I counted votes. Here’s what I learned

It was an exhausting, but exhilarating experience. Here are some of my main takeaways.

By JOEL CARMEL
April 17, 2019 22:38
4 minute read.
The slips used to vote in the 2019 elections, April 9th, 2019

The slips used to vote in the 2019 elections, April 9th, 2019. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

After years of active interest in politics – particularly the mechanics of political systems in Israel and other countries – I decided to see for myself what an election looks like from behind the scenes. Instead of campaigning for my preferred party (with which I’m constantly disappointed), I applied to the Central Elections Committee to become a mazkir va’adat kalpi, the secretary of a local election committee, the person who hands you your envelope.

It’s actually more complex than it sounds. Trusted with the oversight of the entire election process for one polling station, the secretary ensures that everything is set up correctly, that the voting is carried out according to the rules, and that votes are properly counted and reported to the regional committee as soon as possible.

It was an exhausting, but exhilarating experience. Here are some of my main takeaways.

1. There were many opportunities to cheat the system. Although the careful selection process is designed to weed out people who applied for the job in order to take advantage of their position, and while rules are in place to guarantee the integrity of the elections, the system is still far from watertight. There were several opportunities for me, or others, to stuff the ballot box with hundreds of ptakim (voting slips) of our own choice, and the system still relies heavily on trust. For example, even setting aside a scenario whereby one of the people involved in the counting process had bribed everyone else in the room (there were five of us) to turn a blind eye to misconduct, I could easily have changed the results on the vote tally on my way to the regional headquarters where I reported my station’s results.

Technically, I was supposed to be accompanied there. But provisions weren’t made for anyone to accompany me (the people who were with me on the local committee throughout the day were only paid to be there until 10pm, and I had to persuade them to at least stay until the end of the count). I ended up going alone, which gave me the opportunity do whatever I wanted with the materials I was responsible for.

I happen to be a principled and honest person, but I wonder if other people in my position around the country held such high standards. The scandal that erupted on Election Day involving Likud activists using secret cameras at Arab-majority polling stations was tactless and racist, but the basis for their claim that voting needs to be more carefully monitored holds more than a grain of truth.

2. It’s 2019, and the Start-up Nation still uses paper slips and envelopes. I know the argument for voting the old-fashioned way: As a friend of mine wrote, Russia can’t hack into a cardboard box in a kindergarten. I’m actually rather nostalgic myself, and I like how we still put a paper slip in an envelope. This could even be maintained in a more digitized system. What’s remarkable to me is how long it took for my station’s results to be inserted into any kind of computerized format. After bringing the handwritten tally sheets to the regional headquarters, I waited in line for an hour to be received at one of the reception points. When I was finally called, I was shocked to see that even at that stage, my results were transferred to another handwritten form.

While journalists from across the board complained on TV (as they do every election night) of the incredible length of time it takes for actual results, as opposed to inaccurate projections, to be announced, my results were then taken to yet another room where they were finally tallied long after I’d gone home. Days later, the parties are still squabbling about counting inaccuracies. This could be avoided if, say, I was able to report my results online, at the polling station and under the supervision of the other counters upon completing my count.

3. Netanyahu’s voters opted for “Bibi.” I’m fully aware that voting here is unnecessarily complicated, involving a choice of 41 paper slips with random combinations of letters that somehow represent the 41 competing parties. But I was nevertheless surprised by the number of voters who turned up without an inkling of which slip they were supposed to choose in order to vote for their preferred party. To be exact, the confusion was entirely limited to Likud voters. Benjamin Netanyahu’s name was indeed written in full underneath the Likud’s representative Hebrew letters “MaHaL,” but more than a few voters complained from behind the screen that they “couldn’t find Bibi.”

Yes, the vast number of parties running this year made it more complicated. But I couldn’t help thinking that the confusion being limited to Likud voters was a sign that the prime minister’s own brand – as voters were convinced to choose “rak [only] Bibi” – was far stronger than that of his party, or even of his own full name. This was yet another sign that this election was above all a referendum on Netanyahu’s performance and legitimacy as prime minister.

4. Elections are a festival of democracy. For all the cynicism around elections, getting the chance to have one’s say is still a meaningful moment in people’s lives. The number of people who brought their children with them to help push the envelope through the slit, not to mention the amount of selfies taken in the polling station, are a testament to what it means to people that their voices are heard. We Israelis have plenty of reservations when it comes to politics, but voting is still a joy.

The writer studies political science and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and reports for the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation’s English-language Kan English News.


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