No anonymous surveys, Central Elections Committee chair warns pollsters, media

No anonymous surveys, Central Elections Committee chair warns pollsters, media

Judge Hanan Melcer lays down rules for publicizing who orders, funds polls in run-up to September elections, cautions over possibility of foreign attempts to influence vote

Justice Hanan Melcer, chairman of the Central Elections Committee. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Hanan Melcer, chairman of the Central Elections Committee. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The chairman of the Central Elections Committee met with senior polling company and media staff at the Knesset on Sunday, warning them to stay away from anonymous surveys and urging them to consult with the National Cyber Unit about protecting their systems from foreign meddling in the run-up to elections on September 17.

“Honor the [election campaign] law and its instructions and interpretations and turn for guidance to the National Cyber Unit. You don’t know how important it is,” Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer said, stressing that the unit would not interfere with content.

In the run-up to April’s election, fake news — much of it originating from within the country — ran amok on social media.

Facebook and the Israeli cybersecurity firm ClearSky found multiple examples of anti-Israel content originating in Iran, although it was not directly related to influencing ballot choices.

The Knesset dissolved itself in late May and set new elections for September 17 after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition, due to disagreement over a bill regulating the draft of the ultra-Orthodox into the military. The move prevented President Reuven Rivlin from tasking another lawmaker with attempting to form a coalition.

Fake news in the run-up to April’s general election claiming that a left-wing journalist had admitted that charges to be brought against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyau (subject to a hearing) were ‘one big bluff.’ (Vocativ screenshot)

Listing the reporting obligations for those who will be carrying out political surveys and those who will be reporting on them, Melcer said that many survey companies had only partially reported or not reported at all on activities they carried out during the April election campaign. He gave them until July 31 to do so and warned that failure to report was a criminal offence.

He also criticized unnamed survey companies which carried out “so-called” polls that did not meet statistical standards. “For example, they asked people in the office what they thought. The people of Israel have some amazing ideas.”

In cases such as these, companies are obliged by law to state that the poll was not carried out in line with acceptable statistical standards and that therefore no conclusions could be drawn, Melcer said. He stressed this would be enforced by the Central Elections Committee going forward and those who fail to comply could face criminal charges.

Regarding anonymous surveys, which were widespread in the form of cellphone text messages before the April election, Melcer was clear they were forbidden. In some cases, the anonymous initiators of the surveys targeted thousands of undecided voters thought to be dithering between smaller parties whose ability to pass the 3.25-percent electoral threshold was not clear, he said. The polls presented lists that omitted the borderline parties in order to convey the impression that these parties were already out of the picture and were not worth voting for.

Voter lists at the Central Election Committee to be sent to polling stations ahead of election day, March 6, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

“These were anonymous and intended to mislead the recipient,” Melcer said. “In one case, I threatened criminal action.” Following a petition, the Central Elections Committee had managed to get to those who had ordered the messaging, who were concealed several levels behind those paid to distribute it.

The law did not deal with this kind of behavior in detail, Melcer said. But he instructed those present to list any party which, according to initial, “key” surveys to be carried out immediately after party registration, looked likely to garner at least one percent of the vote — less than the percentage needed for a seat in the Knesset, but equal to the figure needed to obtain retroactive election funding from the government.

He instructed all the polling companies to survey voter intentions at least once after party registration was over, adding that two or three surveys would be preferable.

All media outlets reporting on surveys will be obliged to clarify who ordered the survey, who carried it out, on what date or during which period it was carried out, the type or types of population sampled, how the survey was carried out (for example, by telephone or online), the number of people questioned, the number who actually answered, and the margin of error. If these facts are conveyed on a TV or computer screen, they must be readable and clear, Melcer said.

Written reports in newspapers and online will also have to publish all questions  presented to those polled.

TV reporters giving updates on the hour outside the Central Elections Committee room at the Knesset, April 11 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

All these details will also need to be reported to the Central Elections Committee within 48 hours, preferably 24, Melcer said.

Once the elections are over, polling companies will have to file reports to the State Comptroller including who funded each survey, and to retain the survey material for three years to allow for review.

State Comptroller reports on elections tend to come out long after the winners have been declared.

A spokesman told the Times of Israel that the reports for both of this year’s general elections — in April, for the 21st Knesset, and in September, for the 22nd, will be published together in October 2020, subject to permission from the Knesset Finance Committee.

Melcer noted that efforts to prevent anonymous third parties from funding influence campaigns had been dealt with to an extent by the so-called V15 law, passed in 2017 to prevent wealthy donors from using political organizations to bypass election funding laws. It was named for an effort aided by a US-funded group that ostensibly tried to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2015 national elections.

The late Mishael Cheshin, who served in the Supreme Court of Israel from 1992 to 2006, seen participating in a discussion at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. October 17, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Regarding action that the Central Elections Committee is authorized to take against transgressors of election law, Melcer said he could issue stop orders, and had done so on several occasions during the April elections. In an emergency, he could turn to a precedent set by the late Supreme Court judge Mishael Cheshin. While serving as head of the Central Elections Committee during elections in 2003, Cheshin cut short a broadcast by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when the latter’s comments were deemed to be too political.

Under Israeli law, surveys cannot be carried out at all between the end of the last Friday preceding the polls until the end of the elections. Those reporting on surveys during this period must make clear that the survey was carried out before.

Melcer took an activist approach during his last stint as head of the CEC earlier this year, cracking down on candidates using the media to illicitly electioneer and demanding that political speeches by Netanyahu and others be broadcast with a delay to enable any such attempts to be cut out.

On election day, he barred Likud activists with hidden cameras from polling stations.

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