Does this election have a legitimacy problem? - analysis

The discourse around voter fraud allegations and cameras in polling places weakens public trust in elections, the most basic democratic institution, experts say.

Lawyer Simcha Rottman from Meshilut – the Movement for Governability and Democracy (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lawyer Simcha Rottman from Meshilut – the Movement for Governability and Democracy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The advent of election observers bringing cameras into polling places has been an element of the political discourse since the first Election Day this year on April 9, and with the “cameras bill” on the agenda, the talk will likely continue until the second Election Day on September 17 and beyond.
Whether there will be 1,300 cameras in random polling places, as Central Elections Committee chairman Hanan Melcer suggested, or the unlikely outcome of Likud’s cameras bill becoming law, allowing every party’s election observers to bring in cameras – to polling stations in the area where votes are counted, not behind the screens in voting booths – the issue at hand goes deeper than the method of election documentation.
What’s being questioned is the trustworthiness, and therefore legitimacy, of election results. Scholars on both sides of the cameras debate warned on Thursday that this could have dangerous ramifications.
This week alone, the Jerusalem District Court discussed whether the makeup of the current Knesset can be changed because of mistakes found in counting results of the last election and fraud investigations. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, echoing earlier statements by Melcer, then said he found the “cameras bill” to be problematic.
Both events pushed the Likud campaign – which sent observers with hidden cameras to polling places in Arab cities and towns in April, finding cases of ballot-stuffing – into overdrive.
“One cannot ignore the feeling that the elections are being stolen from us,” the Likud spokesman said. “If counterfeiting had been avoided, Balad would not have passed the threshold, and the right-wing bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have reached 61 seats. This would have prevented the State of Israel from going to unnecessary [second] elections,” according to the spokesman, though the outcome of a recount or a re-vote in some polling places would be uncertain.
The next day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself said the cameras bill is “the only way to prevent them from stealing the election,” not clarifying who would be doing the stealing. “We know there is a large quantity of fakes.”
Netanyahu said he was shocked by Mandelblit’s position, and that he cannot understand it.
Simcha Rothman, cofounder of Meshilut – the Movement for Governability and Democracy known for its opposition to judicial activism, said elections in Israel are very vulnerable to fraud.
When votes were counted in April, it seemed for hours that Likud would receive an additional seat in the Knesset, and United Torah Judaism would have one less, but then the situation was reversed.
Rothman is also the attorney for Amit Halevy, the Likud candidate who would have gotten into the Knesset if Likud won another seat.
“The gap in the last election between a seat for Likud or a seat for UTJ was about 180 votes… The election was called based on individual votes,” Rothman explained. “If one ballot box is falsified, it’s enough to move a [Knesset] seat from one place to another.”
Halevy’s lawsuit is based on miscounted votes, Rothman explained, but that there are far more instances of fraud; and while it takes tens of thousands of votes to change the situation for large parties like Likud, it takes a much lower number of stuffed ballots to move small parties above or below the 3.25% electoral threshold and drastically change the Knesset map.
UAL-Balad, Rothman pointed out, “passed the electoral threshold by 3,500 seats. That’s not a lot of votes to change the balance between Left and Right… Another important number is 1,500 – the New Right didn’t pass the threshold by 1,500 votes. These are very small amounts that are sensitive to fraud, especially if it is organized.
“Therefore, if there was fraud in hundreds of ballots… the whole results of the last election do not reflect the will of the voter,” Rothman argued. “There are lists of ballots where fraud was documented, where people showed up with multiple IDs. It’s enough that we don’t know the results of the last election.”
Rothman supports the cameras bill, saying it is likely to prevent the kind of fraud seen in the last election, and that the details of the bill – having each party supply its observers with cameras – make it logistically possible to implement so close to the election, and preserves the logic of Israel election laws that have the political parties responsible for observing one another.
The attorney said the ongoing drama over cameras erodes the public’s trust in the judiciary, which has dropped drastically in the past few years, according to polls by the Israel Democracy Institute and the University of Haifa’s Political Science Department. Rothman blames “politicization of the legal system” for the distrust, which he argued the judges did to themselves.
“A Supreme Court justice at the head of the Central Elections Committee doesn’t reassure people,” he said. “It makes them anxious. They say the committee represents interests on one side” – the Left – “and we cannot trust them. [Melcer] opposes the cameras…He is doing everything so that people won’t trust the election system.”
And if people don’t trust the outcome of the election, then democracy is in danger, according to Rothman.
“People tend to say that about things that are not actually a danger to democracy,” but “a lack of trust in the simplest thing, that our election slips are being used in the right, appropriate way… is a true danger to democracy,” Rothman said. “As a lawyer dealing with election laws, I will go to the voting booth with a very heavy heart.”
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, also warned that a dangerous drop in trust in elections is possible, though she laid the blame elsewhere.
“We’re in an age where you don’t believe anything,” she said. “There’s fake news, deep fakes, facts are considered meaningless, and everything is mixed up. In an age like that, it’s easy to say elections were stolen. No one knows how much fraud there is, though we can assume it’s not high, but [the Likud] uses the mantra ‘They stole the election.’
“The cameras are an excuse,” Shwartz Altshuler argued, and the Likud has created a false dichotomy by which one either supports the cameras bill, or supports fraud.
“This conspiracy theory – that whoever opposes [cameras] wants to steal the election – Netanyahu understands it’s meant to create voter suppression on one side, and voter warm-up on the other. It brings fewer Arabs to the polls, but the Right will be nervous and more likely to vote. If they really cared about fraud, then the Central Elections Committee already solved it by sending out 1,300 observers,” she said.
Another theory Shwartz Altshuler floated was that Netanyahu is attempting to delegitimize Mandelblit, who is holding a pre-indictment hearing for the prime minister two weeks after the election.
“Netanyahu says he’s shocked by the attorney-general. That’ll serve him after the election, when he’s indicted… [He can say] they’re trying to bring me down in any way, even stealing the election,” she said. “This is the behavior of someone who is ready to destroy institutions, not fix them.
“We should take care of voter fraud and investigation. The state comptroller said so in 2013, and it didn’t interest anyone at the time. There is a deeper reason to play this game,” she added.
Shwartz Altshuler warned that the public is losing trust in “the democratic process itself.”
She argued the prime minister “started with other institutions” – the judiciary, the police, the media – and “the groundwork has been laid… I think this story is truly dangerous.”
According to Shwartz Altshuler, history shows that people in low-trust societies are anxious and are more susceptible to seeking dictators to bring order.
“I’m not one of those screaming that it’s the end of democracy, but you can see the attempt to delegitimize institutions, and the institution of elections is another one,” she warned.