Eight Questions Ahead of Israel’s COVID Election Day

From polling place confusion to vote counting, the coronavirus may have a profound effect on Israel’s election for these eight reasons

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Central Elections Committee workers demonstrate coronavirus precautions that will be used during voting, last month.
Central Elections Committee workers demonstrate coronavirus precautions that will be used during voting, last month.Credit: Hadas Parush
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Central Elections Committee announced many far-reaching changes in the voting process for the March 23 election in light of the coronavirus pandemic. They could have a significant effect on voter turnout and the participation of specific groups. Will the coronavirus crown a new prime minister? Here are the key issues:

1. The number of polling places will increase dramatically, and voters could be confused.

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One of the biggest changes is the decision to sharply reduce the number of voters who are assigned to at each polling station in order to reduce crowding. The Central Elections Committee has increased the number of polling places by 35 percent, to 15,000 from about 11,000.

This means many voters will be assigned to new polling places, which could confuse hundreds of thousands of voters. The key question is how many of them will make the effort to find their real polling place, and how many will give up. “The voting place for many people has changed,” the director general of the Central Elections Committee, Orly Ades, confirmed Monday. “I ask the public to check their voter notification announcements and the details of the polling station,” she said.

2. Tens of thousands of people who are in isolation or are ill with COVID-19 may decide not to vote.

One of the most important variables in the election is the number of people in Israel who will be in isolation or sick with COVID-19 on March 23. How many of them will forgo their right to vote at the last minute?

Official estimates forecast between 37,000 to 50,000 patients with COVID-19 on Election Day. The Elections Committee has planned a number of solutions to enable tens of thousands of those ill or in isolation to vote, but some of these solutions are convoluted and could deter registered voters.

For example, in most towns there will be only one dedicated polling place for people with COVID-19 and another one for those in isolation – which might be far from the voter’s home. In an ambitious move, the committee announced a transportation service to the dedicated polling place, but they must order their ride before Election Day.

In addition, the Elections Committee has announced it will set up about 20 drive-thru polling places, where those who are ill or in isolation can drive to on their own. But it is hard to predict if there will be serious traffic jams, which could also drive voters away. Ballot boxes will be set up in hospital coronavirus wards for those who can manage, but bedridden patients will not be able to vote.

3. An rise in infection rates could deter healthy voters.

The committee is spending 237 million shekels ($71.2 million) on preparing the entire voting apparatus for the upcoming coronavirus-impacted election, including 17 million shekels for cleaning bathrooms near the polling places. Everyone who votes will be required to clean their hands with hand sanitizer twice before they step behind the curtain.

But in spite of the stringent measures to protect the health of voters, it is not clear how many of them will stay away to avoid standing in line in a closed space. Moreover, an outbreak of infection in specific areas – like Arab or Haredi communities – could sharply reduce voter turnout and affect the vote for specific parties.

4. The Central Elections Committee is struggling to find enough workers for the coronavirus polling stations.

The government has allocated huge sums to set up polling places for those ill or in isolation, but the Elections Committee still faces serious difficulties in filling thousands of positions of polling place officials responsible for ensuring voting is carried out freely and fairly because people fear getting infected. The Elections Committee has turned to volunteers from the various rescue and emergency services, including the Magen David Adom ambulance service, Zaka, Health Ministry employees and medical and other students who regularly come in contact with COVID-19 patients and are less worried about working near them, to fill this void.

A Joint List election billboard in the city of Rahat, this week.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

5. Older voters may vote in huge numbers.

In an exceptional decision, the Elections Committee will place polling stations in some 720 nursing homes, assisted living facilities and complexes where elderly immigrants live. Residents of these places will be able to vote without leaving. The decision was meant to calm fears that they would be exposed to the disease and virus carriers.

The ballot boxes will be placed in every facility that has at least 30 residents. The question now is whether this step will raise the voter turnout among the elderly enough to affect the election results.

6. The flights bringing Israeli citizens back from abroad are expected to add tens of thousands of voters.

The reopening of Ben-Gurion International Airport is expected to bring back tens of thousands of potential voters to Israel over the next two weeks – and all of them are required to go into isolation. The Elections Committee is also examining placing ballot boxes in the airport too, to allow voters who land on Election Day their right to vote without being forced to find ways to get from their new location for isolation to the polling station. It is hard to say how this move would influence the results.

7. The exit polls will have a hard time forecasting the election results.

The decision of the Elections Committee to reduce the number of people per polling places will significantly damage the ability of pollsters to interpret the results of their sample polls. The change, intended to reduce crowding because of the pandemic, will eliminate a large amount of knowledge and experience the pollsters have accumulated over the years from the sample precincts they have used in the past.

“At the moment, we don’t have stable polling places to compare the results there to the results of previous elections,” pollster Prof. Camil Fuchs told Haaretz. Reducing the number of people at each of the polling stations makes our sample smaller with less data, said Fuchs.

But this is not the only problem facing the pollsters. “We don’t know to what extent people will cooperate with the exit poll after they leave the polling place. Maybe they will have reservations about touching the tablets or will refuse to remain in the [voting] complex and vote for the sample poll because of a fear of the coronavirus,” said Fuchs.

8. The Central Elections Committee may not be able to count all the votes in time.

The Elections Committee thinks it can count all the votes within two days, but it is facing a double challenge: First, Passover weekend comes two days after the voting closes, and counting votes during Passover will be impossible. Second, a record number of “double envelope votes,” the method in which people vote in polling places that are not their own, is forecasted. Instead of 330,000 voters using so-called double envelope voting, the committee is preparing for 600,000 such voters – in part because of those sick or in isolation, and the elderly voing in their special places.

The process of counting the double envelopes is complicated. First, all sealed double envelopes are transported to the Knesset in Jerusalem. After arrival, the Elections Committee checks the identity of each voter against the information from their designated polling place, and make sure that none of them voted twice – or more – and all are entitled to vote. Only after this information is confirmed does the actual counting of these votes begin.

Ades admitted this is a major challenge, but said the Elections Committee will be able to count most of the voted before the Sabbath begins – so the public will receive the apparent results with a high level of reliability before the Passover holiday begins.

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