Elections 2014 (13): The IEC and IECC’s reluctance to be transparent

Original link (please quote from the original source directly):
http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/elections-2014-13-the-iec-and-ieccs-reluctance-to-be-transparent

Author: Martine van Bijlert    Date: 22 April 2014

An overriding theme over the past two weeks has been the reluctance of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) to publicly release detailed information as to what is going on with the vote count. Both bodies are now catching up, but only reluctantly so, and the first round of the tally may be over before all promised information has been released. The campaign teams of the main candidates have expressed concern that the IEC, and in particular the Secretariat, could be in a position to manipulate both the actual count, through the tweaking of audit and invalidation rules, and the staggered release of the results. The recent release of information, though welcome, does little to substantially assuage these concerns. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look at the information that is now being released and which questions remain.

1. IEC releases second batch of partial results

The IEC released its second batch of partial results on 20 April 2014 in a televised press conference. The results, based on the count of 49.67 per cent of the polling stations, (1) are as follows:

The 50 per cent result roughly shows the same pattern as the earlier 10 per cent batch, albeit with a significantly widening lead for Abdullah Abdullah. As the proportion of counted votes increases, the partial results are more likely to reflect what the final preliminary results may look like. This is however still not a representative sample, so there may yet be scope for surprises – although you would expect the IEC to try to avoid this, as any major sway so late in the count would immediately give rise to accusations of interference and manipulation.

The count, first of all, has been uneven across provinces: in some provinces exceeding two thirds of the polling stations, while in others still hovering around a quarter. The provinces with the smallest proportions of polling stations included in the announced results are those that are likely to lose a considerable number of votes due to disqualifications (Paktika, Ghazni, Nuristan, Khost and Kandahar, with between 20 and 40 per cent of their polling stations counted; compare to the top end with Panjshir, Samangan, Sar-e Pol, Jowzjan and Takhar, between 60 and 70 per cent). The IEC has counted the ‘easy’, relatively uncontroversial stations first. (*)

As a result, we are now moving into a stage of the count where more polling stations with a different profile are being included: from remoter areas, having shown irregularities or signs of tampering, or having been reported as problematic. IEC chair Yusuf Nuristani stressed that so far only ‘clean’ votes had been counted and that the IEC remained fully committed to separating the clean votes from the dirty ones in the future. Further analysis of the results as they come out in the coming days will indicate whether the IEC has been able to keep that commitment.

2. The IEC’s reluctant transparency

An overriding theme over the past weeks has been the palpable reluctance of the IEC management to publicly release the information that can provide insight into what is going on with the count. Specific requests were consistently met with assurances that all details would be made clear once the process is over – which seems to defeat the purpose of observation. Pressure from different sides, including national and international observer groups and candidate campaign teams, has only recently led to greater transparency with the accelerated release of some of the information and a promise of more, although follow-through has been slow. If the recent pace of results announcements continues, the preliminary tally may be over before all the promises have been made good on. This is deeply problematic for observers who want to ensure that a fair count is being held, and for campaign teams that, in the fractured and politicised Afghan environment, are inherently suspicious of the electoral bodies and their actions.

So, what information has the IEC released over the last few days?

The IEC, first of all, finally uploaded an updated polling station list to its website on 16 April 2014, eleven days after the vote. A shorter list contains the 299 polling centres (805 polling stations) that did not open on polling day due to security threats. A longer list contains all the polling stations that, according to IEC reporting from the field, were open and that can be expected to report results – a total of 19,949 polling stations. (The total number of polling stations should be 6124, i.e. 6423 planned polling stations minus 299, but for now the IEC seems to have a little under 6000 polling centres in process).

The IEC has, for some reason, been reluctant to release these details. In the days after the election, it was clear that internally the IEC’s count almost immediately rose to respectively 211, 271 and 288, to finally settle on the current total of 299 polling centres reported as closed. The IEC, however, continued to repeat in public the initial figure of 205 closed sites without providing further detail, long after it was clear that the real figure was much higher (see for instance this 13 April 2014 press release).

New audit guidelines were posted on the IEC website on 18 April 2014, after repeated requests by campaign teams and observer organisations for greater transparency with regard to the basis for the IEC’s review decisions. The guidelines spell out in some detail when a results sheet should be sent for audit or recount, but they still do not provide a clear rationale for why some irregularities are considered more serious than others. Nor do they clarify the basis for the audit teams’ advice or the commissioners’ final decisions as to whether to accept the votes as valid, recount or disqualify them. (2)

The IEC has also uploaded, with some delay, the scanned results sheets for all polling stations included in the partial results (the scans can be found here). It is cumbersome to go through the individual results sheets, but it is currently the only way to access polling-station-level results (which is necessary to get an idea of local turnout, vote patterns and possible indications of mass ballot stuffing). In past elections the digital results on the website were given at polling-station-level, which was much easier to work with than the current polling-centre-level results. The IEC management has said that this will be looked into, but it is unclear whether it will be rectified before the end of the count.

In an open meeting of the board of IEC commissioners on 17 April 2014, the commissioners further said they intended for the IEC to upload all results sheets (“khub o kharab”, 'good or bad'), including those of the invalidated stations. The IEC chief electoral officer, Zia-ul-Haq Ammarkhel, has apparently said something similar to some of the campaign teams. The IEC audit factsheet also points towards a promise of greater release of information, indicating that all corrections to the preliminary results will be published on the website; if a results form is changed after a recount, the revised form will be posted with the original, together with an explanation as to the reason for the change. This would be an important improvement (also over previous elections). So far, however, no such corrections have appeared, even though changes have indeed been made since the announcement of the first partial results. (3)

In a meeting between the IEC management and international observer groups on 19 April 2014, the chief electoral officer moreover agreed to expand the level of detail available on the website to include: daily updates on audits and recounts (on a polling station basis), the overall progress at the national tally centre with regard to the processing of the TEBs (tamper-evident bags containing a polling centre’s results sheets), as well as all management decisions on a polling station basis.

In the evening of 21 April 2014 the IEC did indeed upload a table showing the status of polling station audits, broken down by province. A similar table for recounts had, at the time of posting, not yet been uploaded. The audit table shows that the provinces with most polling stations subject to audits – by the IEC, the IECC audits are not included – are Kabul (240), Kandahar (129) and Badakhshan (116); and proportionally: Badakhshan and Farah (14 per cent), Kandahar (13 per cent), Nimruz, Nuristan and Uruzgan (12 per cent). Overall 1610 polling stations, or 8 per cent of the total, are being audited by the IEC. In some provinces the work is almost complete (more than 90 per cent in Nimruz, Panjshir and Jowzjan), whereas in other provinces the work has barely begun (Zabul and Badakhshan). The next step is for the IEC to release information on which polling stations have been audited and what the results were.

On the same evening the IEC uploaded its new regulation on invalidation and cancellation of votes as a result of audits and investigations (approved on 17 April 2014). The regulation provides a detailed breakdown of the reasons and indicators that may lead to invalidation of “votes of a station.” The IEC has also posted older regulations on the tallying, certification and announcement of election results and on vote counting, as well as the very detailed National Tally Centre operating procedures

3. Sifting through the vote: a sprawling and confusing process

As the count has progressed, there has been a flurry of activity by the IEC and the IECC all over the country, involving audits, recounts and reports of invalidations. Observers and candidate agents are allowed to witness the processes, but they have complained that they are not always properly informed and that the nature of the observation has made them ‘watchers’ rather than observers (they can watch what is happening – for instance a person recounting ballots or a data entry clerk sitting behind a computer– but have no way of checking whether this person is doing their work properly). Much more importantly, however, is that they have no context as to why a particular box is being recounted, how this fits into the larger picture, or how the results are being treated. Yesterday’s release of the audit status update, as well as the invalidation regulation, helps provide context, but in the end what really matters is how in practice the IEC decides on its findings and whether this is viewed as transparent.

The IEC audits and recounts are initiated in Kabul, usually based on a review of the result sheets, but they can also be triggered by complaints or reports from observers and agents (see footnote 3 for more details on the audit guidelines). An audit usually involves a review of the polling station’s main documents for signs of incorrect handling or fraud: the result forms (which are in Kabul), ballot papers, polling station journals and other forms (which are all stored in the provincial centre). A recount can either be partial (only the – already counted and organised – vote bundles for a particular candidate) or in full.

In its 20 April 2014 press release, the IEC announced that it had “officially submitted 1,446 polling stations for audit, as a means to investigate irregularities, prevent fraud and determine the rightful candidate” and an additional 666 polling stations for recounts. On 21 April 2014 the number of audits had increased to 1610, according to the update on the website. The figure is likely to increase further, as the audits involving contingency polling stations (the stations that had been established in response to the ballot shortages) have not yet been included, and additional audits may be requested based on the still on-going review of results sheets.

At the same time, the IECC, has also been quarantining, investigating and possibly invalidating polling centres, in what has become quite a confusing process. This has not been helped by the fact that the IECC, in general, has been even weaker in terms of communication and information-sharing than the IEC. On 17 April 2014 IECC deputy Walid Akbar Sarwary said the commission had ordered 1000 polling centres to be removed from the count until they had been properly investigated, without providing details on where or why. The two commissions have reportedly made great efforts to coordinate the investigations, to ensure that they neither interfere nor duplicate, but the details of this cooperation are unclear and may well vary per province.

What has contributed to the confusion is the fact that the IECC audits are a much less centralised exercise than the IEC ones, as all locally registered complaints are, in principle, to be investigated and adjudicated by the provincial departments – with a possibility of appeal at the Kabul level. This means that the central IECC appears to have much less control over the scope and zeal with which the local departments go about their investigations and decisions. The problem is compounded by the fact that the IEC and IECC audits are taking place at the same time and, more importantly, that there had been very little centralised communication by the IECC in Kabul. This gap was been filled by statements by heads of provincial offices (PIECCs), without there being much clarity on the status or context of what they were saying, as well as piecemeal reporting by journalists and observers at the scene of the recounts, in regular and social media.

The most contentious case, so far, has been the mass quarantining and invalidation of around 100,000 votes in Herat. The quarantining was first announced in a press conference on 19 April 2014 by the local head of IECC, who briefed journalists that 277 polling centres had been quarantined Kushk, Rubat Sangi, Shindand, Farsi, Gulran and Kuhsan districts, as well as in Herat city. The move was based on 168 complaints, most of them relating to ballot stuffing by strongmen and government officials (and even insurgents in the remote areas) in favour of the four leading candidates. The next day, on 20 April 2014, the Herat PIECC said he had cancelled all 100,000 votes. Abdullah’s camp immediately registered a complaint and made it known that they considered this a politically motivated act targeting their votes.

The case caused a rift within the IECC, with one commissioner Aziz Aryafar calling the move “illegitimate” and another member of the Herat PIECC describing it as “a national treason.” Aryafar argued the IECC did not have enough grounds to investigate these polling stations and that the period to adjudicate complaints at the local level had expired. (4) IECC spokesperson Mohammad Nader Mohseni finally responded late on 21 April 2014, rejecting Aryafar’s arguments and arguing that the IECC had decided that all centres against which there were category A complaints (that may alter the results of the elections, if found valid) would be quarantined, that it has the freedom to initiate investigations at will, and that it had decided to extend the legal period for adjudications at the provincial level. Mohseni confirmed that the 100,000 votes had indeed been invalidated, but said that the case could be reviewed in appeal. (5)

Other reports on social media – about either the IEC or IECC audits – have included: around 20,000 of 100,000 votes cast in Wardak likely to be thrown out, pending a probe into complaints – attributed to the IECC (13/04); two boxes invalidated in Tagab, Kapisa (16/04); eight boxes recounted in Bamyan (16/04); ten boxes in Bamyan with no locks or stamps and large numbers of votes partially invalidated (17/04); at least 45 polling centres quarantined in Helmand, ten recounted in Kunar (17/04); 91 polling centres quarantined in Ghazni (19/04); 18 polling centres and 17 polling stations quarantined in Nimruz (20/04); 48 boxes recounted in Parwan (21/04); and so on. The regular media in the meantime has reported, among others, 17 sites containing 51 suspicious boxes quarantined in Balkh (12/04); recount of at least 24 boxes in Daman, Ghorak, Panjwai districts of Kandahar, as well as in the city (16/04); 36 polling centres quarantined in Farah (29 of them in Por Chaman), with both IEC and IECC commenting (17/04); 92 boxes quarantined in Kunduz (20/04); and so on. The problem with these figures however is that, without further context and follow-up information, it is impossible to know what they mean, as the real relevance is in whether they unearth fraud or not, and whether the investigations are being impartially ordered and implemented.

On 17 April 2014 the IECC started to release status updates on the handling of complaints on its website, which otherwise had remained largely inactive. (6) According to the latest update, at the end of the day on 21 April, the IECC had received a total of 2133 formal complaints, 921 of which are considered category A. So far 423 of these category A complaints have been adjudicated. The adjudications have been unevenly distributed and several provincial departments appear not to have taken a single decision so far (Logar, Ghazni, Balkh, Kandahar and Faryab), even though local reports suggest that audits are on-going. It is not clear whether the IECC intends to extend the deadline for local adjudications again, move the adjudication of the pending complaints to the central level, or whether reporting on the complaints adjudication is simply lagging.

The provinces with the highest total number of complaints, according to the table, were: Kandahar (170), Herat (168), Balkh (126), Kabul (95), Badakhshan (91), Paktia (96, up from 88 on 17/04) and Nangarhar (79). In Kandahar, Herat and Kabul most of the complaints were against IEC staff, in Kandahar in particular for working in favour of a presidential candidate. In Balkh most complaints were directed against presidential candidates, while in Badakhshan and Paktia most were against provincial council candidates. The central office received 172 complaints, most of them directed against presidential candidates.

On 22 April 2014 the IECC started posting its provincial decisions on the website (in Dari and Pashtu). At the time of posting decisions had been uploaded for Parwan, Ghor, Paktia, Kunar, Wardak, Bamyan, Zabul, Sar-e Pol, Logar, Helmand, Kabul and Nangrahar. So far, many of the posted decisions concern dismissals of complaints based on insufficient evidence.

4. Release of the polling station lists and what they tell us

The updated polling station lists, released on 16 April 2014 and detailing which polling stations had reported as open or closed on polling day, provide insight into possible unequally distributed closures, whether by coincidence or design, and provide clues for irregularities and the occurrence of so-called ‘ghost polling stations’ (for more details see this earlier AAN dispatch). Past experience has shown that the largest volume of fraud is often committed in polling stations that are open on paper and that report results – often massively so – but that in practice were never accessible to voters; the boxes were simply moved elsewhere, stuffed and returned as if the votes had been cast as normal. The more polling stations there are in areas that are either insecure and difficult to monitor, or tightly controlled by political or armed networks, the more opportunities there are for massive fraud.

What the polling station lists tell us

The list of closed polling stations shows a great variation across provinces that does not seem related to the actual situation on the ground. Like with earlier lists, the problem does not so much seem to be on the high end – the provinces that reported the highest numbers of closures do indeed have security issues – but rather with the provinces that show surprising low numbers of closures.

The provinces with the most closures on polling day were: Nangrahar (50 polling centres with 129 stations), Wardak (44 polling centres with 101 stations), Faryab and Herat (both 26 polling centres, with respectively 73 and 71 stations). Nangrahar had already been hit hard earlier, when in the last amendment of the list of planned polling stations it had lost 115 polling sites (23 per cent of the total) due to security reasons. The additional closures on polling day meant that one third of its originally planned polling sites could not be used. There are no indications that this may have been excessive, but there are strong suggestions that other provinces have not been treated with the same rigour.

Wardak, for instance, had lost no polling centres before election day; the province was treated as if all sites could be secured, which was clearly not the case. So it is no surprise that a considerable number of its sites (27.5 per cent) could not open on polling day, but the number of sites that were really active will probably still have been considerably less than reported. For instance, the classic ‘ghost polling centre’ that was supposed to be in Abu Khak school in Chak-e Wardak (while in reality the ballot boxes had been moved elsewhere, as described here by Anand Gopal and Matthieu Aikins) was listed by the IEC as having been open on polling day. The list is based on reports by local IEC staff, so polling station results belonging to such stations may still be invalidated later as a result of IEC and IECC audits. The question is whether they will be, or whether they will be counted as regular votes.

Faryab and Herat lost respectively 18 and 15 per cent of their originally planned polling stations (when adding up both the pre-polling removals and the polling day closures). That could be reasonable, given the precarious security situation in several districts, although reports of quarantining in both provinces (see below) suggest that many of the remaining polling sites were still unprotected enough to be vulnerable to large-scale fraud.

Interestingly – and highly implausibly – all provinces in the south reported very low numbers of closed polling stations. For Kandahar, Zabul and Nimruz the IEC reported that only two polling centres had not opened, for Uruzgan only one, and in Helmand reportedly all polling sites opened without problem. This is all the more remarkable when considering that even in Kabul province (Sorobi district) four polling centres were listed as closed. Of these provinces Kandahar is the one most worth watching, given its history of mass ballot stuffing (involving officials who have since then been promoted) and the mass of votes the province represents (with 957 polling stations ‘open’ on polling day, it represents a potential 574,200 votes; compared to 379,800 in Helmand and 99,000 in both Nimruz and Zabul). The IEC is currently auditing 129 polling stations in Kandahar, out of a total of a total of almost one thousand.

In the east, Paktia and Paktika each reported twelve polling centres not opening, Laghman eighteen, but Kunar only three, and Khost and Nuristan both zero. Nuristan and Kunar both had polling centres removed from the list before polling day (respectively 23 and 51 per cent of the originally planned sites), but Khost, Paktika and Paktia went into election day with their lists fully – and implausibly – intact. For a list of the number of polling day closures per province, see below. (7)

The contingency polling stations: no details yet

The polling station information is however still incomplete, as the IEC has not released the details of the extra polling stations that were added on polling day, in response to widespread ballot shortages. The only thing we have is a factsheet posted on 19 April, two weeks after election day, that provides some background and a total figure.

According to the factsheet, the IEC released half of the contingency materials it had stored in the provincial centres exactly for this purpose; all in all 548 polling stations (or 328,800 ballots). In five provinces – Baghlan, Balkh, Bamyan, Herat and Nimruz – all contingency material was released, while in other provinces, such as Jowzjan and Samangan, high proportions were used. The majority of requests for additional materials occurred in provincial capitals, including Kabul, but shortages did not occur in all polling centres. Some polling centers, according to the IEC, received very few voters while others were overcrowded – sometimes within very short distances of each other.

The results from polling stations that required contingency materials much sooner, or in greater volumes than projected, are considered potentially suspicious and will be examined (according to the IEC factsheet it should take around 9 hours to process 600 voters: “that some stations claimed to have done so much faster is considered an irregularity that merits scrutiny.”) In the absence of detailed information on both the extra polling stations and what is currently being audited, there is no way of knowing how stringently or fairly this is being implemented.

5. The IEC and IECC’s reluctance to be transparent; why this may be a problem

Over the last few days the IEC and have accelerated its information sharing, under pressure from all sides. The IECC still has a way to go, but will probably also be asked to improve, once the attention shifts after the announcement of the preliminary results. The greater insight in terms of figures and factsheets, however, does not necessarily translate into greater transparency in terms of how the IEC and the IECC are handling the votes. For now, what is clear is that the IEC Secretariat is running a very tight ship, closely guarding and rationing the information it has and outwitting the much less experienced commissioners. Members of the campaign teams of the main candidates have expressed suspicion that the IEC is in a position to manipulate both the actual count, through the tweaking of audit and invalidation rules, as the staggered release of the results. The recent release of information, though welcome, does little to substantially assuage these concerns.

This is important not only for this round of vote counting but also for what comes after. The way the IEC and IECC handle the count and complaints adjudication in this round, will also be how they do it in the politically much more contentious second round – if there is one. It will also be how they handle the provincial council count, which is already almost fully overshadowed by the presidential race, and next year’s Wolesi Jirga election. Close scrutiny is in order.

(*) Update: Since the posting of this article, the IEC has added the following information to its website: the percentage of polling stations counted per province (both on the general page as on the separate provincial pages) on 23 April 2014. Chief electoral officer Ammarkhel also called a meeting on 23 April 2014 to brief civil society organisations. In a short altercation after the meeting he was angrily asked why the IEC was only providing transparency now, after having already entered over 90% of the vote into its data base.

 

 

(1) The fact that the IEC is counting by polling station has led to confusion, [link 1st results] as for most observers the logical unit of analysis would be the number of votes. The problem for the IEC, however, is that they will only know the total number of votes when the count is over. To complicate matters, IECC uses the polling centre as their unit of analysis, probably because many complaints relate to a whole polling site rather than a specific station.

(2) The guidelines determine in short that a recount is required for polling stations where the total count exceeds 600 (although it allows for a curious 1 per cent tolerance, which means that results up to 606 votes remain unchecked). An audit is required when results forms have not been stamped or signed by the polling station’s chair, or not signed by multiple agents (a form that has two agents’ signatures and the official stamp, but no signature by the polling station chair is, curiously, accepted as uncontroversial). An audit is also required for the all contingency polling stations that were set up in response to the ballot shortages that are either located outside the city or where the shortages occurred early; for polling stations that report “equal distribution of votes” among candidates; or where there were reports of irregularities or violence. A polling station’s results are invalidated when the results have been handed in on a blank paper, or if stamp or signatures have been tampered with. Unusual cases – such as the large number of results sheets that were returned in regular brown envelops instead of the tamper-evident bags; results that are written on ballot papers instead of on the results forms; or forms where there is discrepancy between the results written in numbers and words – are reviewed by the IEC leadership. 

Audits result in one of three recommendations to the board of commissioners: accept the result as valid; conduct a recount and produce a new results form; or disqualify the result. The commissioners will decide whether evidence indicates a simple miscount or fraud. Based on the findings, the audit teams will prepare a report containing the decisions of the commission and submit it to the IEC management. Full details can be found in the audit factsheet

(3) The new audit guidelines were only signed and enforced after the announcement of the first partial results. The IEC has briefed international observer groups that since then some of the results that were initially included in the first announcement have been invalidated. Details have been promised, but not yet provided.

(4) According to IECC commissioner Aryafar, but also several observers and candidate agents, the PIECC no longer had the authority to adjudicate based on article 63.2 in the electoral law, which states that a “candidate or his/her agent may file a complaint during voting, counting or within 48 hours after the election day in the [polling] centre or at the provincial office. The provincial commissions are obliged to, within 10 days of election day, finalise the results of their investigations with regard to the complaint and to publish it.”

On 16 and 17 April 2014, when AAN contacted PIECC staff member in various provinces, several of them did express concern and frustration over the fact that, at the time, the IEC had not yet allowed them to start their investigations. See also here. There had been some discussion in Kabul about extending the legal deadline, but until now it had not been clarified whether this had happened or not.

(5) There have been similar public rifts within the IEC’s board of commissioners, most notably during a (televised) open meeting when the commissioners were trying to decide how to deal with the many results sheets that had been returned in regular brown envelops instead of in the designated tamper-proof plastic bags. Many Afghan consider the backgrounds to such rifts to most likely be political and factional in nature, relating to which candidates may benefit from or be harmed by a certain decision, rather than technical.

(6) The relevant English webpages – Complaints and Decisions – are still “under construction.” On the Dari site they contain the complaints statistics discussed above, a report of a pre-polling open hearing, and the first batch of its provincial decisions. The Pashtu page has three public announcements filed under Decisions (respectively stating that everyone is allowed to make video recordings of fraud, giving an overview of the number of complaints so far, and urging provincial council candidates to keep their phones on in case they need to be contacted to check their registration).

(7) The lists provided by the IEC are detailed, but not aggregated per province or district. The number of polling centres (PC) and polling stations (PS) closed on polling day per province, in declining polling centre (PC) order, are as follows: