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24 October, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar,  Andriy Skumin

“It doesn’t matter how the votes are cast, but how they’re counted.”

Joseph Stalin’s famous statement is as valid now as it was in 1923, as Ukraine’s obedient election commissions help to secure a victory for the ruling party.

Members of election commissions controlled by those in power may play a key role in rigging the election. A recent report by the European Network for Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO) found that “The Central Election Commission has met all legal time limits thus far and 95% of its decisions were approved unanimously. However, draft decisions and the drafting process itself are not transparent. In fact, CEC meetings are simply used to formally vote on decisions that have already been made, not to mention the fact that the CEC’s decisions do not reflect the input of other stakeholders such as political parties.”

LOYALTY CONQUERS ALL

By altering the procedure for drawing members of district election commissions (DECs), the government created a scenario whereby no more than 450 out of 4,050 potential DEC members will represent the opposition. DECs ended up with not a single representative of Vitali Klitschko's UDAR (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms) or Svoboda (Freedom) parties, the two opposition forces that are most likely to get into the parliament.

Most members drawn for DECs from marginal political parties are likely to represent the interests of the Party of Regions. This has been confirmed by members of such parties, as well as international observers and many DEC members from the opposition. When opposition representative Antonina Kravchenko requested the list of DEC members with their contacts at a meeting of DEC 175 in Kharkiv Oblast, Nina Zinkova, a DEC member from the Party of Regions, told her “There are three of you – and eleven of us. Remember that.” On September 7th, United Opposition representative Anatoliy Dmytriyev asked DEC head Tetiana Savova from the Communist Party to make sure that all DEC members voiced their party affiliations. Svitlana Honcharenko from the Union of Ukrainian Anarchists, and Svitlana Zavadska from the People’s Labour Union of Ukraine, both minor candidate parties, said that they represented the Party of Regions, officially represented in the DEC by Olha Aseeva. The DEC head said that the women “were stressed out” because it was their first time working on an election commission. Apparently, the two representatives of the Party of Regions’ technical projects simply got confused and told the truth.   

Iryna Sekh, Head of the Lviv Oblast Office of the Svoboda party, informed the media about instructions given by the Party of Regions to district election commission members under its control. The ‘guidelines’ tell them how to act if the commission is headed by a Party of Regions man and if it is not, and when there is no quorum at the commission meeting. In addition, the Party allegedly asked their delegates to discriminate against opposition members, giving them only the most complicated tasks and limiting their paid vacation benefits. The Party of Regions denied these allegations.

The DECs are responsible for making crucial decisions in the election process. They count the votes given to parties and single candidates at polling stations, sort valid and invalid ballots, and can declare the election void at a given polling station. The Ukrainian Week’s sources suggest that the government may not only take control of most commission members, but also create commissions where all members will stand for a single party. This could be achieved by intimidating opposition DEC members through accusations of neglect or incompetence so that they resign prior to the election.

USELESS VIDEO MONITORING

The widely-advertised plan to install video cameras at polling stations will not prevent wide-scale election rigging, yet it may intimidate some voters who are concerned that their bosses will find out about their choice and threaten to fire them.

Amendments to the Law on Ensuring Open, Transparent and Democratic Parliamentary Elections on October 28, 2012 regarding video monitoring at polling stations do not prescribe video monitoring of polling stations at special facilities such as prisons, hospitals and the like, or polling stations abroad. These facilities, however, offer vast opportunities for the intimidation of voters and the reporting of higher turnouts. Discrepancies between the outcome of the vote in special facilities and the overall nationwide election results may show the scale of such rigging. Additionally, video monitoring will not be carried out at the DECs or the CEC where the votes will be counted and the final result determined.

Similarly ineffective was the decision to only conduct online video broadcasts during the vote, when cameras are unlikely to record anything illegal. The major part of the falsification efforts will take place during the counting when the cameras will only record the process, not broadcast it live – and the records will remain in the hands of the government. Finally, the CEC has banned observers, representatives, and commission members representing candidates and parties from accessing DEC server rooms, and refused to publicly disclose the results sent from DECs. Therefore, the data updated on the CEC’s website may end up being skewed.

HOW TO RIG AN ELECTION

The Ukrainian Week looks at the major tools of potential manipulation that are likely to bring the government a weighty electoral bonus

1. Parties and single candidates in first-past-the-post districts may be deprived of any opportunity to control the vote counting process. Art. 43.5 provides election commissions (2/3 of which are likely to be controlled by the government given the procedure used to draw them) legitimate grounds to evict official observers, candidates and their trustees, journalists, and others, from DEC meetings for “interference”.  

An election commission can find simple ways to provoke such a decision. For instance, it can lay out tape in a three-metre radius around the table upon which the ballots are counted and tell everyone that crossing this line will qualify as interfering with the commission’s work. If the present observers, candidates, or journalists protest or ignore this, the DEC can evict them. This gives the DEC the opportunity to do whatever it wants with the ballots, such as adding an additional mark to an opposition ballot and thus invalidating it.

A lighter version of this technique is possible, too. Rather than evict people from the meeting, the seats for non-commission members will be placed in the back of the room where observers can barely see how the count is conducted. Then the observers cannot see which party or candidate is checked on the ballot placed by the commission member into the pile for pro-government parties or candidates. No one can verify this other than polling station commission members (most of whom are pro-government), DEC members under special conditions, prosecutors, or courts in special cases. And it is well known today who controls DECs, prosecutors and courts.

2. Awide range of tools may be used to prevent as many voters as possible from casting their ballots at polling stations where surveys have found significantly prevailing support for the opposition.

A commission member may damage the ballots by simply “forgetting” to sign them on the day of the vote. As a result, the ballot, even if properly filled in by the voter, will be invalidated at the end of the day.  

Polling stations may be supplied with pens containing disappearing ink. When the votes are counted, the ballots are not marked and are considered invalid.

Election commissions may “forget” to cast a control sheet into a mobile ballot box used for at-home voters. According to the procedure, the control sheet should be cast into the ballot box at the beginning of the commission meeting. Another control sheet is cast when DEC members take the ballot box to voters who cannot arrive at the polling station. If at least one control sheet is missing during the counting, the ballots from the box are not counted.

The delivery of ballots by the polling station commission head and two members is another dangerous time. Out of the public eye, these commission members may open the packages, make some ballots invalid, and demand another count at the DEC.  

Eventually, the election may be deemed invalid at certain polling stations or entire districts where the opposition is projected to win over the ruling party and its satellites.

3. The official turnout may be boosted by filling out ballots for people who will not actually turn up to vote and using the mechanism known as “the blue sweater” which is easy to implement with obedient commissions. “The blue sweater” is a voter disguised for a commission member to recognize him and give him a ballot intended for a voter that does not turn up at the polling station. However, observers may prevent this by checking the voters’ passports carefully.

Voter turnout in the regions of Western and Central Ukraine is likely to be nearly double that of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, which comprise the core electorate of the current government. If the turnout there eventually matches that of Western and Central Ukraine, this will signal that the government has found ways to vote on behalf of their absent electorate – both for parties and single candidates where their votes may be decisive in delivering winners in single-candidate districts.  

Techniques for boosting the electorate base of certain candidates will be exploited intensely in first-past-the-poll districts. Say, if a candidate is the owner of a large factory, or the head of a school or college in the district where they run, it is in their best interest to have as many of their workers or students vote in their district as possible. After a big scandal in the media, the CEC was forced to ask the Prosecutor General to investigate reports that students of the State Tax Service National University in Irpin, Kyiv Oblast, and its branch in Vinnytsia, as well as their relatives, were forced to temporarily change their voter registration locations. Reportedly, they were expected to vote for Petro Melnyk, President of the Tax Academy, at the polling stations in Irpin. UDAR’s candidate Ihor Opadchyi claimed in his complaint to the CEC that his opponent in district 215, Halyna Hereha, also plans to bring 10,000 employees of Epicentre, a chain of home improvement hypermarkets owned by her family, to vote there.  

On September 13th, the Central Election Commission’s regulation 893 set a new procedure for the temporary change of voter registration without changing the voter’s address, allowing changes of registration within the limits of FPTP districts only. This was a welcome decision that would presumably block “political tourists” from migrate en masse. In fact, however, resolution 893 is not a complete solution to the problem. Now voters are likely to simply change their addresses in order to affect their voter registrations.

Pro-government candidates will not find it hard to encourage the process. The OPORA NGO reported that 700 people registered as residents of the Dnipropetrovsk Social Centre were included in the voter lists at polling stations in district 25 of Dnipropetrovsk, although the centre (which is in fact a homeless shelter) has space for just 20 residents. In one apartment located in Kyiv’s district 222, 37 voters were registered as residents.

4. Civil activists reported that the ruling party instructs some commissions under its control not to provide voters with ballots listing single candidates, but instead to fill them out on their own in favour of the Party of Regions. Olena Stepanets, head of the Luhansk Oblast organization Eco Region and the Kodeks legal association, reported on her Facebook page that DEC No. 111 in Luhansk Oblast received such an instruction. According to recent polls by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and KIIS, only 54.2% of the voters who will attend the polling stations knew that half of the parliament would be chosen in FPTP districts a month before the election. 24.4% “have heard something about it” and 21.4% had no idea. This means that the percentage of voters who are not aware of the FPTP part of the election may be decisive in distorting the election outcome in single-candidate districts as commission members fill the FPTP spot as they wish – especially in districts where 20-25% will secure a victory.

PREVENTIVE MEASURES

Diligent official observers, party representatives, media and NGOs can help to offset the mechanisms described above.

Below are several tips to follow in resisting the domination of the Party of Regions within election commissions:

All actions by DEC and polling station election commission members at meetings should be recorded on video, photo or audio devices.

DEC members from the opposition should be instructed to notify the media and police about any case of coercion, as well as appeal to courts regarding illegal commission decisions and report them to the media, monitoring organizations and international observer associations.

It is critically important for the opposition parties to have a stock of well-trained observers so that whenever the commission decides to evict one observer, the party has another one next to the polling station to replace his colleague.

Parties can actively exploit the “media representative” status which is fairly well protected before election commissions. They should also invite international observers to polling stations that they expect to be the most problematic.

Eventually, parties should make sure that their observers are properly equipped with video, photo and audio equipment. A Belarus observer offered an interesting option: if DEC members arrange the counting in a way that prevents everyone else present at the polling station from seeing it closely enough, the observers, reporters and party representatives can monitor the counting process using the zoom function on their cameras or other similar devices.  


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