Israeli elections 2021Top pollster: 'I've never encountered elections like these'

With more absentee ballots than ever, vote aftermath may be fuzzier than usual

Officials expecting up to 600,000 people to cast so-called double-envelope votes — enough for 15 seats, challenging exit polls and sparking fears of chaos until fog clears

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Campaign posters prior to the upcoming Israeli general elections, in Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Campaign posters prior to the upcoming Israeli general elections, in Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

How is this election different from all other elections? On all other elections, we put our ballots in one envelope, but this year we may put them in two envelopes. On all other elections, we have a full week to count the votes, but this year we will have only two days. On all other elections, we cannot drive into the polling booth; this time, we can vote while reclining in a car. On all other elections, we think, “We’ll do this again in three years,” but this time we think, “We’ll do this again in three months.”

On Tuesday, over 6.5 million Israelis will be able to cast ballots across the country. It will be Israel’s fourth election in less than two years, the latest attempt to break an unprecedented political deadlock. But what has the potential to make this election truly like none other is the coronavirus pandemic, creating a situation in which the number of absentee ballots is expected to double, accounting for over a 10th of likely votes.

While Israel does not allow mail-in voting, to account for the health crisis, it has set up thousands of polling stations designed to keep potential COVID-19 carriers away from other voters, cut down on crowding, and do away with the need to travel to an assigned polling place.

However, the special dispensations are expected to dramatically complicate the immediate post-election landscape, blurring exit polls, placing an extra burden on those tasked with tallying the votes and potentially leaving the door open for confusion over which parties will enter the Knesset and what the coalition math looks like.

Israeli soldier cast an early vote at an IDF outpost near Israel’s border with Lebanon, March 22, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

According to Central Elections Committee head Orly Adas, authorities expect some 600,000 people to vote by what are called double-envelope ballots, which are absentee votes cast anywhere outside of one’s assigned polling station.

In the previous three elections, the number of people voting by double-envelope rose from 240,000 to 280,000 to 330,000, in the last election on March 2, 2020. Normally only enlisted soldiers, hospital patients, prisoners, emissaries abroad, and a handful of others are allowed to vote by such ballots, but on Tuesday, the limitations will be significantly relaxed, expanding the pool of potential double-envelope voters.

A large chunk of the absentee ballots is expected to be cast by the over 15,000 people who currently have active coronavirus infections and over 65,000 people in quarantine, who will need to go to special drive-thru voting stations or other types of specially designated voted booths.

The country will get its first glimpse at the election results at 10 p.m. Tuesday night when exit polls are released.

The likely record-breaking number of absentee ballots may prove a challenge for Israeli pollsters gathering data for the exit polls. While often inaccurate, the hotly anticipated exit polls still provide a general sketch of the electoral map and parties have been known to seize on them (sometimes prematurely) to declare victory.

Mano Geva, who does exit polling for Channel 12’s influential news broadcast, told The Times of Israel that he does not plan on trying to survey those casting absentee ballots or voting at special stations for those in quarantine, as he predicts that they will not have an outsized effect on the outcome.

“On election night, our exit poll prediction will not include the double envelopes,” he said Monday. “We do not expect any impact on our calculations.”

Likud supporters react to the results of TV exit polls on election day, March 2, 2020, in Tel Aviv. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

He said misleading survey responses and accounting for those staying home due to coronavirus fears would be the biggest problems he would need to deal with, predicting turnout at around 67 percent, down from 71% last year, but admitted there were too many unknowns to be confident.

“In my whole professional life I have never encountered elections like these, where many factors are at play, and that makes our exit poll research difficult,” he said.

Let my people know

The counting of ballots will begin immediately after the election ends, as officials are on a tight deadline to certify the results within a week. Adding to the pressure is the looming Passover holiday, which begins Saturday night. Due to the holiday, Adas has said she plans on having all votes tallied by noon Friday, ahead of the long weekend which leads directly into the start of Passover.

Whether she makes that goal will depend largely on how many people cast absentee ballots. Double envelopes take longer to count due to the need to check that the voter did not also cast a ballot at their designated polling station, and are traditionally counted last.

Officials count vote ballots from the elections at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Unlike the US, where a “blue-shift” effect was created by the fact that mail-in ballots skewed toward Democratic candidates, in Israel there is no clear link between ideology and voting style preference, meaning that no such phenomenon is expected.

Still, the absentee ballots may wind up representing as many as 15 Knesset seats, making them a potential battleground as parties squabble for every possible vote.

There are three parties polling right around the 3.25% threshold needed to enter the Knesset — Blue and White, Ra’am, and Meretz — and a fourth, Religious Zionism, which may find itself in the scrum as well. Authorities fear that the longer it takes for the official vote count to be completed, the more risk that the uncertainty will undermine faith in the electoral system, as parties try to claim victory or incite supporters to agitate against what they deem unfair results.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (R) and then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked (L, hold a press conference of the New Right party, in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2019. (Flash90)

Parties that fall slightly short will likely challenge the results in court, which may further muddy the playing field before factions even start to negotiate on a government coalition. In April 2019, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party fell 1,400 votes short of entering the Knesset, leading to several days of frantic scrambling through the halls of the Central Election Committee, as he tried to appeal the results. The bid was unsuccessful, but other politicians took notice of the tactic.

Eighteen months later, then-US president Donald Trump showed the darker side of a politician refusing to accept election results.

“The public needs to be smart and not share disinformation over the coming days, while we are still counting the double envelopes,” Adas told the 103FM radio station Monday. “I still believe that we are different than Trump and the United States.”

All the president’s timelines

Cognizant of the fraught atmosphere in which the vote is taking place, President Reuven Rivlin’s office indicated Sunday that rather than rush along the process, he will take his time, allowing the full eight days for results to be finalized on March 31 and another full seven days to consult with parties over whom to task with forming a government.

The move is a shift from March 2020, when Rivlin attempted to break the deadlock that had led to three straight elections by pushing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White counterpart Benny Gantz into a power-sharing arrangement. The collapse of that agreement is what laid the groundwork for the current vote.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Unlike in the past, President Rivlin won’t hold consultations before the final results are filed, to ensure that they are clear and unequivocal. That will take about two weeks,” Rivlin’s chief of staff Harel Tubi told Army Radio Sunday.

At the same time, Rivlin’s office noted Sunday that a decision on whom to nominate to form a government could be made before the seven days are up on April 7. But even if he does choose to slow-roll the formation of a new government, politics junkies will have plenty to keep themselves occupied.

On April 5, the evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s closely watched graft trial will begin, with the possibility of witnesses being called to testify. A day later the 120 politicians that Israel votes for Tuesday will be sworn in to the 24th Knesset.

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