Elections in Afghanistan can be overwhelming, surreal and utterly confusing, even for those who have followed the politics of the country for a long time. To bring those who were not here during previous elections up to speed, and to remind those who may have forgotten the details of what it was like, AAN’s Martine van Bijlert answers some crucial questions. She discusses voter registration, the securing of polling stations, election day fraud, and the laborious process to settle on an election outcome – in four installments. This one, the second, focuses on where the vote will take place – the polling centres and stations – and what that might mean for the outcome.
Why should we be looking at the polling station list?
Ahead of the election, the IEC draws and distributes the list of locations that have been assigned as polling centres, so that people know where they can vote. What complicates matters in Afghanistan is that not all planned polling stations will be able to open – areas may be too insecure, they may be inaccessible because of floods or weather, or the material may not arrive. In the past, confusion over which sites were indeed open to voters on election day and the loss of control over electoral material facilitated mass fraud and greatly complicated the count process. In 2009, this problem was compounded as the list of planned polling stations fluctuated up to election day. In 2010, the IEC tried to prevent the same loss of control by finalising the list well in advance, a measure that was touted as – and was indeed – a major improvement. However, it still did not prevent mass irregularities and the IEC still had great difficulty piecing together which polling stations opened on election day.
The list itself is important because it determines how many votes can be cast in a certain area: every polling station is allocated 600 ballots. In every election, the decisions surrounding the drawing-up process are therefore watched with suspicion – by candidates and observers alike – for indications that the allocation of polling stations may have been manipulated, as obviously not all polling stations are equal.
If there are too few polling stations in the areas where people are keen to vote, or if the stations are difficult to reach, voters may be disenfranchised. In every election so far, some polling stations have run out of ballot papers, particularly in areas where candidates had organised mass transportation for voters. On the other hand, if too many stations are planned in areas that are difficult to monitor, the IEC may lose control over what happens on the ground, which in turn increases the likelihood of fraud, whether petty, spontaneous and localised, or large scale and well prepared. The more ballots sent to areas that are out of reach, the greater the likelihood of receiving back large numbers of fraudulent votes.
Just to clarify, what is the difference between polling centres and polling stations?
A polling centre is the actual location – often a school, a mosque, a tent, a government office or a large private house. Inside the polling centre, there are multiple polling stations, at the very least one for men and one for women. The size of a polling centre can vary greatly; large polling centres can have up to 12 polling stations.
Every polling centre has a code indicating the province, district and centre. Within the centre, each polling station is also numbered.
The list of polling centres can be found here. A summary can be found here, and a useful interactive map of the polling locations can be found here.
So how many polling centres and stations are planned to be open this election?
On 29 March 2014, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced, in what will probably be the latest figure ahead of the elections, that it is planning for the opening of 6,423 polling centres. It is a further decrease compared to the announcement on 18 February 2014 that 6,775 polling stations would probably be able to open.
The latest figures means that the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and the IEC have assessed 748 out of 7,168 polling centres (or slightly over 10 per cent) as too much at risk to keep on the list. In comparison, in 2010 the security institutions decided that 938 of the 6,835 originally planned sites (i.e. 13.7 per cent) could not be secured.
At the time of posting, the IEC had not yet released details on which polling centres were taken off the list or where, only indicating that the decision had affected 18 provinces.
How does the IEC decide which polling stations to include in its list?
The IEC draws up an initial list, based on past locations of polling centres, the number of people who voted in that area in previous elections, and recent population data. This is sent to the MoI, which then assesses which sites the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) can secure. The MoI’s exact criteria are unclear, but they are likely related to the level of government control in an area and whether the ANSF is able to reach and secure the site and ensure that material can be safely transported. This is one way of looking at security, but it does not reflect whether people can be protected against intimidation – by the Taleban or otherwise – or whether they will feel secure enough to vote.
Competing factors are at work in the creation of the list. On one hand, there is a wish, certainly at the MoI, but also within the IEC, to declare as many sites safe as possible, in an attempt to showcase the ANSF’s strength and the IEC’s capability. ANSF operations have been launched to try to secure contested areas so that more centres can open (see for instance here and here). On the other hand, the IEC does realise that it should better not open polling centres that it cannot control. This has also been echoed by observers and civil society organisations.
As a result, the number of polling stations has risen and fallen. The initial MoI assessment, on 11 January 2014, was that it could secure 6,432 of the 6,845 polling centres listed by the IEC (94 per cent). Of the 414 polling centres taken off the list after the first MoI assessment, because they were deemed ‘at risk’, 165 were in the Western region (Herat 17, Farah 53, Ghor 50, Badghis 45); 75 in the Southern region (Helmand 72, Zabul 2, Uruzgan 1, none in Kandahar); 66 in the Eastern region (Laghman 23, Kunar 23, Nuristan 20); 44 in the Central region (Kapisa 26, Parwan 18), 32 in the Northern region (all in Sar-e Pul); 22 in the North Eastern region (all in Badakhshan); 10 in the South Eastern region (all in Ghazni) and none in the Central Highlands.
In the month after, the IEC submitted a list of 323 additional polling centres to the MoI, apparently based on a 2012 assessment, while the MoI separately announced that it had also added sites to the list of those it could secure. On 18 February 2014, the IEC finalised its list, which it announced on 22 February, settling on a maximum of 6,775 polling centres containing 21,663 polling stations: 12,705 for men and 8,958 for women. This is the list that is on the IEC website (summary can be found here). The IEC was clear that the list could be decreased, for instance due to a deterioration in security or a failure to deliver election material – as happened on 29 March – but that no more new centres would be added.
In many areas, the security situation is precarious; it does not take much for it to change. And there are fears that polling stations may be intentionally planned in insecure areas or areas under the control of strongmen. IEC chair Yusuf Nuristani has already tried to deflect blame by pointing to the security institutions: “If any riggings are reported because of insecurity, then the security institutions would be responsible, not the election commission … People always ask me about my concern and I always point out security threats. The people of Afghanistan are distressed about the election security.”
Should the IEC be afraid of a repeat of the ‘ghost’ polling stations of 2009 and 2010?
‘Ghost’ polling stations is definitely one of the things the IEC is worried about – and it probably should. These are the stations that never actually opened on polling day, but still returned results – and often massively so. In several notorious cases in previous elections, electoral material never even reached the intended area; instead, the ballots, boxes and forms were redirected to warehouses or homes of local strongmen where they were subjected to mass ballot stuffing (see for instance here). For an example of an area that never received their ballot boxes, only to find out later that they had been stuffed, see this story about a local tussle over polling stations.
The phenomenon was particularly pronounced in the 2009 election, when fierce competition prompted supporters to engage in exaggerated attempts to secure the vote. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, irregularities were less centralized, but the problem remained. Despite the IEC’s clear list of centres that were to open, confusion reigned over which polling stations actually did (see this report). So even though a detailed list is an important step towards greater control, it will probably not prevent the renewed emergence of ‘ghost’ polling stations and other fraud.
But how can there be so much confusion over which polling stations opened?
Confusion existed in part because in many places ballot stuffing and other tampering efforts had not yet concluded by the time electoral staff was required to phone in their reports. The incompleteness of the initial reports and their mismatch with later findings led to considerable and prolonged confusion. (For more detail, see the fourth instalment in this series.)
In practice, the IEC in Kabul, to a certain extent, loses control of its electoral material the moment it is shipped. The further material travels, the more pronounced this becomes. The IEC relies on its staff to tell it what happened by phoning in reports during election day and after the count, but in practice gathering accurate information has proven difficult and contact is sometimes lost altogether for several days (which can be intentional, as staff on the ground try to settle on what to report). In terms of IEC staff involvement, some are actively involved in organising manipulation while others simply offer their services to the highest bidder; and some are forced into complicity – like in the notorious case of the Spin Boldak ballot stuffing (see AAN reporting here).
Whichever way, clearly the level of fraud witnessed in Afghanistan’s elections would not be possible without widespread collusion by IEC staff – whether for money, out of partiality or under threat. And although efforts are made to prevent staff from engaging in irregularities – trainings, codes of conduct and, increasingly, sanctions – it is obvious that the incentives to try to co-opt IEC staff, or, for IEC staff, to offer services, are considerable. The IEC is well aware of this, as illustrated by this recent comment by Zia Amarkhel, head of the IEC Secretariat: “It gives us hope when we see a religious scholar at the polling station. This will ensure that the IEC worker will not act in contradiction to the laws when no one is watching; when there is no security and voters, local influential elements can take advantage and rig the results.”
Finally, how sure can we be that polling sites can be secured and that the IEC will remain in control of the process?
To get an impression of the kinds of problems that might emerge, it’s useful to look at provinces that have been known for irregularities in past elections. These include Kandahar, Ghazni, Paktika, Paktia Nuristan, Zabul and Khost (see previous AAN reports here, here and here for details).
If we look at the number of polling centres that have been planned in these provinces, compared with what happened in the 2010 election, we find the following:
In Kandahar in 2010, the IEC planned 209 polling centres; all of them reported to have opened on polling day. The IEC later disqualified 30 per cent of the polling stations they represented for clear signs of fraud. Based on the list of 18 February 2014 (which was still the one on the IEC website at the time of posting) the IEC planned 244 polling centres in Kandahar; no polling sites were considered too insecure to open. Update: On 29 March ten polling centres from Kandahar were taken off the list, bringing the total to 234.
In Khost in 2010, the IEC planned 104 polling centres; all but one reported to have opened on polling day. The IEC and the ECC (the Electoral Complaints Commission) disqualified 40 per cent of the polling stations they represented. This time, the IEC had initially planned 175 polling centres; the figure was then raised to 186 on the list of 18 February 2014, with no polling centres taken off the list. On 29 March no polling centres from Khost were taken off the list.
In Paktika in 2010, the IEC planned 190 polling centres; all but six reported to have opened on polling day. The IEC and the ECC later disqualified 48 per cent of the polling stations they represented. This time around, based on the list of 18 February 2014, the IEC planned 266 polling centres, with no polling centres taken off the list. On 29 March no polling centres from Paktika were taken off the list.
In Zabul in 2010, the IEC planned 44 polling centres; all but two reported to have opened on polling day. The IEC and the ECC later disqualified 15 per cent of the polling stations they represented. The ECC also disqualified two candidates, which resulted in the cancellation of 67 per cent of the remaining vote. This time around, based on the list of 18 February, the IEC planned 79 polling centres. Two are considered too much at risk to open, even though local officials had indicated that 15 out of 81 should probably be closed. On 29 March 32 polling centres from Zabul were taken off the list, bringing the total to 47.
In Paktia in 2010, 127 polling centres were planned; all reported to have opened. The IEC and the ECC later disqualified 42 per cent of the polling stations they represented. This time, based on the 18 February list, the IEC planned 212 polling centres. On 29 March no polling centres from Paktia were taken off the list.
In Nuristan in 2010, the IEC planned 42 polling centres; 32 reported to have opened, but over 60 per cent of the polling stations they represented were later disqualified. Analysis of the 2009 and the 2010 results shows that both times almost no real vote took place in the province. This time, based on the 18 February list, the IEC has planned 50 polling centres; the other 22 were considered too much at risk to open. On 29 March 16 polling centres from Nuristan were taken off the list, bringing the total to 34.
A more-detailed analysis, focusing on problematic districts in provinces that previously showed mixed patterns of irregularity, would most probably turn up similar findings. The figures illustrate that we are going into an election with a large number of polling stations that are not just vulnerable to not being able to open, but that may well turn into ‘ghost’ polling stations again.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020
ghost polling stations