Political Landscape

Elections (28): Last minute procedural changes to pacify candidate complaints

In front of a polling centre for women, Bamian, 5 April 2014. Photo: Qayoom Suroush

In the run-up to the second round vote, the Independent Election Commission (IEC), has made some changes to how it will run the vote this time. This has mainly been in response to complaints and pressure from the two remaining candidates. The IEC has increased the number of polling stations, has fired several thousand of its staff and has agreed to several minor changes in the tally centre procedures, aimed at providing observers and candidate agents with a sense of greater access and transparency. There is however a risk that the adjustments will mainly serve to pacify the complaints of candidates and observers, without necessarily improving the process where it counts. Moreover, the increased responsiveness to candidate complaints, among the many other pressures, may well increase the extent to which commission is being pulled in different directions. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look.

Adjusting the polling station list

The reported ballot shortages in the first round of the election in several areas have prompted the IEC commissioners to increase the total number of polling stations – even though several questions are as yet unanswered as to why some polling stations ran out of ballots, and why so implausibly early, while other polling centres in the same area did not. The IEC decision has resulted in a new list of 23,313 polling stations, which represents an increase of 2,540 stations, or 12 per cent compared to what was planned for the first round. The Ministry of Interior (MoI) then did two rounds of security assessments, one largely removing polling centres from the list and then another adding many of them back on. On 10 June 2014, the IEC announced the final list of stations, which now contains 23,136 polling stations (an 11 per cent increase, with 2,341 more polling stations compared to the first round, and 177 less than the second round list originally proposed by the IEC). The polling stations are spread over 6,365 polling centres, which is slightly less than what was planned in the first round (6,423).

The process of drawing up the list was, again, surrounded by allegations from both candidates that the additions and/or removals were part of a plot to benefit the other side – with Abdullah mainly targeting the IEC and Ghani accusing the Ministry of Interior of partiality. A close study of the available lists shows that the distribution does indeed look a bit odd – the changes are certainly not spread evenly across the provinces – but that it does not seem to reflect an obvious bias or patterns benefitting or undercutting either candidate. It rather looks like the outcome of many people pulling in different directions at different times. The greatest outliers include Baghlan with an almost 30 per cent increase in the number of polling stations; Khost, which received 18 per cent extra despite a very low turnout in the first round(1); and Ghazni and Farah which did not receive any extra polling stations at all (they actually lost a few). Whatever the cause of these inconsistencies, they need to be watched – and will be – as the results come in.

For more details on the polling station adjustments, see the annex below.

What about the ballot paper shortfalls?

It is not clear whether the increase in polling stations, resulting in an addition of around 1.5 million ballots was indeed necessary. It is difficult to predict what the turnout might be in the second round (or where voters will show up this time), but many people expect it to be not as high as in the first one. On one hand the fierce competition, the historical significance of the event and the fact that voting has, in some quarters, become a sign of defiance against the insurgency or even the old elites, may again prompt voters to come out in large numbers. On the other hand, there is also a certain sense of fatigue and, among some, distaste for how the campaigns were conducted before the second round in particular and the endorsements they gathered. Some may also be undecided on who to vote for. Moreover, the fact that there now is no simultaneous provincial council vote could add to a lower turnout, as local ties may have prompted people to vote who otherwise would not have. Large parts of the local media, incidentally, have decided to repeat the media blackout (or reporting delay) on election day security incidents, in an effort to again contribute to a high voter turnout.

Irrespective of the turnout, it is not in all cases obvious that the extra ballots are being sent to the areas where the votes ran out in the first round (again, see annex below for details). It seems that, in particular, the decision to re-include polling stations that were, for various reasons, removed from an earlier 2010 list when drawing up the list for the first round, may well mean that stations were added in areas unrelated to the ballot shortages experienced in the first round.

Moreover, the actual nature of the shortages has not yet been clarified. In particular the early claims of ballot shortfalls have been a point of contention. Initially the IEC claimed that it would take up to nine hours, at least, to process the 600 voters, the maximum a polling station is designed for. Since then, most have agreed that a particularly efficient electoral team might be able to process voters at a higher rate than one per minute, but that it would still be practically impossible to legitimately run out of ballots within a few hours. National observer organisation, FEFA (Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan), recently released a report detailing their findings. (2) FEFA found that at least 779 polling stations said they had run out of ballots sometime during the first round of voting – in particular, in Kabul, Paktia, Herat, Baghlan, Kandahar, Ghor, Samangan, Bamyan, Ghazni, Badakhshan and Balkh. 592 of these stations reported that they had run out of ballots before noon. In 298 of these 592 polling stations, FEFA observers were initially not allowed to enter. In 77 of the 298, there was, according to FEFA, evidence of ballot stuffing having indeed taken place. Although these findings do not conclusively prove that at least some of the ballot shortages were linked to fraud (this could be early or top-up ballot stuffing, or voters being allowed to vote more than once), they do point in that direction. According to FEFA, at least 251 of the new polling stations have been added to polling centres that reported implausible ballot shortages in the first round.

It has been a complicated trade-off (one of many) for the IEC. On the one hand, they have been blamed for being unprepared and for disenfranchising voters, while, on the other hand, the shortages seem to point to significant, and largely unaddressed, irregularities. So while adding polling stations may solve the problems caused by genuinely high turnout in some areas, it may amplify problems in those areas where the ballot shortfalls seem to have been linked to early or parallel ballot stuffing.

Replacing and recruiting staff 

The addition of 2,341 new polling stations meant that the IEC needed 14,000 new workers (six per station) to staff them. Add to this, the staff that needed to be hired to replace those that were fired after the first round – according to the IEC a total of 5,388 (which include the staff of all polling stations that were disqualified by the IEC). This means that the IEC has had to recruit and train almost 20,000 new workers in a very short time. They seem to have managed to get all the male staff they needed, but there are important gaps with respect to the ‘manning’ of female polling stations, that may impact the vote. According to this Tolo News report (video in Dari), there are 2,100 polling stations for women that will have to be staffed by men, which, out of a total of 9,324 female polling stations, is around 23 per cent. This could supress female turnout and hamper monitoring by female observers and candidate agents, particularly in conservative areas (despite reports that communities and campaign teams are explicitly trying to get the female vote out in some of these areas). The possible lack of voters and observers makes these polling stations very vulnerable to fraud.

The provinces that are hardest hit include Paktika and Paktia where practically all female stations will be staffed by men: Paktika 293 out of 320, or 92%; Paktia 234 out of 260, or 90%. Other strongly affected provinces include Kandahar (295 out of 362, or 81%), Helmand and Ghor (both 62%, with respectively 116 out of 187, and 165 out of 268) and Nangrahar (260 out of 518, or 50%). Paktia and Paktika have been particularly famous in the past for massive female proxy voting, while areas of Kandahar have seen some of the most organised forms of ballot stuffing.

Monitoring and data tracking by the candidate’s agents

Both campaign teams have realised the importance of monitoring, evidence gathering and data tracking. Staffers on both sides have acknowledged that in the first round their teams had underestimated the importance of observers and had overestimated the effectiveness of their preparations to ensure wide coverage. Their information, as a result, was patchy and often of limited use. Both campaigns have now tried to improve this by registering larger numbers of observers and ensuring better payment arrangements and tighter reporting requirements. Abdullah’s team has, in addition, announced the establishment of a fairly sophisticated parallel data collection centre that will compare the results posted and announced by the IEC with those collected by the observers. It is likely that the Ghani campaign will do something similar.

To facilitate the process, and in response to insistent requests from the candidates, the IEC has made a last minute change to the local count procedures, ensuring that agents of both candidates can obtain a carbon copy of the results form. This decision, taken on 10 June 2014, replaces what is written in the IEC’s run-off counting procedures, so there may be an issue in informing all polling staff in time. The IEC’s decision solves the problem of deciding which of candidate teams can take home the single carbon copy that was designated for the observers, but it leaves independent observers and the general public out of the equation. (3)

What this means for the period after the vote

The recent decisions by the IEC – together with the accelerated release of information, the greater access promised to observers at the tally centre and an improved communication strategy – seems to signal a greater responsiveness to complaints and demands from the candidates (as well as encouragement by national and international observers). This is widely seen as a positive development. The changes, however, are also sometimes largely symbolic –  providing optical transparency rather than a greater understanding of how decisions are made, or aimed mainly at being seen as to have at least done something. There is a risk that the IEC may lose its ability to push back on the more spurious candidate demands and accusations – as it tries to deflect accusations of bias, to prevent protracted upheaval (and to not alienate whoever might become the future head of state).

The IEC and, after that, the IECC will continue to be the target of candidate accusations. Some of them will be justified and backed up by evidence, others will be tactical and probably unhelpful. A close race will complicate things, given the amount of discretion involved in both commissions when deciding which votes count. Much will depend, not just on how the IEC and IECC conduct their work, but also on how both campaigns continue their competition after the vote has taken place.

(1) There are also accusations in the Afghan press of ANA personnel participating in manipulations in Khost.

(2) FEFA’s report on the ballot shortages was released on 25 May 2014 as the first instalment of a Lessons Learned series. A second instalment, dealing with the complaints adjudication process, was released on 12 June 2014.

(3) Originally, in the first round, one carbon copy of the results form – the white one – was given to one of the observers or candidate agents present, a second copy – the yellow one – was kept in the ballot box for future reference, and a third copy – the pink one – was posted on the wall of the polling station. The original results form was sent to the tally centre. This time, two carbon copies – the white and the pink one – will be given to the candidate agents, one to each camp. There will be no copy posted to the wall of the polling station.

Annex 1. Adjusting the polling station list

AAN has been closely watching the IEC’s polling station list (see here and here), as the distribution of polling stations determines how many votes can be cast in a certain area (each station receives 600 ballots). There are huge differences in the number of votes allocated per provinces, based on population estimates, security, logistics and past turnout figures. Kabul, the province with the largest number of potential votes is allocated a total 1,662,000 votes, while Nuristan, at the bottom of the list, has been allocated a maximum of 87,600 votes (1). in the first round the highest number of ballots was indeed cast in Kabul (835,964), the lowest was in Zabul (24,557). Changes in the polling station lists are carefully scrutinised.

The total number of polling centres and polling stations has fluctuated, as the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and the Independent Election Commission (IEC) have added and subtracted sites based on renewed security assessments and the experiences of the first round. The final list for the second round contains 6,365 polling centres, which is slightly less than what was planned in the first round (6423), and 23,136 polling stations, which is 11 per cent more than in the first round. The changes in the list mean that the number of sites where people can vote is more or less the same, but that in many places there will be more polling stations per site.

This final list is the result of three rounds of adjustments. First the IEC, in response to the ballot shortages in the first round, decided to increase the number of polling stations from 20,795 to 23,313 – which is an increase of 12 per cent. The list itself was not released, but the IEC posted some details on its website, including the formal decision and a factsheet, with a breakdown of new polling stations per province. According to the IEC, the increase consisted of polling stations that had been taken off the 2010 list, polling stations that in the first round had been part of the 5 per cent contingency for each province, as well as an additional 5 per cent per province. (On top of that every province is, again, allocated a 5 per cent contingency, in case polling centres start running out of ballots again.) The distribution of new polling stations by the IEC is however very uneven and does not really seem to follow logically from either the security situation or the expected turnout. A few highlights:

–       Baghlan received an almost 30 per cent increase in the number of polling stations (from 701 to 906, which means 123,000 additional ballots), which is a lot more than the national average of 11 per cent. It is true that Baghlan used around 70 per cent of its ballots in the first round, but there are several other provinces for which this was also the case that did not see the same increase. Moreover, Baghlan was one of the few provinces that lost a considerable proportion of its vote to IEC and IECC disqualifications (more than 11.5 per cent, which is considerable, given the very conservative disqualification decisions of both bodies), indicating that the province is likely to be vulnerable to fraud again. (2) In the first round almost 300,000 votes were cast in Baghlan, around 60% for Abdullah and around 20% for Ghani.

–       In Kabul, the number of polling stations increased by 298, from 2472 to 2770, which is an increase of 13 per cent. This is not unusually high, particularly given the complaints of ballot shortages (for which no data has been made available), but numerically it represents the greatest increase in available ballots: almost 180,000 extra. In the first round around 835,000 votes were cast in Kabul, around 50% for Abdullah and around 32% for Ghani.

–       In Khost, the number of polling stations increased by 108 from 589 to 697, which is an increase of 18 per cent and an additional 65,000 potential votes. Khost had a relatively low turnout in the first round, using less than 30 per cent of its available ballots. In the first round around 117,000 votes were cast in Khost, around 74% for Ghani and around 4% for Abdullah (proportionally within the province a landslide victory, but nationally in terms of actual numbers not that huge).

–       Other provinces with a high increase, percentage-wise, in the number of polling stations included: Zabul (60 polling stations, which is an increase of 35 per cent), Uruzgan (54 extra polling stations, increase of 25 per cent), Nuristan (24 extra polling stations, 20 per cent increase), and Logar and Wardak (respectively 61 and 73 extra polling stations, both representing a 19 per cent increase). Based on the turnout in the first round, none of these provinces, except Nuristan and to a lesser extent Wardak, seemed to need additional polling stations; in Logar only 19 per cent of the available ballots were used, in Uruzgan 20 per cent and in Zabul 24 per cent. Nuristan, a remote province with a history of widespread fraud, used an implausible 90 per cent of the available ballots and Wardak, also known for fraud, used 45 per cent.

The increases in absolute terms in some of these cases are not that large (Nuristan 14,400; Urugan 32,400; Zabul 36,000; Logar 36,600; Wardak 43,800) but they are somewhat mysterious, as they seem unrelated to the problem they were supposed to address. My guess, however, is that the seemingly random increases are caused by the decision to re-include the polling stations that were taken off the 2010 list, rather than some kind of design.

After drawing up the list, the IEC sent it to the MoI for a renewed security assessment. As a result of this assessment 180 polling centres (containing 506 polling stations) were removed from the list, 24 polling centres (with 61 polling stations) that had previously been taken off the list were re-included and 5 centres (with 11 stations) were newly added. The IEC posted a polling station list on its website based on these figures, that has since then been updated. The changes were very unequally divided across the provinces with Ghazni, Wardak, Herat and Kunduz being by far the hardest hit: they lost respectively 123, 97, 90 and 87 polling stations.

This however was largely offset in a third round of adjustments, that was formally based on an updated security assessment, but in reality was a response to loud candidate complaints, particularly from the Ghani camp. Even the Palace stepped in, announcing that a fact-finding delegation would try to reopen most polling stations in those province that had lost more than six polling centres (see here, in Dari).

The MoI re-assessment resulted in the final list that was announced on 10 June 2014 (posted to the website here, a summary can be found here). The last minute addition (or re-inclusion) of 93 polling centres, with 257 polling stations, mainly benefitted Kunduz, Herat and Wardak: between them they received almost 90% of the added stations. (3)

Two other provinces that had been hit hard in the first MoI assessment – Farah and Ghazni – were, however, not so lucky. They had initially received respectively 23 and 104 extra polling stations on the new IEC list, but they lost as many – and more – in the first MoI assessment (respectively 30 and 123). No changes were made in the second MoI assessment. In Ghazni in the first round, around 400,000 votes were cast, around 54% for Abdullah and around 19% for Ghani; in Farah almost 100,000 votes were cast, around 40% for Ghani and around 32% for Abdullah.

It is unclear why the initial MoI decisions were overturned in some provinces and not in others, nor is it clear why the majority of the provinces that face security challenges were untouched by the MoI’s security assessment. When looking at these changes in relation to how people voted in the first round – which gives only a very rough indication of how they may vote this time – no obvious pattern emerges. But it is worth noting that what we are seeing now mirrors what happened in the first round, when Ghazni and Farah were also disproportionally hit, while provinces like Baghlan, Khost and Wardak were among the provinces that were left inexplicably untouched in the security assessments (see reporting here).


(1) The provinces with the largest number of potential votes continue to be Kabul (1,662,000 votes); Herat (927,400 votes); Nangrahar (789,600 votes); Balkh (658,200 votes); Kandahar (646,800 votes) and Ghazni (601,800 votes). On the other end of the spectrum are Nuristan (87,600 votes), Nimruz (116,400 votes) and Zabul (139,200 votes). Whereas the remoteness and precarious security situation in the latter provinces provide ample opportunities for fraud, the numerical impact is likely to be relatively limited.

(2) The provinces that lost the greatest proportion of votes in the disqualifications are Farah (40 per cent, largely by the IECC), Kandahar (18 per cent, both IEC and IECC); and Baghlan (11 per cent, largely by the IEC). See here for recently released details on the disqualifications by the IEC, and here for disqualifications by the IECC. Turnout figures have been taken from here.

(3) Kunduz received 12 new polling centres with a total of 40 stations; Herat received 33 polling centres with 90 polling stations and Wardak received 36 new polling centres with 97 stations. The other three provinces that received new polling centres in the last addition were Badakhshan, Badghis and Nangrahar (respectively two, four and six) containing a total of six, nine and fifteen polling stations. The last version of the polling station list can be found here, a summary is here.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape