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Features of the new vote-hunting season

Maryna STAVNIYCHUK urges politicians not to complicate voters’ lives
20 December, 00:00

The election campaign has kicked off. Communist Party candidates have been registered, and the Party of Regions has already submitted its election roster. But it is still quiet in the CEC corridors. Unlike last year, there are no police guarding the approaches to the building, and no one is blocking the elevators or stairways. The commission members and staff say they are in a working mood.

But first impressions are somewhat misleading. In reality, the place is bustling with activity. The commission meets almost every day to consider a large number of issues. Aside from managing the election campaign — registering parties and their election rosters, and checking voter rolls — the CEC is also preparing for two possible nationwide referendums. One was initiated by the SDPU(o) and the other by the Ukrainian People’s Party.

These and other aspects of the election campaign, in particular the “time bombs” contained in the new election law, as well as the government’s guarantees that the administrative resource will not be used and that the infamous electronic vote-counting system “Vybory” will be maintained are discussed in the following interview with CEC deputy chairperson Maryna STAVNIYCHUK.

“President Yushchenko has promised he will not permit vote rigging during the elections. The new law contains many safeguards to prevent this. But are these guarantees sufficient?”

“I have pointed out in the past that the law is largely geared to prevent violations and election fraud. In my view, there are two spheres where large-scale manipulations are possible: manipulations of voter rolls and violations during the voting procedure and vote counting. Violations primarily take place at the level of electoral commissions in electoral districts.

“Speaking of voter rolls, the law provides for an absolutely new and improved mechanism for compiling voter rolls, as far as it is possible in the present conditions. This primarily concerns compiling and updating general voter rolls and compiling voter rolls for individual electoral districts. So far, much has been done to organize and improve the voter rolls. Input came from parliament, the Central Electoral Commission, the Cabinet of Ministers, and, last but not least, voter registration taskforces that were created by local state administrations and councils in regional centers. Updating voter rolls is an extremely urgent question today. Under the law, general voter rolls are updated between Nov. 1, 2005, and Jan. 1, 2006. Thus, citizens have an opportunity to verify their and other people’s data in the voter rolls and make changes, if necessary. This mechanism is more advanced than it was during the previous elections, and voters can verify and update their data in the voter rolls several times, including at the final stage of preparations, after the rolls have been transmitted to electoral commissions in electoral districts. It is crucial for citizens to be active in this matter and ensure that all the necessary data have been included in the voter rolls.

“To this end a propaganda campaign has been launched on radio and television. In Kyiv, for example, notices are being hung on every apartment block entrance. Civic organizations, especially the Voters’ Committee of Ukraine, are doing a great deal to inform the population about their rights and possibilities for verifying voter rolls. International organizations support these efforts. Special attention is being paid to citizens who are unable to move unassisted.

“Incidentally, you can verify not only your data but a neighbor’s or relative’s. On the one hand, of course, this is a positive thing. On the other, this causes problems. Two fundamental constitutional rights — the right to privacy and the right to participate in elections — are in conflict here. Now everyone has access to citizens’ confidential information, which includes residential addresses. This was the case during the rerun of the runoff presidential elections in 2004. This raises certain issues and poses certain risks. We can only rely on the decency of our fellow citizens. But in future we have to resolve this legislative conflict.”

“What about the infamous absentee ballots? Can they no longer be used as a tool of mass election fraud?”

“No, they cannot. The legislation has made this virtually impossible. The number of absentee ballots is minimal, accounting for a mere 2 percent of the total number of voters included in the updated general voter rolls. A strict accounting procedure has been introduced for voters who receive and use them, and it envisions safeguards similar to those used for regular ballots. Naturally, appropriate techniques will be used during the printing process to protect ballots from counterfeiters. In general, it will not be all that simple to cast a vote using an absentee ballot in 2006. Under the law, each district electoral commission must select one large or medium electoral district within a territorial constituency in each major city. Voters who choose to cast absentee ballots in a certain territory will be included on a list and attached to this particular electoral district. As a result, in order to cast an absentee ballot, a voter will have to travel twice over a distance of 20, 50, or even 100 kilometers from the place of his or her temporary residence, first to file an application for an absentee ballot, and then to vote. Most people will choose not to travel that far. That is why during last year’s repeat of the runoff presidential elections so few voters used absentee ballots.

“In my view, absentee ballots will soon become a thing of the past. This practice, much like collecting signatures in support of presidential nominees, is not effective. When they were amending provisions to the standing law, the members of parliament retained the practice of using absentee ballots in order not to violate the rights of those citizens who do not have the physical capability to go to the electoral district. But we have to start thinking of something to replace absentee ballots.”

“Yuriy Lutsenko claims that, regardless of everything, the opposition, specifically the Party of Regions, plans to repeat the election fraud that was imputed to them during the last elections. Is a single political force really capable of accomplishing this?”

“If the uniformed services, including Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, have information on plans to rig the elections, they must do everything in their power to prevent this. If the police really want to prove their slogan, ‘The Police Are with the People,’ with actions, they must focus their efforts on preventing crimes instead of solving these crimes with a lot of publicity once they have been committed. This would represent an honest position both in the professional and human dimensions.

“But I doubt that in the present conditions anybody would like to repeat what happened last year. Certainly, last year taught everybody a serious lesson.”

“Do you consider the current penalties for election fraud to be sufficient? Isn’t the fact that last year’s main election fraudsters were never punished proof that the current leadership lacks political will?”

“As the deputy chair person of the CEC I find it difficult to comment on this. We can discuss election fraud with a degree of certainty only after such facts have been established beyond a doubt. The Supreme Court of Ukraine pointed out that it was impossible to fully determine the election results. Whether such a formulation can be viewed as confirmation of large- scale fraud is a debatable question. At the same time, there have been reports of criminal cases being opened and heard in court.

“In general, if you analyze the specifics of penalties for violations of Ukrainian electoral legislation, there is an obvious bias toward criminal penalties and a shortage of administrative forms of punishment. Punishment must always be irreversible, but it must also fit the crime.”

“According to a recent opinion poll, 27 percent of Ukrainians are certain that major violations will take place during the upcoming elections, resulting in skewed election results. Does this mean that the public does not trust the new leadership, and how would you explain this?”

“I assume this is due to the fact that our citizens had reasons to suspect the leadership of election fraud. Of course, this is a serious allegation and pause for reflection. Without a doubt we are all partly responsible: government institutions, representatives of political parties, and perhaps the CEC too.”

“Have sufficient security measures been taken to avoid a repeat of the ‘transit server’ scenario in 2006?”

“The election process began only recently. As for the operation of the subsystem ‘Elections of the People’s Deputies of Ukraine,’ which is part of the Vybory information analysis system, this is the first time in the commission’s history that security problems are being addressed long before the system’s launch. Experts from the Information Security Department of the Ukrainian Security Service were involved in the tender to select a vendor to modernize this electronic system, which was done in accordance with a legislatively prescribed procedure. We haven’t had any major complaints. I am certain that system security will be maintained during the upcoming stages. Much attention is being given to this. Our system was always one of the best on the territory of the CIS, which is why it is important to restore its good name.”

“Work to compile a single register of voters has been underway for quite a long time. The current CEC chairman, much like his predecessor, promised to complete it by the 2006 elections. In reality, it will not be possible to do this. At the same time, in the period between the elections Ukraine’s parliamentarians proposed numerous alternative ways to keep a tally of voters, such as marks in passports, special balloting machines, voters’ ‘identification codes,’ etc. Perhaps it would be more effective to use one of them at the present stage?”

“I think one possibility is to stamp the passports of voters who have already voted. Latvia has a similar system and is using it quite successfully. The stamp is very neat and small, and dozens of such marks can fit on a single page. This mechanism is effective, but, of course, it has to be stipulated in the law.

“A register of voters lies in the future. This system will not work until all the necessary enactments are passed. So far Ukraine cannot decide which way to go: either to create a single nationwide register of individuals, which would be used during elections to form a separate register of citizens with the right to vote, or to create a separate register of voters.

“Naturally, there are preconditions today for creating a register. It would not be proper for legislators to spend a significant amount of state budget funds on compiling voter rolls for the upcoming elections and not use this material afterward. We must keep in mind, however, that unless this information is updated at least once every year, in five years it will be useless. The register of voters has to be a dynamic system, constantly updated in real time.”

“There has also been much talk of the need to create regional divisions of the CEC. Will this idea be implemented?”

“The law on the CEC identifies these representative offices as structural divisions of the commission’s secretariat. Thus, arrangements to organize and fund this work and meet the requirements of employment legislation pose certain problems. The CEC will not be able single-handedly to maintain such local offices, since these issues are not properly regulated by legislative provisions. To improve the situation, we have developed a number of proposals to amend the provisions in question.”

“There is much talk of the need to conduct elections of local council deputies and nationwide parliamentary elections at different times, since there is a threat that the elections will be disrupted as a result of the tremendous workload on the electoral commissions and the technologically complex process. How real is such a threat?”

“Unlike many of my colleagues, I have long favored the idea of separating these elections. However, this is easier said than done, because the transitional provisions of the Constitution clearly determine the schedules for holding parliamentary and local elections. This will hardly be possible without amending these constitutional provisions or implementing certain extraordinary measures, such as an administrative and territorial reform. Indeed, proposals have been made in this connection, but nobody is proposing specific legal mechanisms to implement them. Parallel elections mainly pose a problem for voters, who tend to get lost in the large number of ballots to the point that they are no longer sure about whom they are electing.

“Obviously, this time around the local elections will be extremely complex. The Law of Ukraine ‘On the Elections of Deputies to the Parliament of the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea and Local Councils, and Village and Municipal Heads’ came into effect on Oct. 1, 2005. On Nov. 30, 2005, parliament passed amendments that the president has yet to sign. I must remind you that during the elections of 1998 the Law of Ukraine ‘On the Elections of Deputies to Local Councils and Village and Municipal Heads’ was signed only in January, when the election campaign was already in full swing. God forbid that we should find ourselves in a similar situation again.”

“It appears that the CEC will soon have some overtime work that is not directly related to the parliamentary campaign. Two political forces, first the SDPU(o) and then the Ukrainian People’s Party, have announced their intentions to stage nationwide referendums. What are the prospects of their initiatives, and will they materialize?”

“The Constitution of Ukraine clearly states that a nationwide referendum as a popular initiative is called by the president only when at least three million signatures have been collected from citizens, from at least two-thirds of the country’s regions, and at least 100,000 signatures in each oblast. So right now we should not be discussing a referendum at the popular initiative but only the preparations for such a referendum, i.e., registration of initiative groups.

“Three million is a large number. From the moment initiative groups receive registration certificates they have only three months to collect signatures, i.e., until March 1, 2005. It’s not that simple in the present conditions.

“The law on nationwide and local referendums, which was adopted over a decade ago, was one of the best at the time and could easily compete with similar laws not only within the post-Soviet space but in Europe. Now many of its provisions are somewhat outdated, especially those concerning the procedure for preparing and staging referendums. At the same time, the Constitutional Court has not found any unconstitutional provision in the Law of Ukraine ‘On the Nationwide and Local Referendums’. Ukraine does not have too much practical experience in this matter. Only two referendums have been held since independence. After the last referendum in 2000, the CEC noticed that not everything was perfect in terms of legislation and prepared proposals to Ukrainian parliament in the form of a bill on nationwide referendums, which was done to improve Ukrainian legislation on referendums. So, it is not a simple question. However, in this situation the CEC must adopt a position based on rule of law and legislative norms, not on political preferences. If there are grounds to register an initiative group, we will register it. However, we will painstakingly verify all the necessary documents.”

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