Why Is Israel Still Using Paper Ballots?

It's a question of cybersecurity, hacking and foreign meddling.

Why Is Israel Still Using Paper Ballots?

It's a question of cybersecurity, hacking and foreign meddling.
April 5, 2019 in Israel, Latest, Politics
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On Tuesday, April 9, million of Israelis will go to the polls. And as in every election since 1948, they will cast their votes the old fashioned way—by dropping a paper envelope into a cardboard box. But why does the nation known for its high tech industry still use this outdated method?

According to Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Democracy and Technology department at the Israeli Democracy Institute, physical ballots “are still more secure and reliable” than their electronic counterparts. In Israel, which might be targeted by other countries as well as terror organizations, the security argument ultimately prevailed after several discussions at the Central Election Committee. “You can imagine that in a country that is called the ‘start up nation,’ there are a lot of alternatives and technological solutions offered to the government,” says Shwartz Altshuler. “But I think the decision to continue using paper ballots points to digital literacy, not the opposite.”

The threats to the credibility of Israel’s ballot are not theoretical: In January, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman, warned that the organization had credible information that a foreign country “intends to intervene” in the coming elections. While military censorship at the time gagged the Israeli press from naming the country, Shwartz Altshuler says that it’s now known he was referring to Russia.

Another threat to the country’s digital infrastructure has been the attacks of “hacktivists” —hackers who claim to advance a certain cause by disrupting websites associated with their target. Israeli cybersecurity firm ClearSky has found 120 Israeli websites, both private and governmental, have been hacked by a pro-Palestinian group dubbed OpIsrael. The group is associated with Anonymous, an international hacking ring that frequently targets governments and private companies, and is known for launching an annual attack on Israeli websites. While ClearSky said the attackers’ methods were outdated, they did manage to plant a “backdoor” in these websites, which allows them to steal users’ information, and in some cases even take over or shut these websites down completely. In a 2018 end-of-year report released in February, ClearSky identified Iranian, Russian and Hamas attacks on Israeli infrastructure and predicted it will continue into 2019. In response to these concerns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who also heads Israel’s National Cyber Security Authority—has said that no country is “better prepared” to deal with cyber attacks than Israel. Whether this assessment holds up through the elections remains to be seen.

While the government has chosen not to try electronic voting systems, several Israeli parties have used them in primary elections. Their experiences are telling: In 2008, both the Labor and the Likud party had severe problems with their electronic voting systems. The Likud’s issues were blamed on a tractor having hit a fiber optic cable near the polling station, disrupting communications between the voting machines and the server where the results were being stored. The Labor party sued the company responsible for operating their electronic system, but later settled out of court. This February, severe irregularities were discovered in the Likud’s primaries for this election cycle—which relied on electronic systems—triggering a complete recount that took an extra week to complete. While not dramatic, the recount did redistribute hundreds of votes and resulted in several candidates changing places on the party’s list for the elections. One party that managed to successfully deploy electronic voting in its primaries is Zehut (Identity), a recently-established libertarian right wing party that is slated to become this election’s dark horse. Yet with only a few hundred voters in their primaries, Zehut is a much smaller party than either Labor and Likud, and threats of attack against it are minimal.

In the United States, the move away from paper to electronic ballots was triggered by the controversial 2000 presidential elections. As a response to discrepancies found in those elections, in 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which provided states with increased funding aimed at ensuring future elections’ credibility. The bill included clauses aimed at spurring states to move away from paper ballots to electronic voting systems. Since the 2016 presidential elections—in which Russian operatives reportedly hacked voting systems in up to 39 states—as many as two dozen states have announced that they were going back to paper-only ballots.

And while Shwartz Altshuler says that Israel’s elections infrastructure is secure, she adds that “if the system of counting the votes is going to be paralyzed even for two hours, not even meddling with the results, public trust is going to be damaged.”

In a country like Israel—where high voter turnout rates go hand in hand with the public’s declining trust in the state’s democratic institutions—maintaining that trust may just be a goal worthy of a paper ballot.

Anis Modi is Moment‘s Rabbi Harold S. White Fellow. (Pictured above: the paper ballots bearing each party’s name. photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

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