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Socially distanced democracy: Israel votes in a pandemic

Election arrangements include 38 polling stations in COVID-19 wards, and hundreds of special stations — including drive-through facilities — for people who are sick or quarantined

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A man votes during a demonstration of a drive-thru polling station, ahead of the upcoming elections, at the central elections committee warehouse in Modi'in, on February 23, 2021. (Flash90)
A man votes during a demonstration of a drive-thru polling station, ahead of the upcoming elections, at the central elections committee warehouse in Modi'in, on February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Preparing for a national election in a pandemic, Israel has made unusual changes to its normal routine for Tuesday’s vote, including placing ballot boxes in virus wards.

“It’s the first time we have needed to make arrangements for voting in quarantined wards and for an election in a pandemic, but we are meeting the challenge,” David Ratner, spokesman at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, told The Times of Israel.

There, as at medical facilities across the country, an election official will don a hazmat suit on Tuesday morning and spend the day accepting the ballots of virus patients. The ballot box will not be crowded — there are only 16 eligible patients — yet it will stay open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There are 38 polling stations in COVID-19 wards. In some institutions, the station will circulate among virus wards. Hadar Elboim of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center said, “We have three coronavirus wards at the moment, and a mobile polling station will move between them, to give all patients a chance to vote.”

She said that today the logistics are manageable, but earlier in the pandemic, when there was less experience with PPE, it would have been challenging. “At the start of the pandemic, working with this protective equipment was very hard and time-consuming, and running polling in virus wards would have been hard,” she said. “But today, dealing with protective gear is quick and easy.”

A worker of the Central Election Committee wearing protective gear during a demonstration of special polling station ahead of the upcoming elections, at the central elections committee warehouse in Modi’in, on February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

As well as catering to hospitalized patients, election authorities needed to make provision for citizens who are sick with COVID-19 at home or quarantined because of contact with a carrier.

They have thus set up 409 polling stations for sick people and 342 for the quarantined. They stipulated that people should vote at stations for the quarantined if they are feeling unwell — even if they aren’t officially in isolation.

Some of the special stations are drive-through venues, where people won’t need to leave their cars. The special stations are expected to operate smoothly, as there are only about 40,000 people in quarantine; when election planning was taking place, the number was expected to be around double.

Israelis count the ballots of voters under home quarantine after returning from coronavirus infected zones, at a tent in the Central Elections Committee warehouse in Shoham, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

This isn’t the first time that Israel is running polling stations for people quarantined at home.

The last election took place on March 2, 2020, early in the coronavirus crisis and before it had been declared a pandemic. Then, there was limited knowledge about how the coronavirus was transmitted, and there was much greater concern about objects infecting via touch. There were worries about vote counters becoming infected from the envelopes of quarantined voters, and the votes of people in isolation were counted in a special tent.

At regular polling stations on Tuesday, people will be asked to observe social distancing in lines. The number of people registered at each ballot box has been lowered from the regular 800 to 600 in order to reduce crowding.

Polling stations in Israel contain an array of paper slips, each representing a party, and people choose one and place it in their envelope. People will be asked to use hand sanitizer before touching the slips. Mask wearing will be compulsory, though officials may ask people to remove masks briefly, in order to check that their face matches the picture on their identity card.

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