Ukraine's election administrators, as well as domestic and international observers, face several vexing dilemmas with the upcoming presidential election. The occupation of Crimea, and ongoing provocations in Donetsk, Luhansk, and other parts of the east and south, generate significant logistical and political problems. In addition, Russian government interests may be well-served by an election process so problematic that it cannot be validated by outside observers. In this post, I explore tactics that could be used to undermine elections and interpret them in the current Ukrainian context.
Outside of any efforts to undermine the election's credibility, the official timetable has created tremendous logistical challenges. The announcement of a May snap election, with a shorter period for the formation of District Election Commissions (DEC) and Precinct Election Commissions (PEC), renders staffing and training difficult to accomplish. PEC officials are the front-line for credible elections as they are responsible for an orderly election day process. But, DEC and PEC staffing is not permanent. While veteran DEC and PEC members may participate in the election, recruiting and training new members and officers is a significant challenge. Further, the recruitment process opens the door to individuals who could facilitate sabotage.
Crimea's annexation and instability in Donetsk and Luhansk create further logistical problems. The CEC has announced that it will serve Crimean voters in Kherson, and this decision is probably the only reasonable choice. Ukrainian authorities maintain that Crimea is occupied, and its citizens should have the right to vote in Ukraine's elections. Russia has claimed Crimea as its own territory and will not permit polling stations to operate.* Setting up special polling places in Ukrainian-controlled territory close to the peninsula addresses this issue, in principle. In practice, however, with the announcement that even Mustafa Dzhemiliev is banned from entry into Crimea (a point disputed by Russian authorities), Crimean Tatars might hesitate to exit their homeland if the probability of return is low. In addition, it is likely that border crossings will be slowed on election day. Given all of the impediments, Crimean Tatar turnout in Kherson should be low.
Maintaining the security of the vote, and of the voters, will also be a challenge in Donetsk and Luhansk. Not only are government buildings occupied, but the status of law enforcement is in doubt. Groups of protesters advocating irredentism could easily disrupt the election process in these regions, and mobilization of protesters elsewhere could further undermine the ability of Ukrainian citizens to go to the polls. Other security challenges could occur, such as direct threats to candidates (even suspicious attacks on presidential candidates have a precedent in Ukraine**).
Public participation in the elections could be undermined by intimidation, not just from "green men," but also from other covert actors. Strategically, it would make more sense to stage intimidation in the east that could be attributed to Right Sector (Indeed, Ukrainian authorities allege that this has already occurred - with a meme in response). Intimidation of voters would not be limited to the east and south, but the tools are readily available there.
Staging and subsequently "discovering" vote fraud would also be advantageous to a narrative of a failed election. Standard methods that observers could not miss, such as ballot box stuffing and election commissions issuing biased decisions, would be valuable tools as they would be noted in official observer reports. Exploiting crowdsourced election observation to report carousels and other forms of vote buying taking place outside the polling stations is also possible. This tactic could co-opt civil society NGOs into validating staged allegations. While some of these methods may be employed by candidates seeking to win the election, incentives exist to manufacture fraud.
Beyond standard tactics of vote fraud and manipulation, more sophisticated methods could be employed to disrupt processing. Electronic systems are used by the CEC and other units to gather and tabulate election data, and to disseminate results. DDoS attacks, and methods of infiltration into CEC systems, could delay tabulation and publication of results. More insidious methods could corrupt election data, requiring recounts from paper ballots and protocols. Delays are often signals of manipulation, and could be interpreted in this way.
This election may produce an unusual election manipulation story. Perpetrators of fraud generally cheat to win, gather information, or send signals about the regime and opposition to various constituencies. Perpetrators of fraud in Ukraine's upcoming presidential election may have different motivations than we have typically encountered - intentional disruption of the process to call into question the competence and legitimacy of authorities.
A great advantage for those who would interfere with the election process is that blame attribution will not matter. If the elections are not deemed to be in line with international standards, then the legitimacy of the government in Kyiv can be further questioned. Moreover, a faulty process would enhance pressure on the EU and US to either disavow objective observer reports and deem the elections successful - lending further support to the Russian narrative of Western manipulation - or admit that the elections were unsuccessful and undermine the legitimacy of Ukraine's government.
As a concluding note, I am generally skeptical of broad conspiracy theories, as they often require a level of coordination and silence that is nearly impossible to achieve. This post is not a set of allegations, but rather a type of thought experiment. If political actors (in this case, the Russian government) had strong incentives to spoil an election (in this case, Ukraine's snap presidential election), what levers might they use? Elections have many moving parts, and the process presents vulnerabilities that could be exploited. Election administrators and observers may have an even higher bar to pass in the upcoming election than in any previous contest - not only must they conduct and monitor elections under less than ideal circumstances, but they have to carefully document and interpret allegations to distinguish fraud designed to benefit a candidate from fraud designed to undermine the process.***
*An option for Russia would be to offer Ukraine the opportunity to open special polling stations like those used for expatriate voters around the world. Of course, Ukraine would not accept such an offer as it would explicitly acknowledge Crimea's annexation.
**Natalya Vitrenko, a strongly anti-Western candidate, was injured by a grenade attack in the 1999 presidential campaign. Individuals associated with Socialist Party candidate Oleksandr Moroz, who was a more credible challenger to then-president Leonid Kuchma, were linked by officials to the attack. The incident was characterized as an intentional provocation to discredit Moroz.
***Given the history of Ukraine's elections, anomalies are likely even under the best of circumstances. Professional administration and vigilant observation are needed to undermine the incentives for prototypical fraud that may be present in the first and second rounds.