Israel’s Biggest Employer – for a Day

Orly Ades, director of the Central Elections Committee, has to hire 110,000 people over a few weeks to staff polling stations throughout the country

Hadar Cohen

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood angry, tense and excited behind the speaker’s lectern at the hastily organized press conference he called last December 2 to announce the dispersing of the Knesset and early elections. “They conducted a putsch against me,” he said, referring to Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, who had been dismissed as finance and justice ministers several minutes before on his orders. “A government without governance is infinitely worse than frequent elections.”

And with that, he signaled start of a hasty and brief election campaign as he began to enumerate the accomplishments of the government he said was impossible to lead.

If for Netanyahu the election has caused many sleepless night since then as his Likud party plummets in the polls, it’s been no easier for Orly Ades.

“When the decision to disperse the Knesset passed in the evening, my assistant and I set into motion the huge mechanism that organizes the elections,” says the attorney and director of the Central Elections Committee. “Over the last few months I’ve slept three hours a night. At four in the morning, before I go to sleep, I’m still sending emails to staff from the iPad near my bed.

“The Knesset elections are an enormous puzzle made up of tens of thousands of components. Am I worried? Definitely.”

When do you start preparing the elections?

“You start getting the next election campaign ready right after the last one ends, but sometimes the preparatory period for the elections is very short, as in this case. In such instances, the Central Elections Committee goes into high gear 90 days before election day. We quickly form 19 regional election committees, which requires locating offices, laying computer and telephone infrastructure and hiring staff who begin working within a few days – and within several weeks we’ve hired 50,000 people for election day.”

Ades says that 57,000 people signed up to be interviewed as secretaries of committees and polling stations. Of those, 30,000 people were interviewed and 11,000 were chosen.

Who wants to be a polling-station secretary?

“About half the committee and polling-station secretaries are new and about half have worked in previous election campaigns. Many people go for it because of the money – 1,960 shekels ($485) for a single day’s work – but mainly because of the satisfaction and the contribution they can make. A cardiac surgeon from the north of the country came for an interview.”

Ades says that the secretaries of the polling-place committees undergo five hours of training from one of 150 instructors hired for the election season.

Starting from scratch

You start the process from the beginning each time, with tens of thousands of people on a tight schedule. Why not establish a permanent database?

“Because of the principle of equal opportunity.”

Ades says about 110,000 people are hired for election day. Of those, roughly 50,000 people, including about 11,000 polling-place secretaries and 8,000 ushers and guides, are hired directly by the Central Elections Committee. Another 60,000 members of polling-station committees, an average of three per polling place, are also on the payroll even if the committee itself doesn’t choose them.

“The polling place committees are hired by the factions, but we pay their salaries – 1,575 shekels for the day,” says Ades.

Between elections, the Central Elections Committee has a mere 22 employees and some of those are employed only part-time.

An independent statutory body, the committee sets its own budget, which is approved by the Knesset’s Finance Committee. A Supreme Court justice, who is appointed after each election campaign and whose term lasts until the conclusion of the next one, heads the committee. The committee members are representatives of the political parties, who are appointed according to the size of their outgoing Knesset faction.

Ades joined the Central Elections Committee in 1988 to serve as the bureau chief of the chairwoman at the time, Tamar Edry, as a temporary worker for the election campaign. “I’ve been here ever since, living and breathing elections,” she says. “I was appointed director in 2010, after serving in several other positions.”

Election day in Israel is a holiday in order to encourage as big a turnout as possible. Scattered throughout the country are 10,200 polling stations, and a secretary of the elections committee and three members chosen by the parties sit in each one. The polling stations are open from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M. (8 A.M. to 8 P.M. in communities of fewer than 350 people).

When they close, the votes are counted manually. The secretary of the polling place committee passes the results onto the regional elections committee, where the results are entered into a national database and available to be seen on the Internet several minutes later.

Ades says people from small communities have called in corrections. “People called and said: ‘We voted for a certain party but the results don’t show that someone voted for it.’ In a case like that, we check the data again. If an error is found, we update the data.”

Does human error occur when the votes are being tallied and entered?

“Human error happens. There are quite a few tired people after a full day, but there are also quite a few checks that are supposed to prevent errors.”

Ades recalls one incident in particular. “I got a telephone call in the middle of the night that the data from a particular polling station had not reached the regional committee. When the committee members went out to look for the secretary of the missing polling place, they found him dozing in the regional committee parking lot. He was tired.”

But human error is not the only problem. There are also irregularities. In the last Knesset election, for example, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, decided to disqualify one polling station in the Galilee village of Yarka when committee members discovered that although 587 residents there were eligible to vote, 771 people were registered as having voted.

In the 2009 election, 80 complaints were received about irregularities in polling stations in Jerusalem alone. Among other things, the secretary from the polling station on Golomb Street, who was identified with Shas, was held for questioning when he tried to vote twice. So was a young Haredi man who had tried to remove all the voting slips for United Torah Judaism when he was behind the partition, and a woman who entered the polling station with a large number of fake voting slips for Yisrael Beiteinu.

In that same election campaign, Labor filed several complaints with the Central Elections Committee of suspected irregularities, including a request to disqualify a polling station in Jerusalem’s Ma’alot Dafna neighborhood set aside for disabled people that had allowed the use of double envelopes. Labor officials claimed that many Haredim who did not live in Jerusalem were voting there.

“With help from several members of the polling-place committee, they made cynical use of their ability to vote there even though they had no disability of any kind,” the complaint read. “Hundreds of people voted there in violation of the law. There was no chance that the voting results from that polling place can meet the standards of the law or of justice. So we ask that it be disqualified immediately.”

Cynical voters

In his recent report, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira criticized the fact that 41 voters who had died “voted” in the election for the 19th Knesset. Have you learned lessons from that?

“This time, the voter registry was closed on January 22, 2015. As of a week ago, 4,500 people who were registered voters had since died. We compiled a list of the deceased people and sent it out to all the polling stations. The polling-place secretaries will be asked to mark down all the deceased people who are noted in their rolls when the polls open. If a person comes who presents himself as someone who is registered as deceased, the secretary will be more meticulous in identifying him.

“The state comptroller also mentioned the employment of relatives on the election committees, a phenomenon that has diminished over the years, and we are working to put an end to it. Still, we don’t have the software that the state comptroller uses to identify family relationships. In Transparency International’s latest report, the Central Elections Committee got a grade of 91. This high ranking, which took place before the state comptroller and the judicial authority, graded the committee as immune to corruption.”

Maybe the time has come for electronic voting?

“That is a very complex issue. Discussions on the issue have been taking place for years, and we are the only country that is hesitating about it. Even though proposals have been examined, no solution has been found for all the problems such as information security, assurance of confidentiality, a way of deploying a secure national communications network, ensuring the system’s survivability and creating a backup, a solution for people who are unfamiliar with computers or are illiterate, and quite a few other critical issues. Of course, there are also cost-benefit considerations. Computerized elections also include a computerized voter registry, computerized identification and the act of voting only in the end.”