Last week, in an effort to finally establish a stable government coalition, Israel held its fourth election in just two years. While Israelis across the political spectrum may have been suffering from “election fatigue,” I for one was incredibly excited to vote for my very first time as an Israeli citizen.
On Election Day, my family and I walked over to our assigned kalpi (voting station), a local elementary school just a few blocks from our home. In the streets, there was almost a carnival atmosphere, with porches and houses adorned with huge banners emblazoned with party slogans and candidates’ faces. Even outside voting stations, political party volunteers sat at card tables, handing voters chocolates and balloons (and political brochures for those seeking information).
At the voting station, we were directed to assigned classrooms to vote. When I informed the poll worker that I was an olah chadashah and voting for the first time, he wished me a hearty mazal tov. He then laughingly commented that given recent election trends, I would likely vote again in my second Israeli elections soon enough.
The voting process in Israel is actually very simple. All voters are handed a blue envelope by a poll worker and then directed to a little cardboard booth. Inside that booth is a tray with 38 piles of small square pitakai hatzba’a (election ballots). Thirty-seven piles have ballots that bear between one and three letters, each representing a different party.
While sometimes the letters spell out the party name or represent the party leader’s name or platform, there isn’t always a clear connection between the two. Likud’s ballot, for example, bears the letters mem, chet, and lamed, which is apparently a nod to three parties bearing these letters that merged over time to form the Likud party. Yesh Atid, another popular party in this year’s election, was represented by the letters peh and heh, which, per my research, has no significant connection to the party or its leader.
(Apparently, some of the odd letter combinations arise because new parties can only choose letters that are either unused by parties in previous elections or those that current parties grant them permission to reuse. Thankfully, our ulpan teacher had warned us of the anomalies in advance, and we had already memorized our chosen party’s letters before we headed out to vote.)
The 38th pile contains blank election ballots (pitakai lavan). Unlike in the States, there is no concept of write-in ballots here in Israel, and any vote for an unrecognized party is discarded as invalid. So why are there blank ballots? In case a party’s ballots run out or are missing, a voter can write the appropriate letter(s) on the blank ballot and vote with it. (Reportedly, some people specifically submit a blank ballot as a form of protest vote. In other words, they choose “none of the above.”)
Israel is a high-tech capital with an app for everything, but Israel’s voting process almost feels like the process we used to vote for class president back in elementary school. One simply takes a ballot, places it into an envelope, and slips it into a nondescript ballot box.
Nonetheless, I was beaming with pride as I submitted my ballot, knowing that hours later my olah chadashah vote would be counted alongside those cast by Israelis who have been established here for generations. No longer a passive observer here in Israel, with my vote, I was contributing my voice to the next page in Israel’s history.
Sadly, after the last of the votes were tallied, no clear political mandate emerged. It seems that the polls’ predictions were not far off, and Israel may very well be heading to another election. Apropos of the Pesach holiday, more experienced Israel voters have assured me that, despites the craziness of elections here in Israel, “al tidagi, yiheh b’seder” (don’t worry, it will be alright).