Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ballots, Bullets, and the #Crimea Referendum

Next week, Crimea is scheduled to stage a referendum on its status. The vote has been characterized in the Russian press as a ratification* of the decision by the Crimean parliament to separate from Ukraine and join Russia. The organization of this vote is problematic for several reasons.

Ballot Design. Several images of the referendum ballot have been circulating, and all of them consistently show a trilingual sheet with two options.

Notably, the ballot provides two questions for which assent is the only option. The first question is: "Are you for the reunification of Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?" The second question is: "Are you for the re-establishment of the 1992 Constitution and for the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?" Because voters cannot register a "no" vote for either option, the status quo is not an alternative.

The status quo generally would be an alternative in such a decision. For example, the referendum on South Sudan independence gave voters two options: unity with or separation from Sudan. The former choice was the status quo - remaining a constituent part of Sudan.

South Sudan Referendum Ballot (REUTERS/Albert Gonzalez Farran)
Voters who oppose a change in Crimea's status may only cast blank ballots or deface their ballots. If they cast blank ballots, the votes should be counted as invalid. Blank ballots create opportunities for mischief, permitting polling station officials (or others) to alter the ballots by marking one of the options. Ballots that are defaced would be rendered invalid and not be recorded in the tallies for any option. In short, the ballot is poorly designed if its goal is to assess citizen preferences about Crimea's status, but not if it is designed to permit fraud and "ratify" a preferred outcome.

Conditions on the Ground. Armed occupation is not an optimal circumstance for democratic elections, although many states in conflict have held votes. However, the threat of violence and uncertainty about the what the troops will do during the voting process undermines safety and security, critical elements for a proper election or referendum.

Given that the identities of the armed forces on the ground have not been acknowledged, their participation in the vote is an open question. All of the evidence indicates that many, if not most, of the armed troops are Russian citizens (media reports have noted that vehicles have Russian plates, weapons are military-grade, and so on). The Russian government's insistence that they are not Russian, however, suggests that they will be considered "local citizens" who have the right to vote. The Central Electoral Commission's decision to withhold voter registries, designed to demonstrate that the referendum is not legal, will likely facilitate this fraud as voters will simply be checked in on election day without up-to-date documentation of registered voters.

The Crimean Tatars have called for a boycott of the vote. This position is understandable, especially since the expressed preference of leaders to remain part of Ukraine under current institutional rules is not an option on the ballot. Their boycott should affect turnout, and it will be important to evaluate if participation is demonstrably lower in regions that should have depressed participation.

As I noted in my 2009 book, most referendums in the post-Soviet region have not offered citizens an opportunity to express their preferences on policy matters. I asked: "... how do political elites use referendums? Do referendums provide citizens a meaningful opportunity to directly influence policy decisions? Or, do they present a false choice, with political elites offering questions for public vote only when they are confident in a favorable outcome?" Based on the evidence, I concluded that referendums "...tend to be legitimization tools for the political elite... with questions and processes favoring the ruling elite's preferences." The ruling elite in today's Crimea has made its preferences clear not only through its words, but also by its actions in organizing the upcoming vote.

* When I originally tweeted this RT article, it characterized the vote as "ratifying" the assembly's decision. The current version has scrubbed this term from the article.

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