Voter Turnout Software Could Decide Israel’s Tight Election
Israel’s national elections are only two weeks away, and the myriad of political parties are gearing up for the race’s home stretch. One of the most important aspects on the campaigners’ minds – perhaps the most important of all – is the issue of voter turnout which, according to some, can decide an entire election.
Over the past three election cycles, which have consumed the country since spring 2019, nearly the entire political system in Israel has adopted different applications and platforms that employ advanced metrics and algorithms, aimed at maximizing the potential of each party.
While differing slightly in design and interface, these artificial intelligence companies use largely similar techniques to ensure as many would-be voters as possible actually arrive at the polls on Election Day.
By merging Israel’s raw voter registration information, supplied by the Central Elections Committee to the various parties several months before every election, with each individual party’s own data about its potential supporters compiled over the years, campaign managers can significantly optimize their operations on the crucial day.
Candidates and their teams can monitor their supporter base, identify whether or not a possible voter has already cast his ballot and contact him to make sure he votes.
The digital platforms also allow campaigns to coordinate and oversee logistics, recruit volunteers and operatives, and map and profile new potential supporters in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
“Today, you can’t run elections without software like this in your toolkit,” according to Yair Chen, CEO of YayaSoft, one of Israel’s largest and oldest software technologies firms. “Everybody has some sort of platform, and the smart players use it not just on Election Day, but between campaigns as well to upkeep their database. It’s worth tens of thousands of votes,” he said.
Having worked with nearly every political party in the country, Chen singles out the ultra-Orthodox politicians for an unexpected reason.
“Shockingly, they really know their stuff. They come prepared with demands and suggestions to optimize our tools for their needs, they’re really smart about the digital landscape. Much more efficient and creative than most parties,” he told The Media Line.
Yayasoft, founded in 1997, also operates online digital elections, in Israel and abroad. “We have elections nearly every week: public organizations, political primaries,” Chen added.
Today, you can’t run elections without software like this in your toolkit
Chen says that these ‘customer relationship management’ (CRM) systems provide advantages for the parties.
“In last year’s elections, the Blue and White Party, using our platform, pretty much knew the result before the counting even began, they were spread out so well. Throughout the day you can monitor your voter turnout compared with your rivals’, you can see which of your volunteers are more effective, you can fix problems in real time and prepare your legal team so that it’s ready when the polls close, if need be,” he said.
Yet what has become the new norm, replacing traditional door knocking and phone banking, also has become highly controversial, as tech experts and privacy advocates warn these specialized apps risk exposing voters’ personal details to the entire public.
“Till recently, parties simply received voters’ private information from the government, and used it for encouraging turnout. That’s fine, we don’t have a fundamental problem with software that enables CRM,” Naama Matarasso Karpel, CEO of Privacy Israel, a foundation dedicated to promoting the right to privacy in Israeli politics, legislation, education, and the public sphere, told The Media Line.
“But now, access to these lists is made public. Users can add their own phone contacts, or details of family and friends, to the parties’ files, without these people’s consent or knowledge,” she said.
“This is a clear violation of Israel’s privacy protection laws,” Matarasso Karpel said. “The fact that these apps also save this data is problematic. We’ve seen the leaks – people’s most private details, along with notes about their political leanings, are there for all to see. Political opinions aren’t private any longer.”
In 2020, the Elector app, which was used by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, suffered a significant security breach. Phone numbers, addresses, full names and national identification numbers of over 6.5 million citizens were leaked after the company’s website was compromised.
While authorities have concluded their investigation and are expected to level fines against the Likud, analysts believe the next breach is only a matter of time.
“We lodged two complaints to the government’s Privacy Protection Authority. The law is already being violated,” Matarasso Karpel said. “Their response was only to recirculate a memo regarding privacy protocol.”
Chen said: “The battle to protect our information is never-ending, but no one is impenetrable. I understand the need for regulations, although sometimes the authorities pass them just to cover their own asses. The restrictions obviously limit us and force us to adapt, and that’s expensive and difficult.”
This is a clear violation of Israel’s privacy protection laws
“Putting thousands of volunteers through checks and technological obstacles and layers of virtual protection to ensure data safety, that drives down motivation and makes it harder to recruit and grow user participation,” he added. “Let’s not forget there’s a democratic value of involving more people in the process, of driving voter turnout up. Privacy is definitely important, but low participation in the electoral process is also a real problem for democracy.”
Elector, which provides campaign management systems, announced on Sunday it was suing Israel’s Public Broadcasting Network after the network aired interviews with a string of cybersecurity experts who panned the company’s existing privacy protection apparatus.
Elector did not respond to The Media Line’s request for an interview with a company representative.
The importance of these tools is largely undisputed.
A high voter turnout can be the difference between victory and defeat, especially with the Israeli elections as close as they have been over the past two years, and even more so with this year’s coronavirus pandemic making in-person contact with constituents virtually impossible.
“We’ve tripled our activity this year,” Chen said. “Everything is virtual. It’s also the evolution of embedding digital systems in our lives. Older people are getting used to this, at 50 and 60 years old. It’s much different than it was even five years ago.”
Exactly how much of a role these platforms play will be evident in just over two weeks.