Yes to Cameras in Israel's Polling Stations on Election Day

Leo Ottelman

The night of the Labor Party primaries in June 2007 was tense. Ami Ayalon claimed there were forgeries that led to Ehud Barak’s very narrow victory. At exactly that time I got the results from our investigative reporters who had been placed outside several polling stations with cameras in Arab communities. The findings were clear: There had been fraud from here to Denmark. 

The reporters (and private investigators) were placed by us outside the polling stations and asked only to photograph and count the people who had come to vote. That way we could compare that number to the number of voters that the poll committees reported. One polling station in the Bedouin sector had been set up in a private home, in an area where women were forbidden to enter. Almost no one came to vote the entire day, but the poll committee reported a 90 percent turnout, including many women.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank, on September 4, 2019.

I knew that if I broadcast the results that night, I would be giving an enormous weapon to Ayalon’s campaign staff, which could have blocked Barak’s path to the Defense Ministry. We didn’t report it, because it was clear that some of the poll results had been forged to favor Barak, while some had been forged in Ayalon’s favor.

But that investigative report, the indictments filed in its wake, and other incidents changed the method of voting in the Labor Party. That doesn’t interest anyone now, but it does seem that the forgery phenomenon has been considerably reduced.

In 2009 we decided to check whether there was fraud in ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) polling stations during the general election. We placed people at several polling stations, supposedly as party observers. They were there the entire day, and perhaps even photographed with hidden cameras. To this day, nothing from that investigation was reported, because we didn’t find anything – not a single forgery. Here and there the investigators had suspicions about a specific voter’s true identity, but the scope was small and inconclusive.

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So were there no forgeries there? Or perhaps because a non-Haredi observer was present, it was decided not to try anything underhanded? We’ll never know. 

But we did learn an important lesson. If the oversight process mandated by law is implemented correctly, it’s very hard to forge results. If all the party representatives who are supposed to be on the poll committees really come and remain there until Election Day is over, it will be very difficult if not impossible to commit fraud. At those polling stations where fraud was suspected during this past election, it always began with negligence by one of the party representatives.

Usually the negligent representative was from the center-left; either he didn’t show up, or he left in the middle of the day, or he agreed in advance to switch with the representative of another party without getting permission.

After all this, in my opinion it seems that installing cameras in the public areas of the polling stations isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been seriously undermining public confidence in the voting process, and it’s possible that only installing cameras can help restore that confidence.

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But these cameras must not be installed by the parties, which leaves a huge opening for manipulating data and editing photos. The cameras must be installed by the state, and they must be installed at every polling station, not just those of weak minorities that someone would like to deter from voting.

Netanyahu knows perfectly well that there’s no practical way to do this in an orderly fashion for the upcoming election, which is just over a week away. We’re talking about tens of thousands of cameras, infrastructure, and procedures to be drawn up – it’s impossible. This ought to be clear to Benny Gantz as well, so he’s just playing into Netanyahu’s hands by even getting involved in the discussion.

The Central Elections Committee is facing a big challenge on September 17. Until now the feeling was that it preferred to sweep everything under the rug. There’s no reason why the vote count shouldn’t be broadcast live on the committee’s website, and that all the poll committee reports be photographed and uploaded to the website immediately after the voting ends.

There’s also a need to send elections-committee representatives to tour polling stations, both to show a presence and to assure that everyone is actually where they’re supposed to be. What Netanyahu has been doing is election propaganda, but it’s so dangerous that it cannot be ignored.

Netanyahu has seriously undermined public confidence in the voting process, and it may be that only installing cameras can help restore that confidence.