officials have claimed that voter fraud also kept the New Right party from entering the Knesset, as it fell just 1,400 votes short of the electoral threshold, knocking another potential four seats out of the would-be right-wing coalition.

While Likud’s accusations have not been substantiated by evidence — in fact, a police investigation into voter fraud has found only minimal tampering and that any such abuse likely benefited Likud itself or the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, rather than the Arab Israeli parties — a (rather complicated) calculation can determine how likely it is that voter fraud could have influenced the final results.

According to Daniel Sterman, an electoral enthusiast who blogs about election math at The Times of Israel, a few thousand fraudulent votes for Ra’am Balad could have indeed tipped the scales, but only under very specific and unlikely conditions. As for New Right, it would have needed to prove the existence of tens of thousands of fraudulent votes in order to have lowered the threshold enough to allow it to pass.

“Ra’am-Balad came in at 3,615 votes above the threshold. That [same number of invalid votes] wouldn’t be enough to disqualify them, however, because the threshold is based on [a percentage of] the number of valid votes; by invalidating votes, you’re also lowering the threshold,” said Sterman.

“You’d actually need to identify 3,737 fraudulent Ra’am-Balad votes to put it under 3.25%,” Sterman went on, adding that “this means, ironically, that if you were setting out deliberately to kick Ra’am-Balad out of the Knesset, you’d want to focus only on them — and avoid, as much as possible, uncovering voter fraud that favored Hadash-Ta’al [the other major Arab party running in the election]. Otherwise, you’d just be lowering the threshold even more and making it more difficult to disqualify Ra’am-Balad.”

But according to records from over 100 polling stations that were found to have irregular voter turnouts relative to the figures at adjacent stations, polling stations located in Arab towns accounted for less than a third of the total disqualified votes, which included irregular turnouts in the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, as well as in the cities of Petah Tikva, Afula, Netanya, and Rosh Ha’ayin. The total number of disqualified votes needed to push Ra’am-Balad below the threshold would therefore likely rise.

Mtanes Shihadeh (center), Ra’am-Balad’s number two candidate, and Abbas Mansour (right), the party’s number one candidate, at a press conference on March 28, 2019. (Courtesy of Ra’am-Balad)

Nonetheless, if Ra’am-Balad were to have fallen below the threshold, its four seats would have gone to Meretz (one), to Blue and White (one), and to Likud (two), “which would probably have given Netanyahu his coalition,” Sterman said. (Likud was unable to form a ruling majority in negotiations after the last election, having only mustered 60 seats with coalition partners, one short of the majority it needed in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu then dissolved parliament and called fresh elections.)

According to Sterman’s calculations, however, “it is not true that [Balad being eliminated] would have put the New Right into the Knesset, as has been claimed. You’d need to uncover a ridiculous 44,717 fraudulent votes to lower the threshold enough for that.”

Why? Because “The threshold is 3.25% of the number of valid votes, which means it moves only 3.25% as fast. If you reduce the number of valid votes by 10,000, you’re reducing the threshold by only 325. So it takes a lot of effort to move the threshold by any appreciable amount.”

Arithmetic aside, analysts said Netanyahu’s unfounded accusations were part of his well-known “gevalt” campaigns ahead of elections, in which he attempted to scare his electorate into voting with doomsday scenarios.

So even if the math doesn’t add up, the politics just may.

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