Israel's Attorney General Sounds Alarm Over Likud Bill to Let Parties Film at Polling Stations

In a letter to the bill's proponents, Avichai Mendelblit writes that the bill to allow party representatives to film at the ballot raises 'substantial legal difficulties'

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

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit criticized a government bill that would allow political parties to place cameras in polling stations, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is trying to pass before the election. Mendelblit believes that the bill could discourage disadvantaged populations from voting, make it easier for political activists to document what happens behind the barrier that shields the voter from view, and lead to problems in properly managing the voting process. (For the latest election polls – click here)

In a letter to Justice Minister Amir Ohana (Likud) and to Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas), who are promoting the bill, Mendelblit wrote that it “raises not a few substantial legal difficulties.” The attorney general did not invalidate the bill in his letter, but said that an official opinion on the matter is forthcoming.

>> Read more: No cameras this time | Editorial ■ Let Israeli political parties film in polling stations | Opinion

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The letter relates only to the bill and does not express an opinion on the Central Elections Committee's proposed one-time arrangement. On September 17, the committee is expected to operate an election transparency unit, in which official representatives, rather than those from political parties, will be allowed to document vote counting and problematic incidents under certain circumstances in polling stations.

The Likud bill was released earlier this week for public comment in an expedited procedure ahead of its cabinet vote on Sunday. If it advances, the Knesset will likely undertake an irregular procedure, which includes establishing a special Knesset committee to facilitate the bill’s passage in three readings by next Thursday, allowing it to take effect before Election Day.

“The fact that voters will only become aware of this precedential arrangement in the final days before the election, one that alters an order that existed since the beginning of the state, may create heightened uncertainty and concerns about violating electoral secrecy, even in the narrow sense,” the attorney general wrote. He added that “Those who are likely to be harmed and deterred by the voting process will be voters from disadvantaged groups.”

In his letter, Mendelblit quotes Central Election Committee Chairman Justice Hanan Melcer, who stated that “Even though the fact of the voter being recorded or filmed while he is exercising his democratic right isn’t certain to deter him – the proper arrangement should neutralize any concern, however remote, that the government authorities or some party might undermine the voter’s sense of equality.”

Mendelblit also wrote that non-governmental officials filming in the polling room would make it difficult to enforce rules restricting photography behind the voting barrier. This is a risk, Mendelblit wrote, that is especially prominent during the first election in which the bill would be implemented, as there would not be sufficient time to prepare and internalize the rules and ramifications. "In addition," he wrote, "abruptly granting authority to party representatives to film at polling stations could actually lead to problems in managing the voting process or the violation of rights.”

In his letter, Mendelblit made it clear that “Under the circumstances and the said timetable, a government bill cannot undergo a legislative process suited to such a complex and sensitive bill as this one. The timetable does not allow for the required preliminary staff work needed to formulate a bill on this complex, sensitive and innovative issue.”