The audit of all of the votes cast in Afghanistan’s presidential election run-off has begun at the headquarters of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) on the outskirts of Kabul on 17 July. Thirty teams of IEC staff (to be raised eventually to one hundred) checked just one ballot box each, overseen by candidates’ agents, observers and the media. They worked through a sixteen point checklist – were ballot boxes sealed? did results sheets tally? etc – as agreed last week by both candidates with visiting US Secretary of State, John Kerry. However, those negotiations did not decide the invalidation criteria – the rules for deciding what to do when irregularities are found. Kate Clark and Qayoom Suroush from the IEC headquarters report that it felt a bit like starting a game of football without having decided exactly where the goal-line was.The full audit of the Afghan presidential run-off election has started. Photo: AAN
At one of the hangar warehouses of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), with ballot boxes stacked two metres high along the walls, the IEC staff waited to be given the go-ahead to start the audit of the eight million or so votes cast in the second round of Afghanistan’s presidential election on 14 June. Thirty two-person teams of mainly IEC headquarters staff have been freshly trained in auditing the ballot according to sixteen criteria (1) established in the agreement hammered out on 12 July by the two candidates, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, with the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, and technical advice from UNAMA.
Today’s proceedings started with a press conference in which IEC chairman Yusef Nuristani said very little. (2) Then, at about midday, the IEC commissioners, international and domestic observers, candidates’ agents, UN staff and the media all swarmed into the hanger. The temperature rose by several degrees, despite the air conditioning, because of the sheer volume of people packed suddenly into the small space. Thirty tables had been set out, with two IEC officials sitting behind each one. Opposite them, roped off, but with a perfect view and able to handle the ballots, one agent per candidate sat down, along with several international and national observers (drawn from, among others, the national observer networks, FEFA and TEFA, the US-based National Democratic Institute and Democracy International and various embassies).
The boxes were opened: the audit had begun
The candidates’ agents were like hunting dogs, eager to spot any irregularity and flush it out. One agent for Ashraf Ghani (the original preliminary results put him ahead) told AAN, “They have disputed the results and we want to defend them.” An agent for the rival team was also forthright: “We claimed there were two million fraudulent ballots and we want to prove that.”
The agents and observers looked on as the IEC officials first checked the boxes, their stickers and seals. The officials looked at the number of spoiled, unused and invalid ballots and any ballots still attached to their stub. They then scanned two bundles for each candidate (50 votes each) to see if there was what the checklist described as “identical or significant patterns of the same markings on ballots”, ie evidence of ballot stuffing. They also looked at the results sheet: did it match that processed in the national tally centre and was there evidence it had been tampered with or did not match the number of ballots in the box? They checked the polling station journal and the list of voters. Of the four filled-in copies of the checklist, two went to the agents, one to the IEC and one stayed in the box, which was then re-sealed.
Finding irregularities today, however, was a difficult task. The boxes were all from Kabul city, one of the places with the fewest suspicious voting patterns or historical patterns of fraud in the country. Some IEC teams and agents’ went through the checklist smoothly, asking what seemed reasonable questions. AAN saw one IEC staff member explaining to the agents why it was feasible for the election day polling station log book not to have been written in (possibly no observers had arrived and no power-broker had tried to intimidate the voters). At other tables, however, there was nit-picking.
AAN saw one Abdullah agent insisting that four tick-marks (all for Ghani) had been made by the same hand, evidence, he said, of mass voting. The Ghani agent demurred, but then found three similar-looking ticks for Abdullah to complain about. The IEC official tried her best to convince the agents that to her the ticks were different and were too few to indicate mass fraud, but in the end, she and her colleague bundled the suspect votes up by themselves and marked the box for further discussion by the Commission. At another table, a Ghani agent found a ballot (for Abdullah) that should have been invalidated because it was torn (but which had been counted as valid). Again, he wanted the box to go to the Commission.
IEC officials seemed well-trained, patient and attentive and, despite the bitter words between the two camps of recent weeks, the atmosphere was friendly. UN staff were on hand to advise on disputes or respond to questions, as mandated in the technical agreement. (It would have been useful to be able to identify them more readily as they have a different role to the observers.) (3) The close scrutiny meant very slow progress was made, but that should speed up as everyone gets used to the process and, possibly, calms down. If not, this will take an awfully long time to get through.
The IEC hopes to eventually work up to one hundred teams working in two shifts. Having enough international observers, given issues of security, visas and accreditation means that not all are in the country yet and may slow up getting up to that hundred-team, double-shift system. However, given the sensitivity of the audit and the fact that more ‘difficult’ provinces lie ahead, it may be no bad thing that reaching full capacity takes some time. Today felt like an education for everyone on procedures, starting with a relatively easy sample of boxes and with each team looking at one box, before heading home mid-afternoon.
What happens next? Nobody really knows
Getting through the initial 16 point checklist stage of the audit is one thing. It was agreed by the two candidates in the presence of John Kerry. However, just before the audit began, AAN asked IEC chairman Nuristani if the invalidation criteria had been decided. “Not yet,” he said.
The issue is what criteria should trigger individual ballots being invalidated and what should trigger whole boxes. We were told by IEC staff and others that, with UN technical support, the candidates’ technical teams (headed by Fazl Ahmad Manawi for Abdullah and Daud Sultanzoi for Ghani) were still trying to thrash out this difficult and actually very political question of what to do with the contents of suspect boxes. As AAN understands it, when they have reached an agreement, they will then present their joint suggestions to the IEC. One commissioner said he was uneasy that the audit had started without that decision.
For example, if evidence is found of ‘mechanical voting’, the same hand marking 300 ballots, should any votes which appear genuine in that box be counted – or should the whole box be invalidated? This would affect any boxes where there had been ‘early morning’ or ‘after hours’ stuffing. During the 2009 elections, there was a tendency to invalidate whole boxes thereby preventing genuine votes from being counted. The election law was amended to reflect this and gives the possibility for partial box invalidation.
The invalidation criteria are a technical issue, pitting thoroughness of the audit against speed, among other things. But it is also political. AAN was told by various sources that Abdullah’s team wants whole boxes invalidated, while Ghani wants only invalidated ballots excluded from the count. While we could not get official confirmation of this, it would make political sense if, as seems likely from the statistics on the preliminary results, there are more suspicious patterns among the pro-Ghani votes. Invalidating whole boxes would then likely, on aggregate, magnify the number of Ghani votes being thrown out. Whichever the way the discussion is going, however, it will be political dressed up as technical, with both teams trying to decide what best suits their interests. This is not just about trying to win, but for each team getting evidence to back up their narrative about what happened on 14 June, for Ghani, that high turn out by his supporters won him the day, and for Abdullah, that ‘industrial-scale’ fraud took place and that he was the rightful winner (see our earlier analysis here).
First day conclusions
It looks as if it will be a slow, but thorough process, auditing all of the eight million of the votes cast in the presidential run off. Everyone, today, was serious – IEC staff, agents and observers. However, there are two issues that could cause problems. One is ensuring there is no ‘wriggle-room’ for future claims that the audit was not conducted properly and therefore is invalid. The process at the IEC headquarters feels like it will be adequately scrutinised to prevent this, but questions might be raised, for example, on the transport of the ballot boxes, if ISAF paperwork is not beyond question. The other issue is what rules will govern which ballots to invalidate. That lingering question meant that, today, the referee blew his whistle and the football match kicked off, but the teams have not agreed on what exactly constituted a goal, so the referee does not yet not know what is a goal and what might be offside.
(1) This is not a word-for word rendition of the check-list, but accurate on substance.
Afghan Presidential Election Technical Framework 12 July 2014
IEC Audit Checklist
1 Is the box of the same type as distributed by the IEC for the election?
2 Is it intact?
3 Does it have a sticker, indicated the code of the polling station and centre?
4 How many seals does the box lid have and how many are intact?
5 Can the seals be opened by the force of a hand?
6 Are the serial numbers of the seals similar (sic) to those of the recording form inside the box?
7 Is the results form copy inside the box?
8 Are there unused, spoiled or invalid ballot papers? If yes, how many?
9 Are there marked ballot papers not detached from the stub. If yes, how many and in favour of which candidate?
10 Do the back of the ballot papers related to a candidate bear a verification stamp. How many ballots lacked the stamp and which candidate did they favour?
11 Have the ballot papers been marked according to the procedure? How many and in favour of whom?
Additional UN recommendations
12 Are there “identical or significant patterns of the same markings on ballots”? If yes, how many?
13 Is there evidence of “tampering with the results sheet and coherence with the number of ballots in the box”? If yes, provide details.
14 Does the results sheet copy match that processed in the national tally centre?
15 What is the relevant information from the polling station journal and list of voters?
16 “Do ballot boxes register results that, according to best international practices, require special scrutiny (eg when there are significant differences between first and second round tallies)? If yes, then such boxes will receive particular attention from international and domestic observers and agents.”
(2) Nuristani thanked everyone, apologised for the delay and recapped recent history – the initial audit of 299 polling stations, then 1930 and the new agreement for a total audit. He said ballot boxes would start to be brought to Kabul very soon. He also said he hoped the audit would take three to four weeks, before the process moved to the Independent Election Complaints Commission.
(3) The agreement says that: “any disputes or questions not responded to in a satisfactory manner will be referred to the UN for advice, including on international best practice. If the issue is not resolved, it will be recorded in the audit sheet for further adjudication by the Commission in its deliberations.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020