Citing Privacy, Israel's Attorney General Objects to Proposed Cameras at Polling Stations

In April's election, Likud activists placed 1,200 hidden cameras in polling sites in Arab-majority areas ■ Party says Mendelblit's legal opinion 'unacceptable'

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, March 2019.
Nir Keidar

The law does not permit the installation of video cameras at polling stations on Election Day, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told the Central Elections Committee on Tuesday.

Mendelblit wrote to the panel after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, asked for a legal opinion on a number of possible options involving the use of video or sound recordings at polling stations to document any irregularities.

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In his letter, Ran Rozenberg of the state prosecutor’s office, writing on Mendelblit’s behalf, said that if the video footage from the polling places were systematically collected it would violate privacy legislation, and a database of such video footage could create a high risk of violating citizens’ privacy. He also expressed doubt that it would be possible to secure access to the cameras in the time remaining before the election is held.

The issue regarding positioning cameras at polling stations surfaced in April after activists from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party filmed balloting in Arab communities on Election Day, saying they were doing so to prevent voter fraud. The Likud party has criticized Mendelblit’s legal opinion as “unacceptable.”

“Likud had sought to check hundreds of polling stations where there were suspicions of voting forgeries in the Arab sector in the last election, and matters have not been checked up to now. Now they are trying by all means to prevent basic supervision over the polling stations in a manner that could harm democracy and the integrity of the election. We cannot accept that,” the party’s statement said.

Melcer requested the attorney general’s legal opinion last week about a plan that would allow the filming of election precinct staff and monitors but not the actual process of voting, which is done behind a partition. The proposal from the Central Elections Committee provided three possible circumstances for installing cameras. They could be installed at random; at polling stations where there had been irregularities in the past; or where voter turnout was unusual.

Melcer noted that cameras had been placed at voting stations in prior elections based on similar criteria and that their use had been considered a success. But Tuesday’s letter made it clear that Mendelblit is opposed to the idea.

The attorney general also expressed his opposition to audio recordings at polling stations, which Melcer had permitted Likud members to use to document voting in last April’s election. Mendelblit also objected to the use of body cameras by police to film suspicions of improper conduct at voting stations, because he said the law does not give police such authority.

Rozenberg wrote that “the goal in having police at a polling station is primarily to maintain public order at the scene and not the integrity of the election in terms of overseeing … the process of voting.” Melcer also asked the attorney general to determine whether additional authority that the Knesset had given him to issue regulations in the upcoming election would allow him to order the installation of cameras at polling places.

Melcer was given the expanded authority because of the short time span between the last election on April 9 and the coming one, and the absence of a functioning Knesset. The Knesset voted to dissolve itself and go to new elections after Netanyahu was unable to form a majority coalition. 

Rozenberg wrote that the installation of cameras would need to be authorized by the passage of legislation and not simply through a Central Elections Committee directive. The exceptional authority that the Knesset conferred was not given to Melcer alone but to the election committee as a whole, and in any event ordering the use of the cameras or other recordings and would “raise significant difficulties,” wrote Rozenberg, who is a senior deputy in the High Court of Justice department of the state prosecutor’s office.