Preparing to observe a referendum

I’m in Egypt, preparing to observe the January 14/15 constitutional referendum.  This is more controversial than it sounds.  Some have argued that observing risks giving the referendum legitimacy it does not deserve.  No long-term observers are in place, one of the factors that caused the Carter Center not to send more than a technical mission.*  Some Egyptian Islamist observers have been denied accreditation, and the government is conducting a vigorous propaganda campaign in favor of approval.  Why would I lend my name to a process taking place in a country where nonviolent activists are jailed, the press is under serious constraints, the security forces are cracking down on secularist dissenters as well as the Muslim Brotherhood (declared a terrorist organization) and ample portions of the society are boycotting?

The answer is that I didn’t decide the referendum would be observed.  The State Department did and AID** funded Democracy International (DI), a non-governmental organization, to implement the decision.  A few other organizations, including the European Union, are also here, but DI’s 80-person team seems to be the largest.  What I decided was to get some first-person exposure to the situation in Egypt at an important moment.  If I were not here, someone else would be.  If I thought I were doing harm, I’d have opted out, but I dare imagine that my sharp eyes and ears might even do some good for a mission conducted under less than ideal conditions.

So how do election observers prepare?  First they spend a 10-hour day in briefings.  Most of us don’t know each other or DI’s staff.  They have to gain our confidence, and we need to prepare for what promises to be a grueling two-day itinerary through various Egyptian cities, towns and neighborhoods.  Many of the observers are not Egypt experts, and even those who are sit through powerpoints on the political landscape (including how the new constitution was prepared), the legal framework and the role of civil society in the process leading up to the referendum and in providing domestic observers.  They are particularly important, since even a team of 80 people isn’t going to be able to visit but a small fraction of the 30,000 polling stations.  Even where we go, we stay not more than half an hour.  Domestic observers often stay the entire day (or two in this case).

Getting 80 non-Egyptians out to perhaps a thousand polling stations over two days entails security risks.  Car accidents are likely the most frequent issue, but last time I observed an election–July 2012 in Benghazi, Libya–we had to postpone the start of our day because of attacks on various polling stations and the place where ballots were stored.  That seems less likely in Egypt, but there are parts of the country where no foreigner should be going these days–northern Sinai, for example–and many other places where those boycotting the referendum might try to disrupt it with demonstrations, which all too often turn violent as the police and army escalate quickly from water cannon, to tear gas and then live rounds.  The observers need to know what risks they run and how to respond to them, even if few (preferably none) of them will actually experience any serious trouble.

The logistics of an operation like this are formidable.  You’ve got to get people from many different countries into Egypt more or less at the same time, or at least on the same day, then deploy them in teams of two to what you think are relatively safe places throughout the country.  Each team gets an interpreter and a driver, a cell phone, a device on which to record findings, a medical kit, lists of polling places, maps to help them and appropriate hotel reservations.  Each team will decide for itself exactly which polling stations to visit.  They check in three times a day, or more.

Any referendum takes place in a particular legal and political context.  The legal context in this case includes administration of the elections by Egypt’s judges, which is the reason it takes place over two days.  There aren’t enough judges to supervise all the polling stations needed in just one day, because each judge has to have visual contact with no more than three polling stations.  The procedures are straightforward:  a voter comes into a polling place, her name is checked against the voting register (derived mainly from Egypt’s identity card data bank) , a ballot is provided, the voter marks it in private in a voting booth, folds it and it is placed in the ballot box, which is sealed.  A forefinger is dipped in indelible ink to prevent the voter from voting a second time, a system more impressive for its photogenic impact than its efficacy.

The political context is tense.  The referendum is taking place in the wake of widespread demonstrations culminating June 30 and  the removal of a democratically elected president.  The authorities in power since July 3 want this referendum approved by a wide margin with high turnout.  The Muslim Brotherhood and others are boycotting, saying it is an illegitimate referendum that cannot be the foundation for a legitimate government.  They hope for approval by a narrower margin and lower turnout than the Brotherhood-sponsored constitution of 2012 (63.8% and 32.9%, respectively).  A few brave souls have campaigned for voting “no,” but the authorities have hounded them, some into boycotting.

No electoral system is perfect.  Egypt has a problem dealing with people who live outside the province in which they are listed (we in the US have a comparable problem with people who vote in one state but are still registered to vote in another).  The plan is to allow them to vote in a single polling place, but in theory such people could also vote in their home province.  The High Election Commission is still (the referendum is less than 36 hours away as I write this!) figuring out how to handle this problem, which it has said might affect as many as 7 million out of 53 million voters.  The big potential for fraud is all too obvious.

Egypt also has a problem with its system for electoral complaints.  As the judges run the polling stations, they resolve any complaints, rather a separate electoral complaints mechanism, as in most countries.  This may leave some individual voters dissatisfied, but it seems unlikely to create large discrepancies in the vote tallies.

One important constraint on cheating is the posting of results at polling stations immediately after they are tabulated, which happens on the second day at the polling station.  This in theory provides  a check on abuse in tallying votes, since it enables a parallel vote count by nongovernmental organizations.  That doesn’t seem to be in the works for this referendum however.

More tomorrow on what election observers actually do.

*This originally read “not to send a mission,” by which I meant a short-term observer mission.  I’ve changed the wording for more clarity.

**AID was omitted from the original.

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