How Israel Plans to Pull Off a Second Election During a Global Pandemic

How will the pandemic influence Election Day? How will COVID-19 patients vote? Will the election be postponed?

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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An election monitor at a special voting booth for COVID-19 patients at the Tel Mond muncipal elections, November 24, 2020.
An election monitor at a special voting booth for COVID-19 patients at the Tel Mond muncipal elections, November 24, 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Members of the Central Elections Committee and Health Ministry officials have been struggling the past few days over how to conduct the general election that is to be held on March 23.

Israel does not have mail-in voting or computerized voting, and the familiar ballot boxes will continue to be used in the coming election. In an effort to avoid crowding, the number of polling stations across the country will be substantially increased to 14,000 from 11,000. The extra budget required to adapt the voting to the pandemic is estimated at 65 million shekels ($20.1 million), more than a third of which will be spent on protective equipment and disinfectant for all the polling stations.

Central Elections Committee director Orly Adas called on lawmakers this week to avoid making any dramatic changes to the voting process.

Nevertheless, the committee is planning to take some dramatic steps. It plans to establish “drive-in voting” for people who are in quarantine so they will not have to enter regular voting stations. The committee is looking into the option of placing ballot boxes in coronavirus hotels and elder-care facilities. Members of the Knesset have suggested mobile voting stations that would come to the homes of coronavirus patients. Alternatively, the committee has considered allowing coronavirus patients to vote on a special day ahead of Election Day, thereby granting them access to polling stations without risking the health of the general public.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry official responsible for public health, warned against any option that brings COVID-19 patients out of quarantine. “Confirmed cases in the State of Israel are not to go out except in a health emergency. You are talking about tens of thousands of sick people going out to vote, and that’s a serious risk to public health,” she told the Knesset.

Israeli election monitors wearing protective gear count votes cast by Israelis in home-quarantine over coronavirus concerns, Shoham, Israel, March 4, 2020. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/Reuters

What if polling staff are forced into quarantine?

The are always extra polling station and vote-counting personnel on hand. In every election personnel drop out or refuse an assignment to a distant polling station. But the committee must still consider how to manage a possible massive dropout of workers who suddenly discover that they are sick or had come in contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient.

Adas this week asked that if there is a decision to impose another lockdown in the coming months, that campaign workers be made an exception to those rules. “It’s a short election campaign and the parties must be allowed to work. We’re not talking about thousands of people, but hundreds.” As of now, the Health Ministry has refused to consider this exception to regulations.

Must the election take place on March 23? Can the Knesset still put off the date?

There are at least two ways to change the election date even after the Knesset is dissolved.

The Basic Law on the Knesset allows the MKs to delay an election due to “special circumstances.” The law doesn’t specify how long the delay can be, saying it should not be longer “than the time required for said circumstances.” The law conditions a postponement on the support of 80 MKs. This law was originally aimed at preventing elections in the midst of a war, but it could be appropriate in the case of coronavirus restrictions.

The Basic Law on the Government allows the Knesset to change the date of the election because of its proximity to Passover, which starts March 28 (with March 27 being Shabbat). Adas already warned this week that March 23’s proximity to the holiday will make it difficult for the committee to finish the vote count within the eight days the law requires. The law allows the Knesset to choose another date that is up to 100 days from the legally mandated date. To do this, the next date must be decided on within the next five days because of “the proximity of the election date to a holiday or memorial day.”

A special voting booth for COVID-19 patients at the Tel Mond municipal election, November 24, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

How long will it take to get the results?

The Basic Law on the Knesset requires publication of the final election results within eight days. Adas has already warned that meeting this deadline would be difficult during this period, but there have been difficulties in the past as well, because of the extra controls implemented to assure the reliability of the vote count. To date there is no solution for the possibility that the committee will not finish the count in time.

Does the fact that there have been three elections so recently make this one any easier to organize?

The election committee has a pretty well-oiled apparatus that includes highly experienced professional staff, but indeed, the holding of three elections over the past two years made the voting easier to organize. The dry wording of the law gives the committee 90 days to organize for Election Day, and the committee works according to a precise schedule for registering the parties, checking the history of those running for Knesset and preparing the voting stations. Adas has assured that the committee will be on schedule this time as well, but objected to any effort to shorten the process.

Important dates in the run-up to the election:

  • 81 days to the election: the committee publishes the updated voter registry and allows citizens to make sure they are listed in it.
  • 48-47 days to the election: The parties must submit their lists of candidates, after which the contenders’ suitability will be checked.
  • 41 days to the election: Citizens can appeal to the committee with a demand to disqualify parties running for Knesset.
  • 14 days to the election: Election advertising on TV and radio begins.
  • 12 days to the election: Voting begins in Israeli diplomatic missions abroad.

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