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Working the Polls-Israel Style
by Judy Lash Balint
March 28, 2006

The results aren't in yet, but what is clear from up to the minute statistics from the polling places is that this election promises to take its place in Israeli history as the one everyone wanted to pass on. Voter turnout is predicted to be at an all-time low of less than 60 percent. But while we're waiting for the final figures (that won't be in till around 4 a.m. tomorrow) let's take a look at what went on at the polling stations, in the neighborhoods, behind the scenes.

Polling stations were supposed to open at 7 a.m on election day, a national holiday. But in at least one location in Jerusalem's Old City, voters lined up on time, while workers didn't open the polls until almost 7:30 a.m. At the school where Ehud Olmert and I vote, half a block away from Olmert's home, a steady trickle of voters approaches the gate in the early morning chill, passing though a phalanx of heavily armed IDF soldiers, uniformed police and civilian sadranim (order-keepers). The crowd is mixed, reflecting the neighborhood make-up. Middle-aged knitted-kipa type Anglo and French immigrants; young secular Israelis; retired native Israelis, many of them former ministry officials.

The lines move fairly quickly, as one by one, we enter the classroom, present a national I.D card, receive a blue envelope imprinted with a picture of the Knesset, and step behind the cardboard booth to confront a bewildering array of paper slips marked with Hebrew letters. Each letter represents one of the 31 parties vying for our votes. The task is to pick up just one of the flimsy notes (more than 2 in an envelope invalidates the vote) stuff them in the envelope, emerge from behind the booth and push the envelope into a bright blue locked box in front of the voting officials.

Going into this election, almost 25 percent of voters were undecided. Several friends called the night before and even on the morning of the election to hash over the choices. Two elections ago, we were voting for a candidate AND a party. That was ditched last time and we reverted to the old party choice to elect the Likud headed by Arik Sharon to lead the nation. Today, Sharon lies inert in his bed on the first floor of Hadassah Hospital, oblivious to all.

As a citizen with a perfect voting record in the U.S before making aliya, I got to know the little old ladies at my precinct located in a tidy Korean church in suburban Seattle. Unfailingly polite and gracious, and clearly non-partisan, they presided over the calm of a U.S polling place. Here in Israel, the privilege of becoming an election worker is bestowed upon the party faithful.

Since I serve on the Central Committee of Benny Elon's National Union party, I was invited to be a member of the Precinct Election Committee on election day. Essentially, I was to become a little old polling station lady.

There was one evening of mandatory training where we learned the ins and outs of the potential pitfalls of stuffing envelopes, and other electioneering dirty tricks. We were told to watch out for voters who would spend their time behind the voting booth taking a glue stick to the voting notes of a rival party, so that an unsuspecting voter would pick up 3 notes to invalidate their vote. Watch for fake notes, we're told. Some parties will print hundreds of fake notes for another party and send voters in to replace the real ones with their fakes, resulting in invalidated votes. "If fighting breaks out--close the voting station," intones Daood, our tired Party instructor. In fact, there were few disruptions during today's elections.

In many ways, the polling station where I am assigned to work on election day is atypical of other voting places around the country. Overall, voter turnout is extremely low for an Israeli election. But at precinct 155 at the Music Academy in the tony Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, more than 65 percent of the 555 registered voters show up to cast their ballots.

Out of those 555 potential voters, 359 come through the door to vote. 98 cast their ballots for Labor; 61 voted for Olmert's Kadima; 43 chose the right-leaning National Union; 37 chose the far left Meretz party; only 30 voted for the Likud of Bibi Netanyahu; Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteynu got 15 votes and the remaining Precinct 155 voters threw in their lots with almost every other small party.

During the six hours of my shift, a diverse crowd comes through the door. Many 18-19 year old first-time voters show up, and several families make it an outing, bringing along kids to accompany them to the booth.

Together with me at the Election Committee table is committee secretary, Aderet, an efficient but easy-going religious high school teacher in her thirties; Efrat, a very fashionable twenty-something representing Kadima and Yehuda, a young father sporting a neat black beard and large velvet kippa rooting for the Shas Sephardic religious party. Also in the room are a couple of observers, from parties not represented on the Committee. So there's young Haredi yeshiva student, David sitting next to grey haired Meretz member, Oded, watching us check off voter names and issue envelopes.

Our job is to identify the voter, cross him/her off the roll upon completion of their vote and keep a log for our respective parties so that absent voters may be collected and brought to the polls. Not exactly taxing work, even when lines build up outside our cclassroom. We have plenty of time to talk---each of us realizing how rarely we share opinions with those of such different backgrounds and views. We cover plenty of topics, including Haredim serving in the army; the pros and cons of direct elections; ideas for economic reform; the different styles of campaigning amongst our parties; the cost of housing in Jerusalem etc. etc. The discussion is refreshingly respectful and open.

As the polls close at 10 p.m, another observer from the Likud joins our little band to watch over us as we begin the tedious count. Adding up the number of voters and making sure that it tallies with the number of envelopes in the box is the first task. Then we open the envelopes and carefully remove the notes, placing them on blue spikes according to their party. Invalid votes are set aside, recorded and placed in a special envelope. One person counts off the notes and another tallies them up by hand on a printed form. It's now 11 p.m and each one of has been in contact with our party headquarters to report in on the count. It takes another hour or so to make sure everything is in the right envelope and we've all agreed to the vote count. By midnight, we've packed everything into the official box and sealed it with a huge plastic bag. Aderet makes her way to the school corridor to wait for the other precincts to finish their count. The final step is for each committee secretary to load the box in his personal vehicle and travel by police-escorted convoy to the Jerusalem municipality at Safra Square, some 10 minutes away.

By the time I get home at midnight, the predictions and exit poll results are coming in. It seems that Olmert's Kadima won only half the seats toward a clear majority. We're headed for another coalition government. All the leaders make a plea for national unity from the party headquarters. They could have come down to Precinct 155 for a dose of real unity in action.