Today Israel’s Central Election Committee heard testimony on vigilante voter suppression and disenfranchisement tactics used by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Chairman of the Central Election Committee, Justice Hanan Melcer, is expected to issue a precedent-setting opinion within a week.
During last April’s Israeli election, Likud Party operatives infiltrated Arab polling places with 1,200 hidden cameras and recording devices. Adalah: The Center for Minority Rights and community organizing group Zazim testified before the Committee today, arguing that cameras in polling places are tools of voter suppression and racial profiling. They, alongside the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), have stated that recording or photographing in polling stations violates a core principle of democracy — the basic right to vote — and that cameras should be banned. Meanwhile, Standing Together, a grassroots organizing group, protested outside of Knesset with large signs and a truck that said “they put up cameras [in Arab polling places] because they’re afraid Arabs will vote!”
Since the last election, Adalah has submitted two requests of Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, to open a criminal investigation into Likud’s hidden camera operation. While the Attorney General has not responded directly, he did issue a written position submitted to the Committee stating that Likud’s placement of cameras could constitute a criminal offense if the placement of those cameras served as an impediment to the voting process. He also said that the Central Election Committee is barred from issuing instructions to place cameras at polling stations as long as there is no legislation or ordinance that explicitly empowers it to do so. Meanwhile, for the upcoming 2019 repeat election in September, the Likud Party has reportedly doubled its budget for voter suppression operations in Arab towns to NIS 2 million ($570,000).
In the lead-up to today’s hearing Zazim activists asked that the Central Elections Committee rule that no private entity be allowed to put cameras in polling stations. Zazim’s previous campaign during the last elections physically provided buses for Arab citizens to access the polls — in response to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2015 race-baiting election video warning his supporters that left-wing NGOs were “bussing Arabs to the polls in droves.” Netanyahu’s Likud party tried and failed to shut down Zazim’s get-out-the-vote initiative through legal harassment.
NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch said: “At stake in this deliberation is whether Israel’s ruling party will be legally allowed to actively intimidate Israel’s Arab minority at the polls with the explicit intent to disenfranchise Arab voters. The Likud Party’s last campaign hinged on the delegitimization of Arab political participation. These fear tactics took a page out of the right-wing American strategy of voter suppression justified by false claims of widespread voter fraud. We stand with Israel’s civil society organizations working to enfranchise all Israel’s citizens to and protect the core right of democracy — the right to vote.”
Zazim Director Raluca Ganea said: “In an environment where the [Arab] public lacks confidence and [faces] incitement, the decision that will be made…is far more than a bureaucratic decision. It is ethically and fundamentally of the highest importance. I hope that this decision not only works to fix [our system for] what will be on the 17th of September but will also constitute a first step towards building trust, citizen solidarity, and equality in the polling place and outside of it.”
ACRI Unit Director Attorney Gil Gan-Mor said: “One cannot ignore the fact that the ruling party has purposefully targeted Arab citizens, slandering an entire constituency, in order to intimidate Arab citizens from exercising their democratic right [the right to vote]. This is a direct continuation of recent laws, actions and statements aimed at denying the legitimacy of Arab citizens’ involvement in the political system or violating their right to parliamentary representation. The Chairman of the Central Elections Committee should not render legal politically motivated measures that are based on discriminatory racial profiling and used against Arab citizens. Along similar lines, we would expect the chairman to disqualify similar attempts against the ultra-Orthodox electorate or in any other constituency in the future.”
Adalah Deputy General Director Adv. Sawsan Zaher said, “Placing hidden cameras in [Arab polling places during] the previous Knesset elections allowed for the racial profiling of Arab voters. Allowing them to be placed [again] and failing to open a criminal investigation despite our requests enables the normalization of the demonization of Arab society by both the Election Committee and our law enforcement systems, even as it was clear that putting cameras [in Arab polling places] constituted a disruption of the electoral process. The authorities’ failure in this context means legitimizing these racist actions as a part of the ballot Committee activities and permitting a violation of the constitutional right to vote for the electorate in Arab towns.”
Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together) said, “‘They put cameras [in polling stations] because they are afraid that Arabs will vote.’ This is the sign that we put on a truck protesting Lukud cameras at polling stations this morning. For two hours, the truck drove through the entrance to Jerusalem, exposing tens of thousands of civilians to tens of thousands of civilians. Then, just before the Election Committee convened in the Knesset, we parked right outside. Our message is clear: Placing hidden cameras at polling stations in Arab communities an attempt to intimidate and suppress voting. But those who are really scared here are the Prime Minister and the Likud Party. They are afraid the Arabs will vote. They are afraid because they know that this is how their rule of racism will end.”