By Alex Tiersky,
Senior Policy Advisor, Global Security and Political-Military Affairs
“Why aren’t you doing your job?!”
An unexpectedly tense early morning on July 21, 2019—Election Day in Ukraine: the polling station was more than 30 minutes late in opening. The shouted reprimand came from a voter, an older man who was one of several Kyiv residents who had been present and seeking to vote at this school in the center of the Ukrainian capital since well before 8:00 a.m., when the polls for the national parliamentary elections were supposed to open. His indignation was directed at the beleaguered leadership of the local polling station, who struggled to organize their work and follow the extensive procedures required to meet Ukrainian law and international best practices.
As an official election observer representing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, I was at the polling station to observe the extent to which those best practices were followed. With my capable interpreter Natalya beside me, and in partnership with my experienced observation team partner Latvian MP Aleksandrs Kiršteins, I had arrived days earlier on the invitation of the Ukrainian government for a series of preparatory briefings. On Election Day, we would follow a prescribed plan of observation as part of a larger team of more than 800 international observers spread across Ukraine (with the exception of illegally occupied Crimea, and the Donbas region under the occupation of Russian-controlled forces, where holding a free and fair election would be impossible).
The disorganized polling station was the first stop of the day for our team. While this was my first time serving as an election observer, I didn’t need the extensive and detailed procedural checklist and questionnaire provided by the OSCE to know that something was seriously amiss. My Latvian colleague confirmed, based on his extensive observation experience, that the situation was extremely unusual.
The key problem seemed to be that the leadership of the team responsible for proper running of the polling station (the chair and the secretary, among others), recently had been replaced and the newcomers had little experience with their assigned duties. It was clear that they had done precious little preparation to be able to effectively direct the work of their team on Election Day. We had been warned during the extensive pre-election briefings provided by the OSCE that many local election officials across Ukraine had been replaced. The experts were concerned that this loss of institutional memory had the potential to hamper the operations of local electoral bodies—a warning that, in our case, proved prescient.
At 8:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after its scheduled opening time and to the relief of several increasingly agitated voters and local observers, the polling station finally began to process votes. Judging that tensions at the school building had de-escalated and the situation had achieved some normalcy, we dutifully finalized our observation—promptly reporting our findings to the OSCE election experts compiling statistics from other teams deployed across the country—and moved on to observe voting procedures at several other polling stations. Before leaving, given the challenges at the polling station, we resolved to return in the evening to observe closing procedures and the counting of the vote.
We spent much of the rest of the day visiting several polling stations in the west of Kyiv. Contrary to our first observation, all the other polling stations we visited were extremely well-organized, with experienced and well-functioning teams of officials ensuring an orderly and transparent voting process. The civic pride demonstrated by the election officials and voters in properly exercising their democratic choice was evident in each location we visited. We witnessed voters of all ages casting their ballots in serene conditions, which we learned from other observation teams was largely the norm across Ukraine that day.
As the afternoon turned to evening, it was time to return to our initial polling station to assess closing procedures and the start of the counting of ballots. With the station closing as planned at 8 p.m. on the dot, we were quietly hopeful that the morning’s problems had been resolved.
Our optimism quickly proved misguided. The election officials were even more poorly directed by their leadership than they had been in the early hours of the day. After two hours of inconclusive progress toward beginning a count of actual ballots, the procedures ground to a halt in a cloud of remonstrations among several hard-working poll workers and local observers on one hand, and the polling station’s leadership on the other. In what I understood to be an extremely unusual development, the majority of the poll workers essentially sidelined their grievously underperforming leadership on the spot in order to better organize themselves. At this point, we needed to return to our home base to report on our observation, leaving behind several other international and local observers to witness what surely would be a long and challenging night of tabulation of ballots.
As we returned to the hotel, I reflected on the day’s remarkable events. It struck me how counterintuitive some might find it that we had been allowed to witness the poor performance by the leadership of this particular polling station. After all, who wants to air their dirty laundry in front of international observers taking careful note of every discrepancy?
It was then, for the first time, that I truly understood the key purpose of our election observation mission. OSCE participating States like Ukraine make the choice to invite international observation missions to their elections precisely because only in providing full transparency can a fair judgment on the electoral process be made.
In other words, our observation and reporting of the procedural imperfections we witnessed only underlined the relatively excellent performance witnessed by observation teams in the vast majority of other polling stations across Ukraine. Only through the full transparency provided by impartial external observers using a standardized methodology can the people of Ukraine be sure that their electoral process, to the maximum extent possible, allows for the full and fair expression of their democratic choice.
I feel honored to have been able to play even a very small part in this extremely consequential democratic process, and to help an OSCE participating State hold itself accountable to its commitment to the rule of law. I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to serve as an election observer.