Monday, October 29, 2012

Notes from the Field

This year's election in Ukraine marked my tenth official election observation deployment and the day featured standard and new experiences. Per standard procedure, I was connected to a team including another observer, driver, and interpreter. Everyone on the team was professional and we approached all of our tasks with appreciation of the importance of yesterday's vote.

After a preliminary scan of polling places on Saturday, we planned for E-day. The general idea was to visit one polling station in Kyiv so that our driver could cast his ballot, then move into Brovary for the rest of the day. In total, we visited 14 different polling stations, spending around 30 minutes or so at each site.

Perhaps the most notable new feature in Ukraine's parliamentary elections was the introduction of webcam monitoring. We found two webcams in each polling station, one directed toward the registration desk and one directed toward the ballot boxes. Due to the configuration of some polling places, however, cameras were sometimes located in awkward positions. In the photo below, you see a camera directly placed over a voting booth, with a sign noting that video surveillance does not cover activities in the booths. While the camera was indeed pointing in another direction, voters might find this particular juxtaposition disconcerting.

Each polling station also had a laptop in a locked metal box where the feed was connected. We observed the functioning of the webcams in a few polling places and the laptops were recording images in real time. When our interpreter Katya spoke with a family member so that we could test the cameras, we found that the cameras in that site had a significant delay of several minutes before images found their way online.

Our poll opening was a bit hectic as the commission was stuffed to the gills with observers as you can see above. According to the director of this station, none of the commissioners had ever participated in an election on a polling station commission before. I have never encountered a completely green PEC and some of the early chaos may be explained by the lack of experience. The morning commenced with a flurry of activity at the last moment, but the station opened on time for voters to begin casting ballots.

A general rule in observing elections is that the team first introduces itself to the polling station officers and is registered by the Secretary. One team member begins gathering data from the officers while the other begins to mull around and look for areas where specific problems could emerge. I typically look for things like unusual patterns of signatures on voter lists (or problematic stamps), issues with ballot box seals, the accuracy and efficiency of the commission in issuing ballots, whether or not voters are having problems with ballots and how questions are addressed, and if anyone seems to be influencing voters in any way. Outside the polling station, I look for any signs of partisan activity (or other questionable activity) and if the basic materials required are in place (e.g., official signs with the party lists).

Observation involves quite a bit of standing around. To the extent possible, I try to engage with other observers to see what they have found on the ground. While the report that our team files focuses on what we see and hear directly, reports from other observers are often quite helpful. We spoke with local party observers, media representatives, international observers, and even one of the candidates throughout the course of the day.

In past elections, I have on occasion witnessed direct acts of fraud or intimidation, including efforts to stuff the ballot box with mobile votes from psychiatric patients (Ukraine 2002), biased commission decisions favoring one candidate over another (Ukraine 2004), likely voter "carousels" (Ukraine 2004 and Azerbaijan 2008), and egregious efforts to forge voter lists and intentionally delay the vote count (Ukraine 2010). I have also witnessed commissions working in good faith, but making errors that rendered the reconciliation of vote counting impossible (Russia 1999), or violating election provisions because of inexperience.

The major organizations monitoring the election are in the process of releasing final reports and they have more complete information than a single team that visited a dozen or so sites in a single region. While we encountered some suspicious activities, such as polling station officers unwilling to identify which party they officially represent at the polls, and accusations from other observers of tampering with the storage place for ballots (which we did not witness), most of the problems we encountered were procedural and likely due to training issues.

Above you can see an example of a minor infraction that was unaddressed. I watched a young girl waving a Socialist Party flag while accompanying her father to the polls. She waved around the lovely pink banner while her father got his ballot, completed it in the booth, and dropped it in the box. Was she attempting to agitate for the SPU? Unlikely, but a polling station commission member should have discreetly asked her father to store the flag while in the polling station. It is a little thing, but partisan agitation is illegal and the polling station members either didn't see it (hard to imagine) or thought it was "no big deal" because it was a small child. Fortunately, most of the issues we found were on this end of the scale of malice.

We attended the overnight vote count at a track and field training facility. Two commissions occupied the same space but they varied in how well they understood and applied the rules. Ukrainian law specifically spells out the steps to take in the vote counting process and if these steps are followed, most problems can be avoided. Unfortunately, our commission mixed up steps, did not check its math through the night, and tried to hurry up a bit on the process. The result? By our departure time around 6:00 am, the commission could not reconcile the numbers to complete the needed documents and had descended into bickering. We ended up leaving without the protocol - a document we always try to procure - because the commission simply was not able to address math issues that had been apparent to many all night long. Below are some final images featuring the steps of the vote counting process. I'll post more about the results and implications as the CEC finalizes its data.

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