Knesset Central Elections Committee is in Need of Reform

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A trustworthy and independent Central Elections Committee is essential for the holding of truly democratic elections – that is why a reform is overdue.

Flash 90

Until the recent elections, few Israelis knew what the Knesset Central Elections Committee was, even fewer had heard of “duplicate envelopes,” and hardly any understood how votes are counted or how the results are calculated. But these elections shone a spotlight on the intricate work of the Committee, due to the tight race among several parties to cross the electoral threshold as the last votes came in, and due to the public’s real-time access to results.

It is important to differentiate between two separate bodies that are covered by the nomenclature “Central Elections Committee,” but which are fundamentally different. One is a political body comprising representatives of the various factions in the Knesset, and headed by a Supreme Court justice. This body has the power to disqualify candidates and electoral lists, using criteria listed in section 7(a) of the Basic Law: The Knesset. In fact, it is outrageous that such powers have been handed to an essentially political body, which is unfit to wield them in terms of its composition and functioning.. Clearly, it should be replaced by a professional, independent body such as is common in other democratic countries.

The second body is an administrative arm that is headed by the director-general of the Central Elections Committee, and which is responsible first and foremost for carrying out the task of holding elections. This task represents a huge logistical challenge: it must be handled within a short timeframe (especially when early elections are called) on a national scale, and involves hiring large numbers of untrained personnel for a short period of time who are expected to have professional capabilities and to meet exceptional standards of integrity. The context for all this is the fact that the technical undertaking of counting votes is a critical factor in ensuring public trust in the most important process in any democracy—the  elections.

The process by which ballot committees count the votes placed in ballot boxes and report their results, and by which data is collated on a national scale, is entirely carried out by temporary workers who are mostly representatives and observers acting on behalf of the various political parties. This is a recipe for irregularities at best, and at worst, for intentional tampering. In reviews of the elections held in 2015 and earlier elections, the State Comptroller found evidence of such practices as multiple voting by secretaries of ballot committees and the hiring of relatives, a lack of representativeness among the temporary workers, and even instances of votes registered on behalf of citizens who were dead or were outside the country on election day.

What can be done to prevent such things happening again, and to counter possible claims about fairness at the next elections?

As a first step, the political arm of the Central Elections Committee should be disbanded and replaced with a new professional, independent, and apolitical body, as exists in other democratic countries. Second, the administrative mechanism should be beefed up and given broader responsibilities: in addition to Knesset elections, it should be responsible for organizing local elections (which are currently administered by the Ministry of the Interior), as well as public referenda, should any be called. It should also be given powers of oversight of party funding, which currently lie with the State Comptroller. This newly formed Central Elections Committee should also include dedicated units for coping with cyber-related challenges and monitoring election propaganda. To this end, the Committee should have sufficient numbers of well-trained professional staff.

Elections are at the heart of the democratic process and are the foundations of public trust and legitimacy for any democratic regime. A trustworthy and independent Central Elections Committee is essential for the holding of truly democratic elections that fulfill the basic right to vote and to stand for election.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.