Election Day last April in the northern Druze town of Yarka was particularly fraught, in part because a local resident, Patin Mula, was running for the Knesset, in the 32nd spot on the Likud slate. In 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had done particularly poorly in the Knesset election, garnering just 261 votes here. But in the election on April 9 of this year, with the political fate of a local resident hanging in the balance, the thinking was that things would be different.
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And they were. When the votes were counted in Yarka, Likud had received 2,481 votes, an unprecedented level of support. But what happened in Yarka also raised a lot of questions.
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At Precinct 7, for example, a Likud representative who was an observer overseeing the vote came to the polling station with a camera. He reported to police that at 9 P.M., an hour before the polls closed, he was expelled from the room by force and beaten and that damage was also caused to his car. When the ballots cast in the precinct were actually counted, he was no longer present.
It turned out that Likud was the big winner in the precinct, getting 214 votes (34.9 percent of the vote among the 40 parties on the ballot). So there was no reason for Likud to challenge the result in the precinct.
No one seemed to wonder either about the exceptionally high turnout reported in the official tally – 92.2 percent, when the average turnout among Arab voters nationally was less than 50 percent, or that the number of votes tallied was doubled after the fact.
When Haaretz approached the precinct committee secretary, he adamantly denied that anything was amiss, saying that everything proceeded normally, before he hung up.
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The anomalies in Yarka are just part of the puzzle. The findings of the Haaretz investigation, which followed reports of irregularities collected by the volunteers from the Election Civil Guard reveal how those administering the vote appeared to have failed in their most important role – delivering reliable election results.
Irregularities in the vote tally – either due to negligence or vote fraud – could theoretically affect the actual composition of the Knesset. The parties’ appeals to Israeli voters to turn out and cast their ballots because “every vote counts” appear a bit divorced from reality in light of the findings.
Yet four months after the last election and a little over a month before the next Knesset election, following the inconclusive result the last time around, police have opened investigations of vote fraud at just five polling places, in addition to less formal investigation of several more.
Here are the main highlights from Haaretz’s findings:
Oversight at polling stations was inadequate
The first place where irregularities were spotted was in the composition of each of the precinct committees, which consist of a non-partisan secretary appointed by the national Central Election Committee, and three party representatives who are supposed to reflect a balance from among the parties in the outgoing Knesset. The Central Election Committee designates a range of parties that are to be represented in each precinct, and the parties then appoint the individuals who represent them.
The precinct committee members are expected to report irregularities, and the system is aimed at preventing voter fraud. But a review of the vote tallies reveals that in more than 1,000 of the 10,458 precincts, there were no representatives of opposition parties on the committee, either because the Central Election Committee had only designated right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties for certain committees, or in some instances because the opposition party representatives either never showed up or left before the crucial stage of ballot counting.
Any party is also entitled to appoint a precinct observer, if the party is not represented on the precinct committee. Large parties such as Likud make heavy use of this option, while new parties such as Kahol Lavan and parties without financial resources failed to take advantage of the option of appointing observers. But even when observers were appointed, there were violations – with observers being appointed in precincts in which the party had a member on the committee itself.
Negligence in the preparation of the vote tallies
Haaretz found hundreds of forms that precinct staff was supposed to fill out that were completed improperly, carelessly or in violation of instructions even though the precinct secretaries receive training prior to Election Day. Some of the problems spotted on the forms prompt actual suspicion of vote fraud.
Some precinct forms that were required were not filled out at all, including one, for example, stating how many voters came to the precinct, which can then be compared to the number of votes cast. And at some precincts, the two numbers didn’t match. The only sanction that the Central Election Committee can impose for such improprieties is to bar individuals involved from working the next time elections are held.
Precinct secretaries who live in the community
The purpose of appointing a non-partisan precinct secretary is to maintain objectivity. The secretary is considered a civil servant and receives a salary from the Central Election Committee for the day. And the rules provide that secretaries not serve in the locale where they live. (In larger cities, that means that they not live in the neighborhood where the polling place is located).
But the Central Election Committee has had difficulty in some places finding people who comply with the guidelines and in some locations, it has had to compromise – particularly in Arab communities, where Jews sometimes have refused to serve. In some places, the secretaries voted in the same precinct where they worked.
And when there have been irregularities, precinct secretaries told Haaretz that they had a sense that on Election Day “there was no one to talk to,” claiming also that there was no central number to call to report fraud and that due to the high volume of work, regional committee offices sometimes didn’t answer the phone. The Central Election Committee denied the allegations and said there is indeed a central number to call with concerns.
Judges can’t stand up to the work load
Precinct secretaries are also supposed to note any irregularities on the forms they fill out, which are then sent to a regional election headquarters that is overseen by a judge, usually from a district court, who is supposed to review and approve the results submitted from each precinct. Even though many precincts did report irregularities, none of the vote tallies from the 10,000 or so precincts around the country were disqualified in the April election or even flagged as problematic by a judge. But the judges’ responsibilities are not entirely clear and it is not certain that they are expected to review results from every precinct.
The judges each had between 200 and 900 precincts that they were responsible for. The prospect that they could actually review the results of all of them in the four of five hours that they had to accomplish the task was slim.
United Torah Judaism and Arab parties swap precinct representatives
As reported this week, Haaretz found that the United Torah Judaism party and the Arab parties struck a deal in which they informally agreed to swap representatives at various polling places without advising the Central Election Committee. The swaps could have helped the parties gain more power at polling stations that mattered to them and could have opened the door to election fraud and vote count irregularities. At the dozens of precincts where Haaretz discovered two representatives from the same party following the swaps, irregularities were reported or the vote count was unusually high. Nevertheless, few of these cases have been investigated or are being followed up.
Missing or surplus votes
After the votes were counted and approved by the district election committee, the lists were sent to typists who inputted them into computers, from which the lists went to the national headquarters in Jerusalem. But this opened the door for mistakes in inputting the data, which the Central Elections Committee did not appear to monitor. As a result, the task of catching the mistakes, which sometimes amounted to hundreds of votes, fell on the parties themselves.
Volunteers from Mishmar Habehirot Haezrahi re-entered all of the voting data from the precincts and found disparities involving thousands of missing or surplus votes. Sources from various parties have told Haaretz that the Central Elections Committee didn’t even take minimal measures to ensure that the imputed data were accurate.
Preconceived notions regarding the Arab and ultra-Orthodox vote
Concerns over the integrity of the elections can also lead to stereotyping. Likud and other right-wing parties frequently accuse the Arab community of voter fraud, but the votes cast in Arab locales don’t always benefit the Arab parties and the left wing. Statistical aberrations are more prominent in the Arab community because it is easy to spot a suspiciously high turnout when on average the Arab turnout is under 50 percent. On the other hand, no one casts doubt on the more than 90 percent turnout in ultra-Orthodox precincts, even though the average rate at which ultra-Orthodox choose to vote is 73.8 percent (compared to 68.5 percent of Israeli voters in general). The fact that there is a consensus that ultra-Orthodox voters turn out in high numbers may mask any possible vote fraud.
Maintaining the integrity of the vote
In an effort to maintain the integrity of the vote, the Central Elections Committee has several tools at its disposal. This includes a protocol through which votes from a sampling of 800 precincts is recounted. The committee doesn’t disclose how it selects the precincts or what methods it uses to detect statistical anomalies or whether it interviews the precinct committee members. It says that it won’t disclose the information so that those bent on committing voter fraud don’t take advantage of it. Sources at the Central Elections Committee acknowledge, however, that their own methods are not good enough.
Committee sources also don’t say if it compares results from prior elections, precincts with major changes in turnout or in the number of ballots that are disqualified, but they do say that due to the large number of votes cast – about 4.3 million – any anomalies cancel each other out and don’t change the overall Knesset election result.
The Central Elections Committee responds
In its response for this article, the Central Elections Committee said that it attaches supreme importance to maintaining the integrity of Israel’s elections and that the makeup of the precinct committees is provided for by law and is designed to provide oversight of the voting process.
“Factions from the same political bloc are not allowed to serve on the same precinct committee, but they are allowed to send observers to the precinct,” and precinct secretaries are appointed following a meticulous selection process, the central committee stated.
The chairpersons of the regional election committees are instructed to the extent possible to avoid appointing local residents in smaller communities to precincts in their communities. “But for various reasons, that’s not always possible.”
“The Central Elections Committee completely rejects comments casting doubt on the training received by the [precinct] secretaries. It should be noted that secretaries who have served at precincts where suspicions have arisen of harm to the integrity of the election or secretaries who are seriously deficient in their jobs will not be rehired by the committee, and criminal investigations have also been launched against some of them at the [central] committee’s initiative.”
The committee said it will also be instituting new procedures in the run-up to the September election to reduce the chance of human error to the extent possible.
“The committee completely rejects the claim that it is not carrying out its own oversight and that the oversight has been shifted to the parties, the candidates and the citizens. At its initiative, during the period after the [April] election, the committee has been carrying out the special and thorough process – an operation [dedicated to] the integrity of the election aimed at identifying precincts where it is possible that there were attempts at harming the election’s integrity.
“After examining 800 sample precincts, the committee has transferred precinct [results] to the police, which have also been followed by other precinct [results]. It should be made clear that in accordance with the provisions of the law, the elections committee has no authority to petition the district court over whether suspected precinct results could change the election results. The authority of the regional election committee chairpersons, who are judges, is provided for in the Knesset elections law and regulations that were passed by virtue of the law.”