Monday, November 1, 2021

Israeli Elections - Seen from Bnei Brak

A few days before Israel's last election, I was sent a link by an NGO dedicated to maintaining “pure elections”. The NGO, Mishmar Habhirot  Ha’ezrahi (“the civilian election guardians”) stations observers at polling stations and was looking for volunteers. I could choose from three observation shifts: 6:30 am to 12:30 pm, 12:30 pm to 18:30 pm and 18:30 to the end, including the count. I registered for the evening shift which was less disruptive for my family, and would allow me to watch the vote count. 

The NGO’s website invited me to choose a polling station to observe. Since I live in a part of Tel Aviv close to Israel's main Haredi city, Bnei Brak, I volunteered to go there. I felt that Bnei Brak is somewhere where an observer might make a difference - and that it would be interesting.  My partner suggested that I wear gloves and a mask at all times - Last year Bnei Brak had the worst Corona infection rates in Israel. 

I was sent 20 pages of instructions, telling me how a polling station is organized and defining my job - Basically my mere presence was thought to prevent any abuse, but I was asked to keep a careful eye on things while avoiding "verbal or physical violence".  As an observer, I had to be attached to a party and officially I would be a Labor party representative (selected from a random list of parties who had agreed to participate). Since I am a "natural" Labor voter, I had no problem with this. Observers have a legal status and the polling station committee was required to admit me and record my presence and personal details in the protocol.  I was provided with an official observer ID, emergency numbers to call and a link to a website where I could make reports. 

At 6pm on election day, I got on my bicycle and rode over to Bnei Brak.  Bnei Brak is the most densely populated city in Israel with 26,000 people per square kilometer (Gaza has about 5,000 and Gaza city 10,000, see also the 8th densest city in the world). It is also consistently in the ten poorest cities in Israel (source is in Hebrew) . According to the Israel statistics office, monthly income per family is less than 3,000 shekels.    

As you ride into Bnei Brak, large shopping chains vanish and are replaced by small, privately owned stores with simple storefronts. Hairdressers sell yarmulkes. The roads are full of pedestrians, lots of men in black trousers, black jackets and white shirts, many women pushing prams and there are children everywhere. Apparently, it is the third happiest city in Israel with 96% of the over 20's satisfied with their lives (Bet Shemesh, another Haredi city was first - source is in Hebrew).

The polling station I had chosen was in a primary school, deep in a local neighborhood. Most Israeli polling stations are in schools or community centers and usually, each location hosts 4 or 5 stations with each station having a list of about 500 to 750 local voters. There are about six million voters in Israel and roughly 10,000 polling stations in about 2,500 locations (Hebrew: list of polling stations).

Getting to the school required navigation through narrow winding streets. The houses and cars looked neglected and the street lighting was poor. Nobody was wearing a mask. I could hear a vehicle with loudspeakers driving around: "Get out and vote!" (it said) "Secular Jews are pouring into the polling booths!". "Lieberman is campaigning against us!" (Lieberman leads a party with heavy support by Russian immigrants and promised to restrict religious power). A few elections ago (after 4 elections in 2 years, I have lost track of which election was when), Netanyahu claimed that "Arabs are pouring into the polling stations" and the Haredis were clearly imitating this. An overweight man in the regulation white shirt and black trousers invited me to come and join evening prayers (Haredi men pray three times a day). He looked disappointed when I refused.  I got a little lost in the side streets and arrived a few minutes late.

The school was a small "Torah School". Haredi schools are independent of the state system and this school did not look good, although nothing ever looks good in the Haredi world as they are impervious to appearances.
The courtyard had prefabricated (possibly temporary) classrooms, two of which were being used for voting.
There was almost no play area, only a narrow courtyard around the school with much of the space taken by the prefabricated classrooms.  I did not take photos because it is illegal to photograph a polling station.
The small street approaching the school is pedestrian only, which is a nice feature.  The street was overflowing with children, many mothers and a few men.  Two parties were on constant display: Agudat Yisrael (the Ashkenazi Haredi party) and Shas (the Sephardi Haredi party).  Many children asked me if I supported Shas. Nobody asked if I supported Aguda. In most cases, I could not tell who was Sephardi and who was Ashkenazi.

Inside the school, I saw no children's art. There were some old murals on the wall, one depicting a coastline and the others showing Orthodox men. My polling station was in the "gym", a very long classroom with many damaged floor tiles and damaged ceiling tiles. The room was split by dividers and the other side was another polling station. I saw about five large mattresses of the kind used for floor exercises and a vaulting box lying to one side.

Israeli polling stations are manned by 3 to 6 people: There is a secretary who cannot be a member of any of the 38 parties competing in the election and two to four committee members who represent the parties running in the election (they must all be from different parties). Two of the committee members are a chairperson and deputy chairperson (from different parties). There is also a non-party official observer - Somebody who sits there with a camera around his neck and does nothing. In addition, any of the competing parties can send an observer. No party may have more than two representatives in the polling station. All these people are for a polling station where only 500 to 700 people may vote: The school contained 4 or 5 polling stations.  There were also two young women (non-Haredi French immigrants) who were employed to periodically clean up the various polling stations at the school, at least one policeman, a desk with two people who directed voters to the correct polling station and a maintenance person.

The people staffing the polling station are paid about 1500 shekels (450 USD) for a day's work. In Bnei-Brak 1500 shekels is a big deal. Since Israeli elections are also a public holiday, there is no shortage of people able and wanting to work on election day. All buses and trains in Israel are free for the day and I was eligible for a free taxi (I preferred to cycle). 

I suppose having only two competing parties makes life simpler when it comes to representation, but when it comes to monitoring fairness, there is something to be said for having a wide range of competition. Coalitions may be awkward, but they do guard against dictatorship (no Israeli party ever won a full majority in the Knesset).

When I went in and presented my credentials to the secretary, there were four Haredi women "manning" the voting station. Three wore wigs and the fourth was a very young woman who I assumed was unmarried. There were also two Haredi men sitting to one side at a separate table: One was the official observer with the camera around his neck (earning 1,500 shekels for the day) and the other a voluntary observer like me, representing the Aguda party. I sat near the two men. In several cases, people came into the room, ignored the women, and headed straight for us men, assuming we were managing the voting station. This despite the fact that the ladies were sitting behind perspex dividers (protecting them from disease), had a ballot box in front of them and the Knesset logo displayed (a seven branch candelabra).

The NGO that sent me, provided a link to a website where I could log in and report. The website told me that the committee chairman represented Ta'al and the deputy represented Likud. I wasn't sure what Ta'al was, so I googled it. It is one of Israel's major Arab parties, headed by Ahmed Tibi.  Since all the ladies were Haredi, it was clear they weren't Arab and after a while, I went over and asked what was going on. The Secretary grinned under her wig "the chairman is wandering around, I can tell you though that he isn't what you would expect".
She pointed to one of the other Haredi ladies and said "She's the Likud representative". 

After about 45 minutes, a young Haredi man with untied shoelaces came up to me, and in an apologetic voice told me he was the representative for (Arab) Ta'al.  Apparently, his uncle is some kind of political activist and got him the job. They did a deal with Ta'al and instead of Haredis going to polling stations in Arab towns and the Arabs going to polling stations in Haredi towns, they all stayed close to home. So all the officials at the polling station were Haredi. This is a deviation from the intended diversity of the staff and is not an ideal situation for preventing ballot-stuffing.

In Israel, each voter hands a representative of the polling station their ID and in return gets given an envelope which they take behind a partition which hides them from view. Behind the partition, there are slips of paper for each of the many competing parties. You are supposed to choose the slip of paper related to your party (identifiable by 1 - 3 large letters) and put it in the envelope. Blank slips of paper are provided in case any are missing (you can write the letters on them).  You then come out from behind the partition and publicly insert the envelope (which hides your selection) into a sealed cardboard box, in front of the polling station committee.  After inserting the envelope, your ID is returned to you.

The rules require the polling station committee to cross off the names of voters.  This is done on two different lists, by two different people. They could cheat and cross off additional names, but would also have to insert the envelopes with the voting selection and a careful tally of the envelopes is maintained. Basically cheating would be complicated and would require a number of participants, including the committee members, to cooperate and insert slips of paper into envelopes and then into the ballot box. Given the large number of ballot stations, a huge number of people would be required to change the results by more than a small number of votes.  

The committee seemed serious about some aspects of their job and I saw no evidence of any cheating except for the high turnout, which at around 80% was extremely high but within the boundaries of possibility. There was much minor rule-breaking: Children wandered in and out of the voting station and occasionally went behind the partitions and took ballot slips.  The children were sill wandering around quite late in the evening. The committee chairwoman had brought her daughter to work and she too wanted to take voting slips from the polling booth. Many voters turned up with small children in prams. I had voted in Tel Aviv that morning and there the boundaries between the polling station and the public were tightly observed, although in Tel Aviv many voters were accompanied by their dogs, which is not something that happens in Bnei Brak.

One man tried to go behind the partition with his wife. He was called out by the committee and she then entered alone, spending a very long time choosing her slip of paper. I suspect she was illiterate. Very old or handicapped voters are allowed one assistant but this does not apply to illiterates. The use of 1 -3 letters to identify the lists, is designed to make it easier for illiterates. An assistant may accompany up to two different voters (handicapped or elderly) but no more and they may not be an employee of an old people's home. I assume that my presence made the committee more careful with the rules, but any failure to fully implement rules would have only impacted a handful of votes.

Official poster listing the participating parties (one withdrew at the last minute)

At precisely 10pm, the doors of the polling station were shut and we gathered around the table to watch the counting. Only the committee members could count. No one is allowed to leave or enter the room while the counting goes on and only the committee members are allowed to count. 

In the early 1980s, I lived in Brighton (UK) and studied Political Science, one of my lecturers stood as a candidate for the local elections and a friend accompanied him as he signed up elderly voters to do postal voting. My friend said that on one occasion he saw the lecturer, forcibly push an elderly voter's hand to cross the box he wanted. My friend was disturbed by this and it left me with an enduring suspicion of postal voting. So I understand the US Republican party's distrust of massive postal votes. Postal voting is not allowed in Israel. In some Israeli polling stations, anybody can vote regardless of where they live. In those cases, the envelope containing your vote is inserted into another sealed envelope with your details and sent to the central administration office for counting. There were about 10 of these votes at the polling station. 

To be clear, while I sympathize with the suspicion of postal voting, I believe there should be equality in voting conditions. 

Almost all the voters I saw were Haredi. The main exception I remember, was one woman with blue hair and yoga pants (I thought: "What is she doing here?"). Of the 570 eligible voters at my polling station, 470 had voted. 
About 300 voted for the Ashkenazi Haredi party and 100 for the Sephardi Haredi party. 42 voted for an ultra-right religious party (a national surprise showing) and 14 for the Likud. One person voted for the Labor party. There was one blank piece of paper cast (regarded as a canceled vote).

As I took my bicycle and left the school, I heard someone say, "Look!, men and women are mixing at the polling station!". Inside one of the temporary classrooms that had served as a polling station, I could see attractive, smiling young Haredi men and women talking around a table, while a couple of people peeked through the corner of the windows.

At the next election, I will volunteer to observe in an Arab town.

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