Only Amateurs Steal Elections at the Ballot Box

Planning Election-Monitoring Programms in the Caucasus

I'm off in Georgia (no, not this one) working with an assortment of partners on the nation's upcoming Parliamentary elections, with a very important presidential poll a few months behind. It's a beautiful country with well-educated people, solid tech infrastructure, and awful grappa-like alcohol called chacha. It's come a very long way since the Rose Revolution of 2003, and is a relative democratic success story, but we still need to make sure no one puts a thumb on the scales in these upcoming elections.

NDI is assisting three big partners - the International Society for Elections and Democracy (ISFED), the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association (GYLA), and Transparency International Georgia (TI-G). Collectively these trusted Georgian organizations have a tremendous experience in monitoring and are supported by nation-wide networks of committed volunteers and activists. They have successfully kept a wary eye on numerous big elections in the past, but NDI is finding that focusing on the vote itself isn't enough any more.

These days only the amateurs steal elections on the big day. If you do so, we'll catch you. Instead, it's a collection of smaller things - bad voter lists, candidates rejected from the ballot for spurious reasons, illegal use of government resources, and many other tactics from the bag of dirty tricks. These do not leave fingerprints when the counting is done.

As such, NDI now spends a lot more time thinking about what's called long-term observation. We're working with our friends to use their networks to watch a host of things taking place all over the country. It requires a different way of communicating data, too. The forms we use for collecting information on election day tend to be very specific, targeted to the sorts of violations we expect to see or activities that are likely to have a significant impact. There's no list of 40 questions that can capture the full range of possibilities for the ways that either side could manipulate the election. Since the data isn't very structured, we can't use standard SMS-based reporting systems. Fortunately, since information is being transmitted as incidents occur rather than 4 times per day per observer, ad hoc phone calls or emails are efficient enough to get the information in.

Our partners' networks throughout the country will be focusing on the different types of violations on which they are experts. However, there's a lot of ground to cover - campaigning takes place everywhere, not just in polling stations, and the groups couldn't field enough people to blanket the country daily between now and the election anyway. They're gonna need some help.

Enter crowdsourcing. I'll discuss the advantages and significant challenges to this methodology in my next post.