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Should the US consider adopting Israel’s ‘low tech’ election model?

Democracy only works if citizens trust the electoral process. Israel may have something to teach the United States in this regard.

An Israeli family casts a ballot at a polling station in Tel Aviv on Feb. 10, 2009. Photo by Flash90.
An Israeli family casts a ballot at a polling station in Tel Aviv on Feb. 10, 2009. Photo by Flash90.
Gary Schiff
Gary Schiff is a licensed tour guide and resource consultant connecting Israel and the U.S.

There is a huge gulf in public opinion regarding the latest U.S. election and whether the American election system is flawed or not. Those who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden are convinced that there were no abnormalities and that those who think otherwise have no case. Those who supported the president are either concerned about election tampering and waiting to see the outcome or convinced the election was stolen.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 52 percent of Republicans say that President Donald Trump “rightfully won” the election and 68 percent of Republicans say the vote count was “rigged” in Biden’s favor. After all of the investigations are complete and lawsuits adjudicated, regardless of the ultimate outcome, there will still be a very significant percentage of the U.S. electorate that will likely remain unconvinced. In light of this, it may well make sense for Americans to take a look at other voting systems. Israel’s should be a model to consider.

One might imagine, given Israel’s high-tech prowess, that the Israeli election would also be a high-tech experience with instantaneous results. Yet the reality in Israel is quite the contrary. An Israeli election more closely resembles a high school election for student council president.

Voters typically come to their local school and are checked in by a paid election commission employee flanked on both sides by representatives of the political parties. After showing their national ID card, they receive an envelope. Then they go behind a screen and pick the paper card that represents their political party or candidate. They put the piece of paper in the envelope. They come out from behind the screen and then in front of everyone put the envelope in a simple cardboard box with a slit in the top. (This is generally a great opportunity to take a picture and share it with family and friends.)

After voting concludes for the day, the same poll watchers open the envelopes, count the paper slips and together with the paid staff, report the totals. They also need to confirm that the number of envelopes collected is equal to the number of those who entered the “classroom.” According to Marty Ingall, a poll watcher for Zehut at a Jerusalem precinct in the last election, “it was a very pleasant experience.  At one point we were off by one vote. When we cross-checked, we recounted and found the error. We finished our work just after midnight.”

While the United States allows U.S. citizens living in Israel to vote remotely, Israel does not allow Israeli citizens not physically present in Israel to vote. A small number of Israelis who live overseas actually make it a point to fly to Israel to be present for election day. Israel does not have an early voting process or mail-in process (though they have not yet held an election during the COVID-19 crisis). Election day in Israel is also a national holiday, so there is no pressure to find time to vote. For many, it is also a day at the beach or a hike with the family. The day has the atmosphere of a celebration of democracy and also reflects the belief by many that regardless of outcome, with help from above, Israel will survive.

That isn’t to say that the Israeli system doesn’t have its own problems, real or imagined. Some are concerned for example about the situation in exclusively Arab or Haredi communities where there isn’t sufficient oversight from other party representatives. This situation is easily addressed and we will see if there is a remedy in the next election.

Yet, given the accusations flying in America, whether proven or not, it may be time to look at a different model. The level of distrust in the United States can be a cancer, eating at its foundations. Democracy only works if citizens trust the electoral process. Israel may have something to teach the United States in this regard. Israel’s low-tech, “student body president” election process is worth considering.

Gary Schiff is a former manager and director with the U.S. Forest Service. He is currently a Jerusalem-based consultant and guide connecting Israeli and U.S. natural-resource interests.

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