Monday, June 2, 2014

Voting, Vote Recount Principles

As electoral stakeholders, including political parties, continue to debate whether the May 20 Tripartite Elections were free and fair, and as the debate on whether a votes’ recount rages on, Zachimalawi can reveal that some international publications and legal experts acknowledge that voting and vote recounting is part of ensuring that the will of the people is not subverted.

A good case in point is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which advances the principle that citizens have a right “to vote in genuine elections”.

For instance, Article 25 of the ICCPR, signed by 152 nations, provides that: “Every citizen shall have the right and opportunity , without any of the deductions mentioned in Article 2 (which addresses issues of discrimination) and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) to take part in the conduct of public affairs directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors…”

And, according to the book ‘Recount Principles and Best Practices’- written by Mark Halvorson of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota et al – one of the mechanisms of ensuring that the will of voters is not subverted is through vote recounts.

“Although recounts challenge us, they serve an important purpose in our democracy. Foremost, properly conducted recounts assure candidates and the public that in a close election, there has been a fair examination of the procedures and an accurate count of all legally cast votes,” reads the book in part, adding:

“Recounts can also help us improve election systems. Any shortcomings in our voting equipment, ballot design, and ballot processing are revealed by the scrutiny of a recount.”

The book observes, however, that recounts expose shortcomings in the administrative and security protocols and the overall pre-election planning.

It also observes that, to ensure that recounted votes are accurate, there is need to have voter-verifiable paper records, a water-tight ballot reconciliation system, and secure chain of custody.

“One essential component of a voting system’s accuracy, integrity, and security is a paper ballot or a voter-verifiable paper audit trail for every vote cast. This ensures that election officials have an independent record to confirm that the results produced by the voting system accurately reflect the actual votes cast and the intention of the voters,” the book reads in part.

It adds: “Thorough ballot accounting and reconciliation helps to ensure that the sum of the ballots used (including voted, spoiled, and unvoted) for a particular voting precinct matches the number of ballots assigned or delivered to a voting precinct. This process also involves verifying that the number of voters who have voted is neither greater nor less than the number of voted ballots, ensuring that no votes are lost and no votes are counted more than once.

“To safeguard against tampering and loss, paper ballots, records, and voting equipment should be fully secured and documented as to each individual who handled them, when they were handled, and for what purpose. Voting equipment and materials should be accounted for throughout the election administration process.”

An international Symposium held a couple of years ago under the theme, Identifying International Principles for Resolving Election Disputes’ also indicated that legal systems are key to the process of conducting trustworthy elections.

“Applying predictable rule-based decision-making, which is subject to judicial review, ensures that the recount process is reliable, trustworthy, and faithful to the actual voting record,” reads part of the findings by the symposium.

However, the book ‘International Election Principles: Democracy and the Rule of Law’ edited by John Hardin Young indicates that the issue of ballot papers’ safety and security remains divisive, owing to the fact that there are no internationally agreed standards on ballot design.

“Ballot design varies widely worldwide, and in some cases, such as in the US, even within a country. Organisations such as Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights note that ballot design should ‘avoid confusion’ but they offer little else in terms of international standards,” reads the book in part.

While all these processes are necessary, agues that the onus to reduce post-election conflicts is on candidates.

The website asks contestants in elections to develop policies that cater for every segment of the voters in a bid to avoid issues such as that of vote recount and that of voter aparthy.

“A policy needs good marks from voters on all sides. That is because every voter can rank it compared to other policies. So, all voters are ‘obtainable’ and valuable. This leads to policies with wide appeal,” reads a posting on the website.

The site also calls for Instance Runoff Voting, as opposed to the First-Past-The-Post System used in countries such as Malawi, to help voters settle for the candidate with the most appeal.

“Some Benefits of Instant Runoff Voting are: A majority winner from one election, so no winners-without-mandates and no costly runoff elections…;less divisive campaigns and attack ads, as a candidate tells rival factions why she is their best backup choice; No hurting your first choice by ranking a backup, as it does not count unless your first choice has lost; no lesser-of-two-evils choice, because you can mark your true first choice without fear of wasting your vote; (and) no split-vote worries for a faction, as votes for their weakest candidate move to each supporter's backup choice,” the website argues.

However, whether these observations will ring true in Malawi remains to be seen.

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