Israel's Challenges in the Run-up to the March Election in the Shadow of Coronavirus

With less than six weeks to go, election panel scrambles to set up enough polling stations and recruit manpower that would allow observing COVID restrictions

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A polling station for coronavirus patients in Be'er Sheva, in 2020.
A polling station for coronavirus patients in Be'er Sheva, in 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Israel's Central Election Committee is struggling to recruit sufficient personnel and organize ballot boxes for COVID patients and those in quarantine ahead of Israel's March vote while the country is still grappling with the pandemic.

Israeli election campaign finally begins: Who's up? Who's down? Who's in? Who's Out? LISTEN

-- : --

The committee has expanded the number of polling stations in an effort to minimize overcrowding, and this time around, the election will also require precinct secretaries at special drive-through voting stations.

Of the 100,000 applicants for the position of precinct secretary, only 26,000 have completed the initial screening process. The committee needs an additional 10,000 voting precinct secretaries, and they all need to be trained for the job. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of polling places and ballot counting stations has been greatly expanded.

Many of those who have applied for the precinct secretary job have expressed willingness to work at the voting stations for coronavirus patients and for voters in quarantine, despite the possible risk, but the numbers are still not sufficient, election officials said.

Poll workers count ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, in 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

“We’re not considering postponing the election due to the situation,” one official added, despite the challenges that holding an election during such a pandemic poses. “We are a professional agency and will be able to perform what we have been tasked to do.”

The law only allows elections to be deferred in exceptional circumstances by a vote of 80 of the 120 members of the Knesset. The election committee itself has no authority to delay the election, and it’s preparing for a range of scenarios on Election Day. The main problem that it is facing is the inability to anticipate how many voters will be diagnosed with the coronavirus and others who may require quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus. The plans call for flexibility at the polling places, with spare voting booths to be available if necessary.

To save money and rely on existing resources, the committee asked the Health Ministry to provide tents that are usually used at drive-through coronavirus testing centers. The tents would be equipped with specially designed voting booths at which members of the public can vote from their cars. But the Health Ministry has long delayed committing to provide the tents, which has made planning for Election Day more difficult.

Israeli election workers in November 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The election committee has come to an agreement, however, with the Clalit Health Services, the country’s largest health maintenance organization, to have special polling stations operate at its branches around the country, complete with personal protective equipment for staffers. Each community that is home to COVID-19 patients or those in quarantine will have at least one of the special voting stations.

In August, the election committee began preparing for a number of extreme scenarios to ensure that the next election is held on time. It was decided, for example, to substantially boost the number of polling stations and to make it possible to have people vote at the special polling places even if they do not have documentation confirming their medical condition. The plans call for the use of “double envelopes” for ballots cast away from the voter’s regular polling place – a system normally reserved for soldiers in the army, patients in hospital and diplomats abroad.

Another challenge will be the vote count, as the Passover holiday begins the weekend after March 23, a Tuesday.

One major decision that was made was to expand the number of polling stations so that each has no more than 650 voters (compared to the usual 800). Instead of one voting booth in each precinct, there were will two, while voters may find that they are not voting at their usual location. There will be about 15,000 polling places this time around, compared to the roughly 10,000 in prior elections.

Israeli election ballots during the global pandemic, last year.Credit: Moti Milrod

Special ushers will also be on hand to ensure that social distancing is observed. Where appropriate, there will be separate entrances and exits from the polling stations to avoid overcrowding, and each voter will be required to use hand sanitizer upon entering the facility and again before actually casting a ballot. The personnel at each voting precinct will be seated behind a clear plastic screen, and voters will be required to pull down their masks briefly so that they can be identified.

There will be special polling places set up at nursing homes with more than 30 residents and at coronavirus hospital departments, for patients who are not confined to their beds. At the hospitals, election staffers will sit in the control room where medical staff sit. They will identify patients either through a clear glass wall or through security cameras, in facilities where such cameras exist to monitor patients.

The committee is also preparing to boost its ability to monitor the integrity of the election, using body cameras to film the ballot count. The cameras were first used two years ago after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party attempted to bring its own cameras to the polling stations, particularly in Arab areas of the country.

For the first time, each polling place will have a Central Elections Committee inspector with a camera. The cameras will not be allowed to film the actual voting but will be permitted to film any exceptional incidents at a polling station.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: