Political Landscape

Elections 2014 (47): Audit enters its final precarious phase

Afghanistan's electoral audit enters its final, critical phase. Photo: Martine van Bijlert, Kabul, August 2014.

Afghanistan's electoral audit enters its final, critical phase. Photo: Martine van Bijlert, Kabul, August 2014.

While the two teams are trying to revive the political negotiations, the electoral audit is both nearing its end –with around 95 per cent of the ballot boxes reviewed– and moving into its most critical phase: deciding on the findings and arriving at a new result. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has already convened five ‘decision-making’ sessions, but these have provided surprisingly little insight into the actual impact of the audit and have left more than a third of the ‘decisions’ pending. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert notes a familiar lack of transparency on substantive issues and warns that an overly hasty result could still undermine the process. (With input from Qayum Suroush.)

Audit progress

Finally, after seven eventful weeks, the full audit of votes cast during the 14 June presidential run-off seems to be coming to an end. According to the latest IEC figures (which are announced during lunchtime and thus always lag behind a day), the IEC had audited 21,342 boxes by the end of the day on 2 September, out of a total of 22,828. IEC Spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor estimated that they might be able to finish the audit –both the ‘normal’ and the ‘special’ audit– by close of business on 4 September 2014. After that, there will still be a few days’ work, finishing the data entry and taking decisions on the final batch of findings. If the decision-making session would take place on 6 September 2014, and taking into account the 72 hours’ complaints process after that, we could indeed be looking at an election result around 10 September 2014 – provided that everything continues to go smoothly. There are however a few pending issues.

The IEC has so far made decisions on 14,716 polling stations. The majority of these stations have been validated: 8,897 polling stations, or 61 per cent. A much smaller portion has been invalidated in full: 402 boxes, which is less than 3 per cent of the audit so far. A considerable proportion –5,316 boxes, or 36 per cent– has been recounted and will probably be (or has already been) subjected to a ‘partial invalidation.’ So far, however, no details have been provided; although the polling centres have been listed, no details have been given as to what has happened to them.

It is unclear when the IEC intends to share this information or whether there will still be time to scrutinise the data before the results are announced. This lack of transparency on the decisions that actually matter, whether by design or by default, has been a recurring feature (see for instance here or here).  In this case, the failure to properly share information on the findings actually threatens to undermine the audit.

Audit decisions; the details

Since 25 August 2014, the IEC has convened five open sessions, which it refers to as “decision-making sessions.” (1) In reality, however, the commissioners have simply read out overviews provided to them by the National Tally Centre that describe the number of polling stations per decision-making category. The commissioners did not appear to engage in any actual decision-making or substantive deliberation and, as has been the case during previous critical junctures, seemed seriously out of their depth.

Basically, the IEC decision-making is based on three key documents: IEC Decisions numbers 30-1393,  33-1393  and 37-1393, (which respectively spell out the basis for the audit checklists, the invalidation criteria and the (in)validation decisions – for more background see here). Based on these documents, an audited polling station can fall into one of three categories:

  • (a) reasons for a recount
  • (b) reasons for full invalidation
  • (c) no reported problems.

Which category a polling station falls into, follows automatically from the information recorded on the audit checklists (provided the checklists have been filled in properly, which was not always the case). After the information has been entered into the database, the National Tally Centre staff draws up lists of the polling stations in each of the categories for the IEC to decide on. So far, it has done so in five batches (respectively 3645, 3000, 3000, 5000 and 2000 polling stations). The figures that are read during the IEC’s open sessions are exactly these lists.

During the 2 September 2014 open session, for instance, IEC Chair Yusuf Nuristani read from his notes that, out of the 2,000 polling stations that had been scheduled for a ‘decision’ that day, 520 had shown no irregularities and had been validated (category c), 50 had been invalidated in full (category b) and 1070 had gone for recount (category a). An additional 360 polling stations had needed “renewed closer investigation,” presumably because the checklists were incomplete or could not be found. He provided no details on the number of votes involved in the 50 invalidated polling stations, or what the “partial invalidations” as a result of the recounts of the 1070 polling stations looked like.

This has been the pattern during every session: one of the commissioners reads out how many polling stations fall into each of the categories (which is often somewhat complicated by the added distinction of the ‘normal’ and the ‘special’ audit). No decisions are taken, other than the ones that flow naturally from the information provided by the National Tally Centre (ie polling stations that are on the invalidated list are declared invalid and those on the validated list are declared valid). And no information is provided on the number of votes affected, what was found during the recounts, or when the IEC intends to share the details of its subsequent decisions.

We are not talking about a small proportion. The number of boxes marked “recount/partial invalidation” already exceeds 5,000, which is well over a third of the boxes that have been processed so far. This proportion is only likely to increase, as the final phase of the audit is being dominated by the 6000 boxes that have been singled out by both camps for special scrutiny (the so-called ‘special audit’).

It is thus clear that either the IEC still needs to decide on the “recount/partial invalidation” boxes, or, possibly, has already decided, but still needs to make its decisions explicit. The obligation to share this information is contained in its own documents (2), and was confirmed in a recent statement, where the IEC –somewhat cryptically– conceded that “the impact of these [recount] decisions on the number of ballots to be included in the tally of election results will be availed to the public at a later date.” The UN was more optimistic when, well over a week ago, it estimated that the results would be decided on in the “upcoming sessions over the next few days.” (3)

These partial invalidations are potentially contentious. They include, of course, corrections based on the recounts, but also invalidations because of irregularities such as ballots not detached from the stub or not properly marked or stamped, ballots that are in the wrong box (recognisable by their serial number) or boxes that display a large number of similarly marked ballots. (4) Given the inordinate amount of energy that was spent on the similar tick marks during the audit, it seems strange that the final decisions on these investigations are still largely out of reach of scrutiny.

Full lists of all ‘decisions’ can be found here under “post-session reports.”

Complaints process

The Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) convened its fourth session on 3 September 2014. Since the Abdullah camp has pulled out of the technical process, the meeting –like all previous ones– only dealt with complaints from the Ghani camp. This time there were 81 complaints against the invalidation of 236 polling stations (note that none of the complaints so far have been against partial invalidations, since these details are not known).

The complaints in question dealt with three kinds of whole polling station invalidations: those based on the presence of similar tick marks (for instance a polling station in Logar that was invalidated based on 200 similar tick marks), those based on reports of violence or disturbances (for instance, a polling station in Faryab, where there was an explosion in the morning, but that, according to the Ghani representative, still received voters later in the day), and boxes that were invalidated because their locks did not match the forms or the boxes were found to be empty (mainly in Zabul), which the Ghani representative blamed on tampering by provincial IEC staff.

What was interesting, but left unresolved, was the fact that some of the checklist copies held by the candidate agents appeared to be different from those held by the IECC representatives. The Ghani representative further stated that they had also noticed many incomplete checklists among the forms they had gathered and that they wondered how the National Tally Centre had entered these into the database. There was, however, no IEC representative present to clear up the matter.

In the end, like in other sessions, the IECC commissioners overturned the invalidation of a handful of polling stations (two in Laghman, two in Paktika, one in Takhar and Faryab) after a brief private deliberation, without explanation given. The session was again more like a petitioning opportunity, rather than a substantive evaluation of the IEC decisions taken.

A second ultimatum

After last week’s ultimatum on 26 August 2014 by Fazl Ahmad Manawi, the head of Abdullah’s technical team, a second 24-hour ultimatum was announced on 1 September 2014 by Sayed Fazl Sangcharaki, one of Abdullah’s spokespersons. The demands, that were fairly vague, were followed by a presentation of –partially new– fraud allegations, which included the claim that possibly as many as 2,200 results sheets had been filled and signed by the same (one or two) people across polling centres and districts. Later that day, the UN let it be known that on 28 August 2014 they had indeed received copies of approximately 2200 results sheets, and that they had convened a team of experts to research whether such an issue had ever been raised elsewhere in the world. The UN said it had shared a proposal on possible investigation avenues and invalidation criteria with the IEC on 31 August 2014, but it seems the Abdullah team concluded that the UN was not moving fast or seriously enough. It is unclear what has happened since.

The second ultimatum, seemed more ominous than the first, with Sangcharaki threatening that the Abdullah team would pull out from both processes – the audit and the national unity government negotiations – and Balkh governor Atta repeating earlier threats of a “green and orange” protest movement. The following day several international heads of state were said to have been in touch with Abdullah (including Obama and Cameron), while US Assistant State Secretary Doug Frantz arrived in Kabul to “assist Embassy colleagues” and to “convey the Administration’s full support for a peaceful and democratic transfer of power.” (4) President Karzai also met with the candidates and apparently urged them to reach a final agreement.

The ultimatum’s deadline has since passed and there has been a flurry of contradictory reporting and rumour-mongering, suggesting both breakthroughs and breakdowns. The situation remains quite unclear, but the one thing that can be said with some level of certainty, is that the threat was probably meant to spark new negotiations and that, for the moment, it seems to have succeeded.

Looking ahead

After weeks of delays and walkouts, the audit process has been making steady progress and could now suddenly move quite quickly. IEC spokesperson Noor has already been indicating as much for quite a while (although initially not very credibly). However, a sudden, swift results’ announcement, preceded, as it has been, by a series of largely meaningless open sessions by both the IEC and the IECC, would do very little for the legitimacy of the audit and is likely to actually harm it. It seems so obvious: if you go through the trouble of conducting what has apparently been one of the most intrusive electoral audits ever, why spoil the integrity of the process by withholding information?

The audit may still be trumped by a political agreement, if it is ever reached. But the current lack of transparency –if not fixed– means that even though every single box has been opened and reviewed, there will still be room to contest the results – which obviously defeats the purpose of the exercise. It can only be hoped that the IEC rectifies this well in advance of its results announcement.


(1) The first session took place on 25 August 2014 and involved 3645 polling stations (2876 valid, 72 invalid, 697 recounted/partially invalid). On the partially invalidated boxes, the IEC commented that “the impact of these decisions on the number of ballots to be included in the tally of election results will be availed to the public at a later date.” This has still not happened.

The second session took place on 27 August 2014 and involved 3000 polling stations (1853 valid, 75 invalid, 756 recounted/partially invalid). After the session the IEC felt it necessary to explain why the process moved so quickly:

“The decision-making process is completed relatively swiftly, as data gathered from audit checklist forms (mainly questions that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’) is collated and provided to Commissioners in comprehensive reports. In addition, reports are reviewed by United Nations (UN) electoral experts, who compare computer-generated reports with original audit checklists forms, to identify potential occurrence of tampering between the audit and data-entry processes. UN experts remain on-hand to Commissioners throughout their decision-making sessions.”

The third session on 29 August 2014 and involved 3000 polling stations (1807 valid, 69 invalid, 628 recounted/partially invalid). Commissioners decided there was a need for closer investigation of 496 polling stations and deferred decision-making on these particular cases.

The fourth session on 31 August 2014 involved 5000 polling stations (1837 valid, 236 invalid, 2165 recounted/partially invalid. Commissioners also confirmed the need for closer investigation of 762 polling stations.

The fifth session on 2 September 2014 involved 2000 (520 valid, 50 invalid, 1070 recount/partially invalid). 360 polling stations needed closer investigation.

Full lists of the ‘decisions’ can be found here under “post-session reports.”

(2) See for instance IEC Decision nr 37-1393, which lists who is responsible for what and spells out that after the National Tally Centre has provided the lists of findings, the IEC needs to decide on (emphasis added):

  1. polling stations where no irregularities have been reported;
  2. polling stations that based on the findings should be excluded in full;
  3. polling stations that warrant a recount;
  4. results of the ballot boxes where a recount has taken place;
  5. results of boxes that are broken or lost;
  6. polling stations that may not fall under any of these categories;
  7. incomplete audit checklists. 

Both 1 and 2 are fairly straightforward and are covered in the current ‘decision-making sessions.’  Point 3 is largely obsolete, as the recount decisions have usually already been made during the audit, based on the initial findings. But point 4 states the obvious: if you conduct a recount, you need to decide based on its findings.

A comment further down in the document makes it clear that all decisions need to be communicated: Under Article 12 of the Structural Law of the IEC and IECC, the IEC decisions shall be taken in open meetings and in the presence of accredited candidate agents, national and international observers and media representatives.”

(3) See UNAMA’s press statement welcoming the start of the decision-making process on 25 August 2014 (emphasis added):

“The UN notes that of the 3,644 ballot boxes that were the subject of this first set of decisions, approximately 79 percent of boxes were validated and 21 per cent were found to contain some form of irregularities such as broken seals, results forms that did not reconcile or improperly and similarly marked ballots. The boxes with irregularities included 72 that were completely invalidated today by the Commission and 697 for which the Commission has ordered full recounts. These 697 recounts have already been physically carried out and can lead to partial or complete invalidations of boxes. The results of these recounts will now be decided upon by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in its upcoming sessions over the next few days.” 

(4) As described in IEC Decision nr 37-1393:

Ballots should be nullified in the following conditions:

  • If the marked ballots are not detached from the stub
  • If there are marked ballots without validation stamp
  • If ballots are not marked according to the procedure
  • When there are ballots of a polling center inside a box (ballots of a different polling station in the same polling center put aside and will be recounted for its correct station which causes a recount in both cases)
  • Similarly marked ballots: 15% of all obviously similarly marked ballots per station will be included into the vote count process which will equally include ballots of both candidates. All other obviously similarly marked ballots will be excluded from the count process. This 15% of ballots will not apply to the cases where all votes in an entire box will be excluded from the count process due to the following reasons:

(5) According to this State Department statement Frantz arrived in Kabul “to assist Embassy colleagues with strategic communication efforts” and “to convey the Administration’s full support for a peaceful and democratic transfer of power and emphasize the priority Secretary Kerry places on an audit process that ensures a legitimate outcome and agreement on the details of a government of national unity.”

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape