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Elections ≠ voting

How can we determine practically whether elections are fair? Are there criteria by which the democratic nature of the electoral process can be assessed? What is the purpose of elections in authoritarian regimes? How not to be confused by these terms and not to become a victim of political manipulation? To answer these questions we have prepared a brief overview of the basic principles of fair and free elections with vivid examples from countries around the world.

Elections are the most common way for citizens to participate in political life and the most legitimate way to gain power. With the help of elections, parliaments and local self-government bodies are formed, constitutions are adopted and heads of state are appointed. The electoral process is an integral part of socio-political life and is not limited to mere voting. In addition to the physical ticking of ballot papers, elections can only be considered fair and free if the opposition has been admitted to the elections and the voting has been preceded by political debate and public discussion of party programs. Citizens must have access to information about all candidates, and the media must report transparently on the activities of both government and opposition parties. If elections are unfair and unfree, it is no longer an election, but a tool to remain in power.

The basic principles of democratic elections

Elections should be universal 

This means that all citizens, regardless of gender, race, nationality, class or profession, language, income, wealth, education, religion or political opinion, have an active (as voters) and passive (as candidates) right to participate in elections. Universality is limited by a few exceptions: first of all, by the age and capacity of a person. People with mental disabilities vote with the support of a custodian. In most countries it is possible to participate in elections from the age of 16 (in Austria, Brazil, Iran), from 18 (in Ukraine, Russia, Germany, USA), from 20 years (in Japan). The material, racial, gender qualifications always have a discriminatory character and are incompatible with modern democratic principles of the electoral rights. In the 20th century, most countries abolished restrictions on female voters. One of the last democracies to allow women to elect and be elected was Switzerland in 1971. Countries such as Brunei and Saudi Arabia still have restrictions regarding female voters. 

Direct elections

Citizens elect deputies to representative bodies of government directly, that is, without an intermediate process and the participation of elected representatives. The U.S. has a long tradition of presidential elections involving so-called electors. Voting takes place in two stages. First citizens elect representatives in their districts, who then vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate. Ordinary voters are confident that their elector will vote for the candidate they trust most. There are exceptions that lead to scandals because of unscrupulous electors. In science and in the press, there is an ongoing debate about American elections. In addition to scholarly opinions, there are even more conspiracy theories propagated by activists and propagandists against U.S. policies. Most political scientists believe the U.S. election is legitimate. Russia also has experience with a multistage voting system, where a so-called “municipal filter” was introduced for candidate registration in gubernatorial and regional head elections. This is a procedure for collecting signatures in support of a candidate. In contrast to multistage elections, direct elections are the most democratic way of forming power. They effectively express the will of the voters and provide a direct opportunity not to reelect deputies and presidents who have not justified their trust.

Equal elections

One citizen = one vote. Each voter has only one vote, which has equal weight. The equality of electoral rights also implies an approximate equality of electoral districts, from which one mandate is elected, that is, one deputy to parliament. In practice it is difficult and expensive to ensure the exact equality of constituencies at all times, so some deviations from this principle are permitted. For example, according to the German electoral law, electoral districts can differ by one third of the population.

Secret  balloting

A person is not obliged to tell whom he*she votes for. According to international practice, secret balloting is conducted by a voter filling out a ballot in a special booth, closed to the public, which contains the names of candidates and parties for which the voter is voting. These ballots are placed in the ballot box. 

Fair and free elections 

Citizens make the decision to choose a party or candidate without outside influence. This means that they must have access to a variety of sources of information. Public television, radio, and news portals should provide unbiased biographies of candidates and their reform proposals. The media must give airtime to candidates to inform citizens. No one has the right to put pressure on voters, on one’s own colleagues and subordinates, employees of enterprises and state institutions, teachers and soldiers. Political, financial, and psychological pressure on the candidates themselves, volunteers of headquarters, and observers are forbidden. It is a crime to manipulate the counting of ballots, to change the turnout, and to falsify the voting protocols.

Manipulation of election laws, sudden postponements of dates to please individual candidates, deliberate complication of the registration process – all of these generally indicate that elections are not fair and free. Representatives of electoral headquarters and the so-called “political technologists” find loopholes in the laws, bribe election commission members, prosecutors, judges, and buy journalists in order to exclude rivals from the race and clear the field for their candidate. The distribution of money, trips, vouchers, tickets to free concerts is corruption of voters as well as limitation of freedom of choice. Administrative resources, pressure on voters and falsifications are regularly used by autocrats and parties that want to retain their power in the country. These features are characteristic of young states with weak institutions and authoritarian regimes. In such countries, the role of journalists, observers, opposition and civil society is particularly important. They document violations, publish photo and video evidence in social media, make the facts of falsifications public, address legal bodies and in case of obvious manipulations demand the cancellation of voting results and even the resignation of the government. The incumbent government is always responsible for upholding the principles of free and fair elections. 

Ten stages of the electoral process

There are national peculiarities, traditions, and diverging election laws. Nevertheless, the democratic electoral process can be roughly divided into ten main stages. The previous stage does not always end, when a new one begins.

  1. Public debate is a free discussion of the upcoming elections, possible candidates, and polling data on television, in the press, and on social media. Its intensity increases even before the official start of the election campaign, when politicians begin to make the first statements about reforms and their desire to run for office in the upcoming elections.
  2. The Central Election Commission (CEC) sets the voting date and announces the start of the electoral race. The authority of the CEC is regulated by electoral laws, and the activities of its staff are closely monitored by election headquarters and journalists.
  3. The CEC draws up voter lists, forms and assigns electoral districts, and coordinates the process of establishing electoral commissions. Parties and candidates submit their documents to the CEC for registration and can present the first ideas for reforms, proposals for improving life in the country or their region.
  4. After registration, a party or candidate forms electoral headquarters to conduct advertising and campaigning. A registered candidate must open a bank account in which he*she is entitled to receive funds for their campaign. Their own funds can be deposited there as well. They can be sponsored by public associations, parties, citizens and legal entities. In accordance with national legislation, political parties can receive funding from the state budget. All parties are entitled to receive contributions from individuals and legal entities registered in a given country and have to provide information on the largest amounts. This should help voters understand whose interests the candidate really represents. Most countries strictly prohibit donations to parties from organizations or citizens from abroad as it is considered foreign interference in elections and domestic politics.
  5. Politicians publish and present their programs at press conferences. Party election headquarters put up posters and campaigns on the streets, in the press, and on social media. Registered candidates participate in debates on public channels and television. In this process, an important role is played by the PR specialists, who use eye-catching advertisements and interesting slogans to attract the attention of voters to the party. In some post-Soviet countries the role of PR is sometimes played by so-called political technologists. In addition to campaigning to promote the party in the media, they are known for using undemocratic tools, such as bribing voters, influencing election commission members and the judiciary to eliminate competitors from the electoral race.
  6. On election day, citizens go to the polling station, personally fill out the ballot and drop it in a special box or ballot box. Observers, journalists and members of election commissions monitor the process, monitor compliance with the principle of secret and free voting, record violations and report them to the public and law enforcement bodies. In some countries there is a system of electronic voting through special voting machines. In Estonia, they went even further and have been conducting elections online for 15 years.
  7. The media and social science institutes conduct exit polls, which are interviews with voters as they leave the polling stations. In Germany, exit polls are published in real time. According to the laws of Ukraine and Russia, the data can be published only after the last polling stations are closed. 
  8. The CEC counts the votes, determines and announces the official results. Independent observers, representatives of headquarters and journalists control the process and in case of violations or outright falsifications report it to the public and publish the data.
  9. Following the results of the vote, parties and candidates make statements accepting the results of the election, their victory or going into opposition. Parties can inform their constituencies about their first steps for the presidency, ministerial candidates and possible allies to form parliamentary coalitions and opposition.
  10. If politicians or public associations believe that the election was unfair, they can deny the election, demand a recount, file a lawsuit, and urge their voters to protest. The CEC and the court consider the evidence of fraud provided by observers and have the authority to annul the results of individual precincts, districts, or to annul the results altogether. In this case, new elections are scheduled.

Violations of the electoral process

Elections are a mechanism for the free expression of the will of citizens. If basic democratic principles are not respected, opposition candidates are not registered for elections, TV channels focus on one party, exit polls and observers differ greatly from the official results, and police and public prosecutors prosecute observers, the process cannot be called an election. In such cases, the institution of elections is used to prolong one’s power and to hold on to it. Such “elections” are a typical instrument of legitimizing power in authoritarian regimes.

Violations can occur at any stage of the electoral process. As early as the stage of submission of documents to the CEC, undesirable candidates who are denied registration for formal reasons may be “filtered out”. For example, in the 2018 Russian presidential election, the opposition candidate Alexei Navalny was denied registration. In 2019, a tenth of election commissions in St. Petersburg worked with gross violations, creating obstacles to the registration of independent deputy candidates. In young democracies and authoritarian countries, registered politicians often include so-called “technical candidates” who may later withdraw in favor of the main candidate or take votes from the opponent. This is a manipulation of the electoral process.

After the candidates have been registered and presented their programs, campaigning and PR technologies come into play. They help candidates and parties to shape citizens’ perceptions of themselves and their opponents. The media and social networks provide publicity to candidates. They publish posters, videos, catchy slogans and statements, give interviews, comment on important social, economic and political issues, and participate in televised debates with opponents. Media before elections should respect the principle of pluralism of opinion and be independent of political parties and business structures. If a candidate owns a news portal, a TV channel or a newspaper, this calls into question the fairness of electoral competition and equal access of all candidates to the media.

Billboards and posters are considered one of the main types of presentation of potential candidates or parties. In Germany, the setting up of information booths in public spaces is a common practice. A political communication team works on the design of a billboard, working out all the symbolism in detail, from the color scheme to the candidate’s appearance in the photo. For example, the color that Petro Poroshenko used in his political ads is considered imperial: in ancient times, only rulers had the right to wear purple clothes. Each political party in Germany has its own color, making it easily recognizable to voters. The pro-environment party is called the Green Party. Black is the color of the conservatives of the Christian Democratic Union, former Angela Merkel’s party. The liberals use yellow, the Social Democrats and the Left use red color.

As part of the campaign, candidates sometimes resort to dirty techniques. They are not always prohibited by law, but often violate the morals and traditions of democratic elections. “Dirty PR” is the spreading of compromising material, rumors and disinformation. Its purpose is to destroy the favorable image of the competitor. Dirty techniques can also include counter- and anti-advertising and the creation of an artificial problem. It is done, for example, through the publication of “jeansa” (a term often used in Russian language) – specially commissioned materials in the media in favor or against this or that politician or party. “Jeansa” is presented under the guise of an ordinary article or news item and often contains sensationalism or shocking facts.

The use of so-called bots and trolls has become a widespread phenomenon in the pre-election period. Bot farms are designed in such a way that special software or hired users perform mechanical, monotonous actions: spamming, randomly registering on sites, writing comments, and liking posts. In this way, they can influence the opinion of voters, support or defame a certain politician, as well as increase the views of Youtube videos or posts on social media. According to the “I am a bot” investigation, on the eve of the 2019 Ukrainian parliamentary elections, bots left thousands of comments on behalf of Anatoliy Hrytsenko (“Civil Position”) and Sviatoslav Vakarchuk (“Voice”). In addition, bots were found leaving messages in support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and former head of state Petro Poroshenko. In Russia, such comments are often left by real people, hired specifically to create content and comments on social media. The most famous project is the “Troll Factory,” which is located near St. Petersburg. Its production capacity is such that they can take to the top of the feed a specific video or news article. The main customers are oligarchs and representatives of the Kremlin.

Fakes are often used in election campaigns. This is a voter disinformation strategy used by autocrats, populists and propagandists. The purpose is to spread false information, to create a sensation or to distort facts in order to promote a specific version of events and to confuse readers. Politicians often resort to populist statements and deliberately unrealistic promises to solve political and social problems. The right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany demands that borders be closed to refugees, new restrictions on entry for migrants and a return to German origins. In doing so, representatives of the party use racist slogans popular in certain segments of the population. “People appreciate him as a soccer player. But no one wants to live next to Boateng”, was the statement made by the head of the AfD party Alexander Gauland before the elections to the Bundestag, mentioning the famous German soccer player Jerome Boateng. Boateng’s father immigrated from Ghana, and the footballer himself was born and raised in Berlin.

Populism is also used in direct contact with voters. Unrealistic promises and even bribes are made during city tours and meetings with labor collectives. Playgrounds and sports grounds are opened in the yards. If not forbidden, schools and kindergartens are filled with sweets, voters are given food packages, free tourist services, concerts, festivals and competitions. For example, before the 2019 parliamentary elections in the Ukrainian city of Kropivnitskyi a festival got organized at the initiative of Deputy Oleksandr Gorbunov. There were 19 festivals from the party “Servant of the People” called “Kvartal fest”. Mikhail Poplavskiy and Oleg Vinnik sang for the “Agrarian Party”, “Golos” held free concerts, where “Okean Elzy” and Khrystyna Solovyy performed, and TIK sang for the “Ukrainian Strategy of Groysman” political party. 

It is necessary to pay attention to the election campaign and to distinguish between the real possibilities and intentions of the candidates behind the political tactics. If they fail to convince the electorate to vote for their party, some politicians resort to undemocratic direct falsification. Besides ballot stuffing and falsification of protocols, there are a number of other methods. By the “handkerchief” method, a bribed member of a polling station puts on a handkerchief or other identification mark. At the end of the election day, the participants of falsification with other people’s passports approach the “marked” commission member and receive ballots for those who did not come to the elections. “Blank” is a method when election commission members give out ballots without signatures of two election commission members and a stamp, without which the ballot is considered invalid. Another method of election fraud is “carouse”. A voter takes a blank ballot out of the polling station and gives it to the head of the fraudulent group. The ballot is marked for the necessary candidate and given to the next participant of the “carousel”. On arriving at the polling station a person hides the blank ballot he was given, and throws the ballot with the pre-marked mark into the ballot box. After leaving the polling station, the blank ballot is handed to the leader of the group, and the carousel “keeps turning”.

Sometimes falsifiers act extremely impudently. Members of election commissions fill out unused ballots themselves, make ballot stuffing, enter false data on turnout and voting results into the official protocol or  falsify the protocol. Such practices are widespread in Russia and well-documented by videos, by investigations by journalists and reports of independent observers. Mass falsifications in the 2011 Duma elections led to mass protests and demonstrations in the Russian regions and contributed to the subsequent transformation of civil society.

How can citizens contribute to a fair election?

To prevent fraud, you can find an independent organization or community in your area, take a simple training course or observer school, begin to monitor the election process, document its violations and make them public. If there is no time for long-term observation, you can register as an observer at one of the polling stations and monitor the voting and counting process. In case of violations of the rights of voters and election procedures, you can contact the police, as well as report the information to the media. If there was evidence of ballot box stuffing or destruction, or if it was found that a certain percentage of voters have received ballots illegally, the election can be declared invalid.  

This happened during the 2019 parliamentary elections in the Poltava region of Ukraine, when protocols of precinct election commissions were rewritten in the park on the laps. The most famous case of cancellation of election results due to falsification occurred in Ukraine in 2004. Former government representative Viktor Yanukovych and parliamentary opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko ran in the second round of the presidential elections. The Central Electoral Commission released preliminary results showing that Yanukovych won with a 3 percent margin. Exit polls instead showed that Yushchenko was the leader and international observers reported numerous violations. The opposition leader’s supporters claimed that the election results had been falsified, refused to accept the results, and called on their voters to defend their votes on the Independence Square. Up to 7 million people participated in peaceful protests. As a result, the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, declared the results of the second election to be invalid. A third round was scheduled, according to the results of which Viktor Yushchenko won. Yanukovych conceded defeat, but the propaganda campaign and propaganda about U.S. interference in Ukrainian elections continued in the controlled media and on Russian state channels for a long time. Before Euromaidan in 2013, during the preparation for the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass, there were renewed rhetorics about Western interference. Among representatives of the Kremlin and Russian patriotic forces, the terms “Orange Revolution” and Euromaidan are often used in election campaigns to demonize the opposition and civil society.

Election observation may not dramatically change the situation immediately, but it allows us to document violations of the law, contributes to the transparency of political processes, and provides important experience of political participation. This experience is important for the formation and development of civil society, unification of civil initiatives, and networking. Data of observers are archived, used by journalists and scientists, become part of educational courses and may form the basis of judicial processes against criminals violating the law and the rights and freedoms of citizens. Without observer data and the fixation of violations, there can be no sustainable political change and democratization of the electoral process.

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