Likud lawmaker David Bitan urged all parties to have their observers use cameras in polling places in the upcoming Knesset election, which will be held on September 17.
In the previous election in April, Likud bought 1,200 cameras and gave them to party members serving as polling officials in Arab towns. Likud claimed the goal was “to monitor the integrity of the election,” but a right-wing source told Haaretz that the real goal was to deter Arabs from coming to the stations to vote.
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Bitan spoke on Thursday at a meeting of the Central Elections Committee, which was convened to discuss the issue in response to a petition filed by Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel against the use of the cameras in April.
“Kahol Lavan has a much larger budget than ours, they can place cameras in polling stations of the ultra-Orthodox or in Judea and Samaria,” said Bitan, who is the Likud representative on the committee and serves as its deputy chairman. He added that if parties don't have the budget to allocate to cameras, “it is possible to make sure that every party contributes part of their budget according to size.”
Lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash – Ta’al) told the committee that the debate was political a political and not a legal one. She called the use of the cameras “ethnic labelling" and said that "it undermines the principle of equality between all citizens and all the parties that are running. When you give a party that has the financial and human means to operate and receive such privilege, the principle of equality is severely damaged.”
Sawsan Zaher, an Adalah attorney, said the cameras interfered with the voting processes and delayed it for 45 minutes on average. Adalah has affidavits of three people who were at polling stations where the cameras were used and said the filming caused them to feel humiliation, harassment and anger, she said. “They fled and left the polling place out of fear of being filmed,” said Zaher.
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Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, asked Zaher what she thought about the possibility of filming only during the ballot counting and not during the voting, and about cameras being placed “in all polling stations, without ethnic labeling.”
Zaher said the law does not authorize any party to bring in cameras. In addition, she said, even if the voting itself is not filmed, the placement of the cameras impairs the secrecy of the voting procedure.
Melcer noted that a similar step was taken during the Indian general election two months ago: Cameras were placed in a number of polling stations where improprieties had been found or the voter turnout had been higher than average – and the public’s trust in the election process actually improved.
Melcer asked the police representative in attendance to look into whether officers' body cameras could be used if they were called into a polling station to address an incident. The justice made it clear that he did not intend for police officers to film the goings on at the polling places throughout the whole day, and asked the police to inform the committee by Sunday as to how many police officers are now outfitted with body cameras.
A long list of mayors of Arab towns criticized the use of the cameras on Thursday. “The state needs to install cameras to prevent crime in towns and not for elections. They are looking to create a provocation,” said Darwish Rabi, the mayor of Jaljulya. The mayor of Kafr Qasem, Adel Badir, said the cameras will keep Arab voters from voting since “they won’t feel comfortable when they are being watched.”
In a legal opinion issued on Wednesday, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said that the Central Elections Committee does not have the authority to allow the use of cameras in polling places.
Mendelblit also said he had not yet decided whether to open a criminal investigation into Likud's actions with the cameras in the previous election.
In a ruling issued on Election Day in April, Melcer said Likud polling officials could bring cameras into the polling stations, but they had to keep them in a bag – they could be not be hidden on their person. The justice allowed the use of the cameras to make audio recordings, but ruled that video recordings could only be made after the polls closed, as the votes were counted, and only after informing all election officials engaged in counting the ballots.
Melcer said that his ruling was an attempt to balance the interest of protecting people's privacy and preserving the integrity of the election.