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Working The Polls
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
January 29, 2003

So, the results are in--"The People Want Sharon," as the Likud campaign slogan proclaimed. But 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 I vote, half a block away from the residence of Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, 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 26 parties vying for votes. The task is to pick up just one or two 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. By the time most of us got to the polls, there wasn't too much hesitation about which party to choose.

Going into the election, however, it seemed as if many voters were undecided. Several friends called the night before and even on the morning of the election to hash over the choices. In the last prime ministerial election, we were voting for a candidate AND a party. This time, that system was ditched and we reverted to the old party choice. Many people whose instincts told them to vote for one of the smaller parties, went to bed wondering if they had prevented the election of the prime minister of their choice. Some woke up to the results kicking themselves for wasting a vote and preventing larger parties from realizing their potential. One anguished friend called early to bemoan his vote for the far-right Herut party that failed to meet the minimum threshold to get any Knesset seats. Another 38,000 people like him wasted votes on Herut, ensuring that the right wing National Union (Ichud Haleumi) party didn't reach their goal of increasing their Knesset presence above the 7 seats they held in the previous parliament.

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. 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 had done some minimal campaign work, mostly writing op eds and campaign material, as well as helping to organize a few Meet the Candidate evenings, I was invited to be a paid 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 yesterday's elections--50 percent less than in the vote of 2001.

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. In fact, the 65 percent turnout was reported to be the lowest in years. But at precinct 26 at the Rene Cassin Middle School in the ultra-religious Jerusalem neighborhood of Maalot Dafna, more than 75 percent of the 570 registered voters show up to cast their ballots.

Out of those 570 potential voters, 420 come through the door to vote. 271 cast their ballots for United Torah Judaism, who ended up with the same 5 Knesset seats they had in the previous Knesset. 52 voted for Shas, whose seats dropped from 17 in the last Knesset to 11 from yesterday's election. Only 13 people in precinct 26 voted with the majority of Israelis for Likud, whose Knesset members increased from 21 to a whopping 37. The remaining Precinct 26 voters threw in their lots with almost every other small party. The anti-Haredi Shinui and ultra-left Meretz parties did not receive a single vote from Precinct 26.

During the six hours of my shift, not a single non-religious person comes through the door. Many 18-19 year old first-time voters show up, and many families make it an outing, bringing along a retinue of small kids to accompany them to the booth. We even have a prominent former Prisoner of Zion show up to vote--the imposing Eliyahu (Ilya) Essas, a renowned Hebrew teacher in Moscow during the 1970s and 80s, didn't really have to show his I.D card.

Together with me at the Election Committee table is committee secretary, Itzhak Ohayon, a jovial and easy-going religious high school teacher in his thirties, and Alex Zick, a retired language teacher and Shinui voter who emigrated from Ukraine almost twenty years ago. Also in the room are a couple of observers, from parties not represented on the Committee. So there's young Haredi yeshiva student, David Lupoliansky, sitting next to grey haired Meretz member, Oded Levin 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 classroom. 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, three more observers join our little band. We now have representatives from Shas and Herut 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. Itzhak makes his 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, Arik Sharon, the only Israeli prime minister besides David Ben Gurion to serve two consecutive terms, is just beginning his victory speech. It's a plea for national unity. Maybe he should have come down to Precinct 26 for a dose of real unity in action.