As a new Israeli citizen, I hadn’t been living in the Land long enough to have the privilege of voting in the country’s first-of-its-kind special election. Nevertheless, thanks to media coverage, discussions with informed citizens, and my experience serving as a mashkif, neutral observer, at a Tel Aviv polling station, I learned a fair amount about what was going on around me on Election Day.
Now, I believe, I’ll be ready to confront the ballot box if Knesset leaders, once again, fail to form a new government, and our president must call another special parliamentary election.
Meanwhile, here are some of my take-aways from the September 17th election.
Moving from the United States, where we incarcerate a greater percentage of people than any other country in the world, I was surprised to discover that Israeli convicts maintain their right to vote while in prison. In the US, only two states allow convicted felons to vote from penitentiaries, while in most other states, felons may be barred from voting for years after serving their time. In some cases, a state may bar an ex-con from voting for life.
What does that say about my two countries’ treatment of convicts serving time, not to mention their faith in prisoner rehabilitation? You tell me.
Perhaps the most difficult moment during my eight-hour shift as a poll observer came when a woman wheeled her elderly mother into our room to vote. Unlike other older citizens who arrived in wheelchairs, or hobbled in on canes, this particular voter posed a significant challenge. Shaking her head constantly, and a garbling over and over something that did not sound like an intelligible word, she appeared incapable of understanding what was happening.
There were five of us seated together in my polling station to insure that the process was orderly and in accordance with the law. In addition to the neutral secretary in charge, there was a representative from Shas (the ultra-Orthodox Party), another from Likud (Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative party), one from the Joint List (comprised of the Knesset’s four Arab parties), and me (assigned to represent the Democratic Union, though I was not a member of that party).
The secretary and the Joint List representative agreed that the frail woman was past the time in her life when she could serve as a sound-minded voter. The others of us were not so sure, but no one argued strenuously in favor of allowing the elderly woman to cast a ballot. After consulting with officials on the phone, the secretary chose to turn her away, explaining that if the daughter accompanied her mother into the voting booth, and placed a ballot in one of the blue envelopes for her, that would be akin to turning the voter into a puppet. This he could not allow.
I never volunteered at a polling station while I lived in the United States, but I wonder how many times this kind of thing occurs in the US where voter turnout is considerably lower than it is in Israel. (In 2016, according to the US Census Bureau, 55.5% of eligible voters cast ballots. In Israel, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 69.7% of those eligible voted in the special September election.) You tell me.
Israel goes well beyond producing flashy public service announcements to encourage its electorate to do its proper duty. Election day is deemed an official national holiday, with schools and government offices closed, bonuses paid for those who do work, and inter-city bus and train rides free for people trying to get home from other places in the country in order to cast their ballots.
That said, unlike American expatriates who can vote by absentee ballot in the US, Israeli citizens can only vote if they are in the country. If they live abroad, and make the journey home (on their own dime), they are welcome to vote. However, as savvy as the country may be in the world of high tech, Israel requires its citizens to show up at the polls in person and cast their vote in a very low-tech, hands-on, manner.
What does this says about my two countries’ view of patriotism, civic duty, and the like? You tell me.
If you know Hebrew, or you consult someone who does, you will appreciate what this pointed topic has to do with my education during Israel’s recent special election. It concerns one of the lighter moments that took place during my shift as a mashkif, thanks to one of the other poll workers.
As a neutral observer, I will not reveal which party that poll worker represented, but I do welcome your comments once you’ve watched the video of my experience.
Until next time, l’hitraot.