Election ‘for granted’, or Unlearnt lessons of 2014

… You enter the polling station. You come to the tables at which commission members are sitting. One of them checks your passport, finds your name on the list of voters, and, if everything is ok, gives you a ballot. In the voting booth you put a tick against the selected candidate and cast the ballot into the transparent ballot box. At this point your mission is completed. Leaving the polling station you most probably don’t think over how many members of the election commission were there? You are hardly interested in where all those people came from? You don’t ask yourselves what would the election look like if those people were not there? And that is absolutely natural. Since availability of members of the election commission and their work at the polling station are taken for granted, the same as cleanness and tidiness of the city in which municipal services do their work properly are taken for granted. But should they neglect their duties just for a couple of days, and the city residents would start expressing indignant complaints about dirt and lack of high-quality cleaning. The same goes about members of the election commissions: the importance of their work becomes noticeable when this work is not duly performed. And one may appreciate their availability only when they are absent. So, how justified it is to take availability of members of election commissions at polling stations for granted?

Before the latest presidential election this issue seemed to be a strange and even blue-sky one since before 2014 no lack of members of election commissions could be traced. Rather, vice versa, there were too many. Three years ago, however, there appeared a real threat of obstructing the election process due to lack of members of precinct election commissions (PEC). Moreover, this threat is still there before the next presidential election. That is why it is important not just to show the real scale of the problem in figures, but also to get clear about the causality of its appearance. But let’s do it in a consistent way.

Precinct election commissions in Ukraine are made up of the people recommended by electoral subjects – parliamentary factions, political parties, and candidates. Since the presidential election is meant, presidential candidates may suggest members of commissions. In 2014 each candidate was entitled to delegate one commission member to each PEC. It should be noted that law did not make it binding for candidates to nominate their representatives to the commissions – it was their right, not their duty. If there were over fifty voters on the precinct’s list of voters, PEC in that precinct was composed of twelve members. If the number of voters was under fifty – PEC was made up of at least four people. If, for instance, all the candidates in total recommended, let us say, nine commission members to the polling station, the other three were to be recommended by the district election commission (DEC). And only after that PEC could start working.

In the latest presidential election there were twenty-one candidates. If each of them would have nominated at least one candidate to each PEC, all the commissions would have consisted of twenty-one members. With the necessary minimum being twelve. However, only some candidates almost fully filled their quotas. There were some who did not make any single nomination. Most candidates filled their quotas partially. Per 30,002 polling stations in total 353,833 commission members were nominated. On average, that is 11.79 persons per each PEC. However, this ‘average ward temperature’ is not illustrative. To some PEC candidates nominated only from 13 to 18 commission members. 1-11 members were nominated to some other commisions. As the result, fewer people were recommended to 4,243 election commissions than the law required. Respectively, there appeared a threat that 14% of election commissions would not be able to start working. Also, one more important circumstance needed to be taken into account – the number of PEC members recommended by district commissions. Out of 353,833 persons those recommended by heads of DECs constituted 38,000 persons, which is over 10% of the total number of the recommended commission members. Why is it important? Since without those recommendations 15,759 election commission would have remained understaffed. And this is still 52.5% of the overall number of PECs. In addition to previous 14%. Thus, if only candidates’ recommendations are taken into account, 33.5% of election commissions were staffed in compliance with the requirements of the law. That is candidates themselves managed to staff only one third of precinct election commissions.

In 2014 the parliament intervened into the force majeure situation. The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine voted for amendments in the election legislation as far as requirements to precinct election commissions staffing are concerned. The MPs reduced the minimum necessary number of commission members for PECs staffing from twelve to nine persons. The explanatory note to the draft law indicated: ‘Currently, electoral subjects are either incapable of finding candidates to be included to separate precinct election commissions, or just won’t make the respective nominations, which results in ‘understaffing’ in the set minimum number of members of precinct election commissions’. And then: ‘The general political situation in the country and the course of the election process in the early election of the President of Ukraine on May 25, 2014 pointed to the passive nature of electoral subjects, to the problem of finding people who would give their consent to perform the duties of members of precinct election commissions, and, as the result, to a threat posed to citizens’ electoral rights, since non-establishment of the lowest unit of election commissions … will make it impossible to secure expression of the will of Ukrainian citizens on May 25, 2014’. The legislator correctly delineates the problem and its possible outcomes. But of greater importance is that he asks a correct question: presidential candidates either cannot find the right number of people, or simply won’t make the respective nominations. Thus, ‘cannot’ or ‘do not want to’?

Before answering the question, let us compare the number of PEC members in the two previous presidential elections. In 2010 eighteen candidates in total nominated almost 750,000 members of PECs for 33,000 commisions. On average, that was twenty-two persons per each commission. With the necessary number being twelve. And heads of DECs in total nominated less than six hundred commission members to all PECs. In percentage, the ratio was below 0.01%.

Do you feel the difference? 750,000 PEC members in 2010 versus 350,000 in 2014; on average, twenty-two persons per each PEC in 2010 versus less than twelve people in 2014; less than six hundred nominations (0.01%) for PEC members from all heads of DECs in 2010 versus over thirty-eight thousand nominations (10%) in 2014; conventional election organization in 2010 versus a real threat of voting obstruction in 2014.

This difference can be accounted for by three most obvious reasons – technical changes in the election legislation in relation to PEC staffing, money, and war.

In March 2014 the VRU supported reduction of the number of nominations of PEC members to be made by presidential candidates. While in 2010 each candidate could nominate two members to each commission, in 2014 the figure was only one. As the result, candidates willing and being able to nominate more people to the commissions officially could not do this. The point is that such explanation does not take into account some informal practices widely used in the Ukrainian election. One of them is to use the so called ‘sham candidates’. That is when heavy-weight candidates use other candidates to increase their success chances to the maximum. For instance, when election commissions are being staffed, ‘sham candidates’ nominate people loyal to one of the main candidates. In this case ‘sham candidates’ play the role of a certain ‘camouflage’ hiding the players of somebody else’s team. The results of surveys show that availability of such ‘additional’ members in the commission, in particular, among executives, has a positive effect on the result of the main candidate. Therefore, if some of the main candidates in 2014 wanted to nominate additional people to the commissions, that could be done via ‘sham candidates’. That is why amendments in the law – official reduction of the number of nominations to be made by candidates – are not a convincing explanation of the lack of commission members.

In 2014 candidates did not have enough financial resources to efficiently mobilize the necessary number of PEC members. Such explanation could often be heard after the election. But it is based not on the analysis of the measurable indicators of the candidates’ financial capacity, but only on the no-expenditure fact. But absence of expenses can testify both to financial incapacity, and elementary unwillingness to make those expenses. In other works, if you don’t buy something, that is not necessarily due to lack of money. Probably, you simply do not consider it expedient to spend money on this specific good or service. It is also impossible to assess the real depth of candidates’ pockets and actual budgets of their headquarters spent on commission members due to one informal practice of the Ukrainian election. All those fees are paid absolutely illegally. They are never officially registered, and there is no information on the basis of which they could be accounted. In my opinion, until we have the practice of informal fees paid to PEC members, there will be no mechanism of accounting such fees, and the explanation of the lack of PEC members by candidates’ lack of money will always sound dubious.

People refused to go and work in the commissions due to possible threat to their security resulting from military actions in the east and the fear of possible terrorist acts aimed at voting obstruction. That was what they had been telling before the election. To determine the suitability of such explanation, I made an analysis of the territorial distribution of PEC member shortage by territorial constituencies. If people were demotivated by fear, the following trend could have been expected: the closer to the area of combat actions, the more difficult it was to mobilize people to work in PECs. And vice versa, the further from the east to the west, the more willingly people would have agreed to work in the election commissions. The results of the analysis pointed to absence of the above trends – the proportion of shortage of PEC members was approximately the same both in the precincts in the east, and in the west. The same analysis not taking into account nominations made by heads of DECs showed the same results. Shortage of PEC members in the 2014 election was not of any clearly manifested territorial nature – the commission lacked nominations throughout the whole of Ukraine in approximately the same proportions.

Is there any better explanation of the problem of lack of PEC members in the 2014 election than the above? I guess, yes. And it is related to the level of competition in the election.

The results of opinion polls conducted during the election process showed a permanently rising difference in the support between Petro Poroshenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko. On the date nominations for PEC members were submitted, Poroshenko’s support was three times higher than Tymoshenko’s rating – 33% and 10% respectively. Then the difference kept growing and reached the ratio of 5 to 1 a week before the voting day.

To compare, in 2010 the struggle between the candidates was more competitive. As of the date of PEC staffing, Viktor Yanukovych was supported by 40%, Yuliya Tymoshenko – by 24% of voters. Moreover, nobody spoke of ‘one round’ then. The main candidates realized that a large-sclae change in voters’ preferences could take place in-between the rounds due to strategic voting. Uncertainty of the results motivated candidates to fight in all the fronts, including election administration. Success of the struggle was mainly determined by the number of ‘inside men’ in the commissions. Since it was ‘inside men’ who could become the factor playing a crucial role in determining who was going to win. As the result of competition and ‘struggle’ for commissions, all PECs were completely staffed. The number of commission members exceeded the minimum necessary number almost twice. Certainly, such struggle has its side-effects and consequences, however, in this case it motivates candidates to staff commissions with people.

In 2014 the situation was reverse: absence of competition discouraged the highest-rating candidates from mobilizing additional PEC members. Since such mobilization would have led to additional costs only. Imagine you are in Poroshenko’s place. You are to pass a decision how many people you would like to have in each PEC. Your decision is primarily influenced by how much each additional commission member on whose mobilization you are spending the resources will contribute to your victory. With this in view you look at the support rating and assess the difference between you and other candidates. You realize that such difference cannot be overcome through manipulations in PECs. If that is so, why spend additional resources to involve additional people? It would be much more reasonable to use these resources for other election needs. Or just save them. Now imagine you are Yuliya Tymoshenko as a candidate. You make a similar analysis and come to the same conclusion, only from the opposite side – additional PEC members will not affect your victory chances. So why spend resources on what will not help you? And you don’t.

Each candidate behaves rationally. Thus, such rational behaviour almost threatens the whole election process. For whom could this have more critical consequences? Certainly, for candidate Petro Poroshenko since higher rating does not yet mean victory in the election. To convert higher rating into victory, one needs election administration system, including functioning PECs which will organize the voting process and will count the votes. Why then didn’t Poroshenko expect that there may not be enough PEC members? Since he knows the law on election, which determines the procedure for acting in case of commission member shortage. If there are not enough people, that is no longer the responsibility of candidates, but that of district election commissions. But what he could not foresee was the incapacity of some DECs to mobilize the necessary number of additional PEC members. That posed a threat to the process of staffing of over 4,200 PECs. Is it worth blaming any of the candidates of what could have happened? No, since their decisions were rational, with due account of the information available to them back then.

If arguments and assumptions made in the article are true, that allows making several conclusions. Political system of staffing election commissions in the presidental election is context-sensitive. In this casesensitive to the level of competition between candidates. In case there is no competition, candidates lose motivation to spend resources on election administration system in the amounts necessary for its full-fledged functioning. Due to the mechanism provoking this threat, we are not secured against repetition of such a scenario in future.

What could be done to prevent the problem? One can hope. Hope that the pending presidential election will be competitive, and candidates will be motivated to recommend more people to PECs. Hope that the future candidate with the highest rating will assess possible risks on the basis of previous experience and, again, will be motivated to mobilize more commission members. Hope that next year DECs will be better equipped and prepared for possible force majeure. But one may stop just hoping and change the current system and approaches to DEC staffing. The system and approaches containing not potential but real threats of election obstruction.

Nazar Boyko, MonitoringAnalytical GroupCIRFA’