Israel's Election Board to Hear Petition on Cameras at Polling Stations in Arab Towns

AG says panel can't decide on the matter, and has yet to rule whether to press charges against Likud for dispatching 1,200 cameras in April vote, seen as attempt to deter Arabs from voting

A voting booth in Kafr Qasem, April 9, 2019.
Moti Milrod

Hours before Israel's Central Elections Committee was slated to hear a petition asking it to ban the use of cameras in polling stations in Arab towns, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said Wednesday the board doesn't yield the authority to decide on such a matter.

The attorney general also stressed that any use of cameras on Election Day may be illegal.

In April’s election, the Likud party spent hundreds of thousands of shekels to buy 1,200 cameras and give them to Likud members serving as polling officials in Arab towns. It said the goal was “to monitor the integrity of the elections.” But a right-wing source said the real goal was to deter Arabs from voting.

In particular, the source said, Likud hoped to lower Arab turnout enough so that the United Arab List-Balad joint ticket would fail to win enough votes for a single Knesset seat. That would have given the rightist bloc more Knesset seats than it actually got.

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Cameras installed by activists near Arab polling stations.
Hadash Spokesperson's Office

The petition to be heard Thursday was filed by Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which has also asked Mendelblit to explain why he hasn’t opened a criminal investigation against Likud on suspicion of disrupting the vote, given that the cameras were used in violation of the restrictions imposed by the Central Election Committee’s chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer.

In his Wednesday statement, the attorney general said until the issue of recording polling booths is "decided upon by the lawmaker," the election committee cannot allow such move. However, he said he hasn't decided yet whether a criminal investigation would be launched into Likud's use of cameras in the April vote, which he argued could constitute "disruption of the election's orderly conduct."

Mendelblit added that many questions regarding the use of cameras or other recording equipment at polling booths must be resolved before possibly approving it. These, he said, include whether cameras would be deployed across the country or in specific locations, how the need for installing cameras at any specific polling station would be determined and how data security and privacy would be preserved.

In a ruling issued on Election Day, Melcer said Likud polling officials could bring cameras into the polling stations, but had to keep them in a purse or suitcase. He also said they could use the cameras to make audio recordings, but could make video recordings only of the vote count after the polls closed, and only after informing other polling officials engaged in counting the ballots.

Melcer billed the ruling as an attempt to balance the interest of protecting privacy with that of preserving the integrity of the election.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) also plans to attend Thursday’s hearing. In an affidavit submitted to the committee, she argued that Likud’s use of cameras is a continuation of “the prime minister’s campaign of incitement and delegitimization ever since the 2015 election, during which he said, ‘the Arabs are coming to the polls in droves.’”

“This is meant to pressure the Arab community and the parties working within it in the hope of disrupting the orderly conduct of the election and lowering the turnout,” the affidavit added. It also argued that the cameras, which were used only in Arab towns, were a provocation meant to spark disturbances in the Arab community.

The day after April’s election, the public relations firm Kaizler Inbar said it had mounted the camera operation with Likud officials. “Thanks to the fact that observers on our behalf were stationed at every polling station, [Arab] turnout fell to 50 percent, the lowest we’ve seen in years!” the firm boasted on its Facebook page. “Shush … don’t tell anyone. It was us.”

The post went on to mention media reports about “cameras planted in polling stations in the Arab community that prevented thousands of fraud issues? Well, yes, we’re ‘guilty’ of that … After a long period of preparations, an astounding logistics system and a deep, close partnership with the best people in Likud, we mounted an operation that made a decisive contribution to one of the right’s most important achievements, ‘integrity’ in the Arab community.”