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An Israeli-Arab father casts a ballot together with his children, as Israelis vote in a parliamentary election, at a polling station in Umm al-Fahm, Israel April 9, 2019.(Photo by: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
What's really behind the election 'cameras bill'?
Netanyahu’s rhetoric and the way the Likud has operated recently make it clear that the timing is the point.
Kalman Liebskind, an investigative journalist at The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication, Maariv, had a question for Foreign Minister Israel Katz, a guest on his Kan Bet radio program Sunday morning. As someone who’s written investigative reports on voter fraud, he wondered, why is the Likud only noticing the problem right before an election?

Katz said it would have been better if the “cameras bill” – allowing observers to film in polling stations but not inside voting booths – had been passed two years ago, but since it’s on the agenda now, the problem of voter fraud should be dealt with swiftly.

But timing is not something that can be dismissed in this discussion. In fact, despite cries of a stolen election by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others, it seems timing is the true story.

Fraud is a real phenomenon that should be resolved, not ignored. Liebskind has uncovered countless cases of fraud over the years. Articles by him and others inspired the Likud campaign to train activists this year to secretly film the vote count in some polling stations in Arab areas on Election Day in April, and for independent groups of activists to try to observe elections in past years. In recent weeks, Haaretz reported on agreements between observers from Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties to stuff ballots, and police are investigating some of these cases.

The cases generally involve the party observers, not only in Arab areas, who allegedly used ID numbers of people who didn’t vote and marked them as having voted, then added votes for their parties. Most of the fake votes would match how the neighborhood actually voted, but a few were sometimes added for other parties observing the polling place in order to pay for their silence. Other cases have been uncovered of people using wigs and disguises and then voting multiple times using other people’s IDs.

There is little indication that the phenomenon is very widespread, but it is persistent. As Meshilut-The Movement for Governability and Democracy cofounder Simcha Rothman explained to the Post last week, voter fraud does not need to be very prevalent to have an impact. The Israeli system is very “sensitive to fraud, especially if it is organized,” he said. “If there was fraud in hundreds of ballots... the whole results of the last election do not reflect the will of the voter.”

A small number of votes can have a huge impact on the outcome of an election, he explained, especially when it comes to smaller parties. For example, the New Right missed the electoral threshold by only 1,500 votes in April,

Cameras could have a deterrent effect. Though vote counts are kept in each polling place (and ballot-stuffing has even been documented in some cases), having video evidence would make the case against those who commit such crimes more solid. As a result, people may think twice before trying to commit fraud.

But, as Liebskind asked, why now? Why not two years ago, as Katz suggested?

The timeline for this bill is impossibly tight. The cabinet authorized it on Sunday, nine days before Election Day. The Knesset has to vote for it in three readings, with committee meetings between the first and second reading. Even if the bill is passed before Election Day – which is doubtful considering the legislative process – it would be difficult to implement in time, despite the bill legislating that the political parties buy cameras for their own observers rather than have the government buy them.

Netanyahu’s rhetoric and the way the Likud has operated recently make it clear that the timing is the point. This is not a serious attempt to clamp down on fraudulent votes. It’s an attempt to rile up the base and bring up voter turnout, which is expected to take a drastic dip in light of this being the second election in five months.

“Someone wants the Likud to lose,” Netanyahu warned on Friday. “They want to steal the election from us. We won’t let them.”

This talk of stealing an election, from the prime minister no less, delegitimizes the core practice of democracy: free elections. While the vote will remain open and equal for all citizens regardless of the outcome of this bill, Netanyahu is stirring up doubts in the public about whether the election will be fair. That distrust could snowball in a way that will undermine the entire democratic system and cause Israel irreparable damage for years to come.

It’s natural for Netanyahu and Likud to want to win, but at what cost?
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