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AnalysisLess than a month until 4th rapid-fire election

Vote and swab? Planning unprecedented election, ballot officials get creative

Israel’s election committee is facing down a myriad of challenges to design a system that cuts crowding while dramatically expanding options for those with COVID or in quarantine

Tal Schneider
Workers show a drive-by voting station during a media tour demonstration of coronavirus measures prior to upcoming elections, at the central elections logistics center in Shoham, Israel, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
Workers show a drive-by voting station during a media tour demonstration of coronavirus measures prior to upcoming elections, at the central elections logistics center in Shoham, Israel, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

On March 2, 2020, Israel went to the polls with the coronavirus nothing more than a scary, mostly foreign, idea.

A total of 10 people in Israel were known to be carrying the virus, and some 5,600 more were under quarantine, relegated to voting at 16 specially designated electoral tents. Votes were placed into specially lined ballot boxes, to be counted later by election officials wearing special hazmat gear. Voters who were supposed to be in isolation were the only people in the country required to wear masks.

“Time will tell if this is an exaggeration but it feels like a lot,” one quarantined voter told The Times of Israel then.

Time has told its tale, and as Israel heads back to the polls a little over a year after its last election, officials are readying for a voting day unlike any ever seen in the nation’s history.

An Israeli under home quarantine arrives to cast a vote in a special polling station outside the city of Modiin, March 2, 2020 (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

By March 23, over half of the nation will be vaccinated, but with the pandemic still raging and health regulations likely to stay in effect for months or longer, the vote is being planned with special precautions meant to keep election day from turning into a superspreader event.

A woman casts her vote with her child at a voting station in Safed, on election day, September 17, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Israel’s voting system is fairly low tech — voters place a slip in an envelope and drop the envelope in the box. To prevent fraud, voters are normally only allowed to cast ballots at their designated polling place, determined by the address listed on a state-issued ID card. Only soldiers stationed away from home, foreign envoys, prisoners and hospitalized patients can cast absentee ballots.

But a need to avoid crowding and traveling, while offering options for those sick or in isolation, has thrown that tried and true system for a loop, necessitating major changes this time around, including more voting booths, special polling stations and other new rules.

In 2020 there were 10,631 polling stations nationwide, but in 2021 that number will expand to around 15,000, according to a spokesman for the Central Elections Committee. That includes 3,000 or so stations being planned for special locations, such as nursing homes, clinics, hospitals or other places sick or quarantining individuals may be, as well as drive-thru voting stations, a concept which has never before been tried in Israel.

Israeli workers show a drive-by voting station during a media tour demonstration of coronavirus measures prior to upcoming elections, at the central elections logistics center near Shoham, Israel, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The drive-thrus will likely only be open to those who are sick or in quarantine, but because there is no way to project how many such people there will be on March 23, or where they will, the committee is having to plan with a large amount of built-in flexibility.

One idea being explored by officials is the possibility of having drive-thru COVID-19 testing centers double as voting booths, which would save money by not requiring the committee to set up new locations in specially designed tents, as they did in the last election, the spokesman said.

A man votes during a demonstration of a drive-thru polling station at the central elections logistics center near Shoham, Israel, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

The committee has reached out to the Health Ministry to discuss the idea, but no decision has yet been reached, he said.

The Clalit health care provider, the nation’s largest, is planning on setting up voting booths inside clinics around the country for voters who are sick or in quarantine, according to the election committee spokesman.

Voters seeking to cast ballots at a special polling station will not need to show a doctor’s note or prove they are in quarantine, thus the option will technically be anybody who does not want to vote at their designated polling place, which will likely dramatically expand the number of absentee ballots cast.

The other 12,127 of the stations will be at normal locations in public facilities such as schools and community centers. The extra polling stations are needed because of rules lowering the number of voters per polling booth from 800 to 650, to prevent lines or crowding. Polling locations will also have fewer polling booths to make sure large numbers of people don’t congregate in the same building.

A demonstration of a polling station ahead of the upcoming elections, at the Central Elections Committee logistics center near Shoham, Israel, February 23, 2021. (Flash90)

At each polling station, a specially designated usher will be tasked with ensuring social distancing, and in many places, separate entrances and exits will be set up to avoid crowding.

Voters will be required to disinfect their hands twice — at the entrance to the voting location and before putting the ballot in an envelope behind the curtain.

Poll workers will be protected behind a clear plastic screen and voters will be required to pull down their masks for identification purposes.

More polling stations and more precautions mean more work and the committee is scrambling to hire more ballot officials to undertake and supervise the voting and counting process, as well as to expand its crew of anti-fraud poll watchers, who wear body cameras to document everything but the actual vote being placed in the envelope.

Workers prepare ballot boxes for the upcoming elections during a media tour at the central elections logistics center near Shoham, Israel, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

One of the biggest challenges being faced by the committee is not directly related to the coronavirus — the need to count the ballots quicker than ever before.

Election officials normally have seven days to complete counting the ballots, including absentee ballots, which are double-enveloped and require an extra step of verification.

Workers prepare ballot boxes for the upcoming elections during a media tour at the central elections logistics center near Shoham, Israel, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

But this year, the election is taking place just five days before the start of Passover, which means for all intents and purposes, the real deadline will be Sunday, March 28, and possibly even earlier, since the government activities usually shut down from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday for Shabbat, and Passover eve is not usually a normal workday.

Not only will counters have less time to tally votes, but there are also expected to be tens of thousands more absentee ballots from anyone who voted away from their normal designated polling station. Because the so-called double-envelope votes require an extra step of verification to ensure the same person did not cast a ballot at their designated polling booth, those votes take longer to count.

In 2020, 330,000 absentee ballots were cast, but in March that number could easily double, putting an extra strain on the Central Elections Committee.

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