U.S. Voters in Israel Say Their Ballot Requests Have Gone Missing

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U.S. voters register to vote during a registration drive organized by iVote Israel in Tel Aviv's Sarona Market, August 9, 2016.
U.S. voters register to vote during a registration drive organized by iVote Israel in Tel Aviv's Sarona Market, August 9, 2016.Credit: David Bachar

Angry complaints are mounting against iVote Israel a group to help American Israelis cast their presidential ballots for allegedly disenfranchising the people it’s striving to empower.

The complaints are coming in from both major parties. Democratic activist Ricki Lieberman says she told the U.S. Embassy about the problem and seeks a meeting with the embassy's voter-protection officer. She aims to help voters who still haven’t received ballots, even though they were told by iVote their ballot requests were mailed to their local election officials months ago.

The slogan of iVote Israel is “Making Voting From Israel Easy,” but the election is now less than two weeks away.

Reuven Ashenberg, the election coordinator of Republicans Overseas Israel for the Beit Shemesh region, says he has spent two days assisting four families who dropped their ballot requests in the iVote drop box in the city’s Naimi Mall. The ballots were to be delivered to the U.S. Embassy and then sent to the voters’ states via diplomatic mail.

Ashenberg says he has heard similar complaints from people in Modi’in and Jerusalem. In future elections, he says, he’ll advise voters to simply mail, fax or bring their ballots to the embassy themselves.

“This is costing hundreds and maybe thousands of people their votes,” he said. “They are an ineffective, irresponsible and unreputable organization. They know how important this election is. They know how close races can be .... People are relying on a system that is supposed to work and it failed, and it is grossly negligent.”

Another Republican activist, Shelly Weiner, says she has delivered 75 ballots to a drop box in Jerusalem and has received five calls from worried voters who didn't receive ballots. She’s also hearing about similar cases around the country.

“I am really upset and would love to find out what happened,” said Weiner, an assistant to Republicans Overseas Israel co-chairman Marc Zell. “Something went wrong somewhere. We have to find out when the ball was dropped, but in this election, with all the talk of voter fraud, we have to take it seriously.”

The U.S. voter registration drive by iVote Israel in Tel Aviv's Sarona Market, August 9, 2016.Credit: David Bachar

When asked about the complaints, iVote Israel director Eitan Charnoff said he was “not alarmed.” He says there’s no evidence of any difficulties on the part of his organization.

“iVote Israel does everything it can to make the voting process easier and is actively looking into the issue of ballots not arriving through our own channels, and has even been in touch with congressional leaders on these matters,” Charnoff said.

“It is important to emphasize that the numbers of late ballots or ballots not arriving are lower than in 2012 and do not pertain to those who registered through iVote, as many who registered elsewhere have reached out to us for assistance as well.”

After speaking to the people who ran the organization in 2012 he took over this year he learned there were fewer complaints now than at this time four years ago, he added.

“There is nothing unusual about this and there is nothing new. There are a lot of different things that can go wrong with requesting a ballot,” Charnoff said. His group’s raison d’tre was to help with a “difficult process that nobody understands. We are here to minimize problems from happening and we try our best to do so.”

Ballots might not have arrived in Israel if the voter request forms were filled out illegibly or incorrectly. “In most places, it’s not recorded that a request was received and marked invalid,” Charnoff said.

A U.S. Embassy official in Tel Aviv told Haaretz that “all ballots received at the Embassy, the U.S. Consular Agency in Haifa, and the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem have been properly forwarded to election officials as addressed on those ballots. We have no information about and cannot comment on ballots which were not delivered to the Embassy, Consular Agency, or Consulate General either by the voter or by third party intermediaries.”

Fruitless day at Sarona

On the iVote Israel Facebook page there are more than 20 comments by frustrated would-be voters who submitted the necessary paperwork at the group’s registration events. Or they have used the iVote boxes around 11 cities and towns across Israel.

Twenty-three-year-old Dan Elkayam, who has done advocacy work for the Democrats, took part in an iVote Israel voter registration event on August 9 at Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market. He registered to vote in New Jersey, where he lived before he emigrated.

U.S. voters register to vote during a registration drive organized by iVote Israel in Tel Aviv's Sarona Market, August 9, 2016.Credit: David Bachar

He and a few friends, two from Texas and one from New York, filled out their Federal Post Card Application requesting their absentee ballots. An iVote Israel representative said their applications would be taken to the U.S. Embassy and be sent through diplomatic mail to their local election office in their home states. A full three months before the November 8 election, they figured there was ample time to receive their ballots and send back their votes.

But over two months later, none of those five people who registered at Sarona had received their ballots, Elkayam said. When he called his voter registration board in New Jersey, he was told the board had not received his forms.

He realized he wasn’t alone when The Jerusalem Post reported this month that others who had registered at Sarona were having the same problem. Other Americans who took part in the event told Haaretz they never received ballots and were not registered in their state.

“I believe this is an iVote Israel problem,” Elkayam said. “If it were isolated to a few states, I would say it was a coincidence,” he said, but since the missing registrations covers several states, he believes the problem lies on this end with iVote Israel. “It could just be complete incompetence or it could be some kind of voter fraud on an event-by-event basis,” he said.

By “fraud,” Elkayam says he isn’t ruling out that the group deliberately misplaced the registration forms from Democrat-friendly places like Tel Aviv. While there is no evidence of this, such suspicions rest on the fact that iVote Israel, officially defined as nonpartisan, refuses to reveal its funding sources. iVote Israel is an American 501C4 tax-exempt nonprofit group, which means it’s not required to reveal its donors. In U.S. political parlance, this phenomenon is often referred to as “dark money.”

Some local Republican activists are equally suspicious, echoing Donald Trump’s speculation that the election is somehow being “rigged.” They speculate that iVote Israel or the embassy could somehow be connected to a plot to suppress the votes of American Israelis on the assumption they’d favor the GOP and Trump. In 2012, iVoteIsrael reported that more than 80,000 Americans voted for president; according to its poll, 85 percent of them chose the Republicans' Mitt Romney.

Regarding the August 9 event, Charnoff said it was “very clear” the nonreceipt of ballots “isn’t tied to one specific event.” The group, he said, is “very careful” about delivering ballot requests and ballots directly to the U.S. Embassy. “We do this to rely on the U.S. government and not rely on a mail system,” he said.

He added that the group was nonpartisan and merely sought “to demonstrate to American politicians that there is a serious constituency here” and that U.S. voters in Israel are “a force to be reckoned with and that there are expats here that are deeply interested in American politics.”

The silver lining of the malfeasance allegations, he said, was that “it’s great to see that people want to vote, that people whose ballots didn’t arrive are concerned because they care so much about voting.”

According to Charnoff, iVote Israel has been attacked from both the left and right. “I know I’m doing something right when both sides have conspiratorial accusations,” he said.

Right-leaning message

The group was founded in 2012 ahead of the Obama-Romney presidential race by political activists with ties to the Republican party. The group listed the same Manhattan address as Republican billionaire Ronald S. Lauder’s foundation, and a GOP strategist has sat on iVote Israel’s parent organization Americans for Jerusalem.

The message contained a distinct right-leaning edge; for example, videos encouraged American Israelis to vote by charging that “Muslim and Arab American mobilize their voters to the polls to oust pro-Israel Representatives from office.” The group added that “we, American-Israelis have the power and the numbers to help elect a pro-Israel Congress and President.”

But many Republicans are reporting problems with the organization as well. “We and others relied on iVote Israel to forward registration applications and ballot requests,” said Zell, the Republicans Overseas Israel co-chairman.

“Many of our folks have called to complain that not only have they not received their ballots, but when they checked (at our suggestion) with the local election boards, they have been told that their forms never arrived.”

Former Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Tzvika Brot has run an aggressive operation for Trump and the Republican Party in Israel to register as many U.S. citizens as possible. He says no such issues have been reported by people who completed the process through the Republican Party, not through iVote Israel.

So are voters like Elkayam condemned to disenfranchisement? Well, when Elkayam called his county clerk and discovered he wasn’t registered, he was told it was too late. But he researched the law and found that New Jersey permits registration via email as late as November 4, so he could receive a ballot by email and still have time to send it in.

“I’m very lucky,” he said.

Ashenberg of Republicans Overseas Israel says he has spent hours calling and faxing U.S. election offices to help American families receive and send back write-in absentee ballots.

The families were from Pennsylvania and New York; in the end, all the people could vote except for one young woman who had never previously registered. Her state – New York – did not allow first-time voters to register and vote using a write-in absentee ballot.

“I had to be the one to find out that she couldn’t vote, and I had to apologize to her father. She had really wanted to vote for Trump,” Ashenberg said.

“This isn’t just one or two or three different people, this is affecting elections. That is their job, that’s their responsibility. Where are these forms? Why aren’t they delivered?”

As Ashenberg put it, “saying that they took them to the embassy and they don’t know what happened after that is not an acceptable excuse. I find it disgusting. They have to take responsibility.”

Ashenberg doesn’t accept Charnoff’s explanation that the ballot requests were probably discarded because they were illegible or incorrectly filled out. “I can tell you these people’s forms were filled out properly,” he said, noting that in some cases he filled out the form for voters who simply signed them.

For Americans in Israel who fear missing their chance to vote, iVote Israel recommends downloading and printing out a write-in absentee ballot online. The U.S. government says the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot is valid for every state; in 22 states, the ballots also count as a registration form. The organization has committed to mail all ballots in its drop boxes by November 1.

In an email, a U.S. Embassy official declined to comment on iVote Israel or the reliability of the mail dropped off at the embassy, but detailed how the Tel Aviv embassy and Haifa consulate assist voters:

"The Embassy maintains a dedicated e-mail account, VoteTelAviv@state.gov, to which people can send inquiries regarding overseas voting. Anyone who requires individual voting assistance is invited to come to the American Citizen Services Section of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv from 8-11 A.M., Monday to Friday, for in person help or to the Consular Agency in Haifa from 9 A.M.-1 P.M., Sunday to Thursday. They may also call the Embassy between 2-4 P.M. (Monday-Friday) or the Consular Agency between 9 A.M.-1 P.M. (Sunday-Thursday).

“The Embassy invites citizens to review detailed voting information on the Embassy website (https://il.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/voting/) and through the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) found at www.FVAP.gov. U.S. citizens may drop off registration forms and ballots at the Embassy and the Consular Agency in a postage-paid envelope. All registration and ballot forms that are dropped off at the Embassy or Consular Agency in envelopes are delivered to the local elections office whose address is on the envelope.

“If a U.S. citizen has previously registered to vote and requested an absentee ballot but it has not yet arrived, some states allow voters to use email or fax to send signed, voted Federal Write-in Absentee Ballots to local election officials. Voters can find additional information on: www.FVAP.gov.”

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