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According to veteran electoral administrator Michael Maley, elections are the biggest logistical events of peacetime.
For RegNet PhD scholar, Therese Laanela, after spending 10 weeks in Tunisia during the first elections in the Middle East since the Arab Spring, there was a lot more than logistics going on at the Tunisian elections. Therese saw how public confidence in Tunisian electoral outcomes was influenced by dynamic relationships between electoral candidates and district electoral commissioners.
Therese, an electoral specialist with more than 20 years of experience in elections across the world began her PhD at RegNet with the aim of exploring the ‘credibility gap’.
“When I began working with elections it was in the post-apartheid, post-cold war period. It was also the era of conditionality where countries were expected to show good governance in order to receive aid and that included elections.
“Many countries had not held proper elections, so there was this idea that if people knew how to run elections well, if we filled this ‘knowledge gap’, by giving them training and manuals, then everything would be fine.”
“But then there was problems with Ukraine and other Eastern European elections which were very well run and we realised there was a new challenge of public confidence and electoral integrity.
“That was the journey from the knowledge gap to the credibility gap.”
The journey led Therese to map out the dynamics, tensions and interplay between candidates, officials, political parties, the media and other organisations influencing public confidence in the integrity of elections. She took this research to the field in Tunisia to see how these tensions played out in real life. Embedded in seven district electoral offices, Therese followed the interplay between the electoral officials and candidates.
A highly developed country in the region, Tunisia has a high level of education for women, of religious tolerance and a strong sense of pride in the secular nature of the State. So why choose Tunisia as the case study for this research?
“It was a unique moment in time for Tunisia. It was the first consolidation election so public confidence was extremely important and I knew that the electoral authorities would work very hard to keep that up.”
In the early stages of the election there was a huge amount of paperwork associated with candidate registration. Each independent, party or coalition list had a slate of six or seven candidates and three or four supplementary candidates. Therese says the level of service provided to all of these candidates directly by the election commissioner was impressive.
“The commissioners were over the top accommodating in a way that I had not seen before. Candidates would say things like, ‘he [the local commissioner] was like a brother’.
“Once the campaign started this same electoral body who was very accommodating during registration, now had to give out sanctions if anyone went outside of the electoral rules, so that caused some tensions.”
As the election grew closer, candidates grew more agitated and officials more exhausted.
“So that kind of accommodating, taking telephone calls at 2am in the morning approach came back to haunt them because the candidates still expected the same level of service.” The exhaustion took its toll as mistakes crept in to the officials’ work.
“Each polling station has a box of ballots which it needs to seal, but they also have the protocol which shows the results of the count at that station. Those protocols are supposed to go into an envelope and go to the tabulation centre. But some polling stations put protocols into the ballot boxes.
“You could really just take the protocols out, but in order to promote transparency the election commissioners opened the boxes up in the presence of the candidates.
“The one I observed took hours and party candidates were really quite aggressive and had so many questions. For the officials they really just needed to get on with it, they needed to get the results out. So in some ways there is a clash of principles of transparency and efficiency, which is also important during an election.
“As you can see from the problems that arose in Western Australia, ballot transport is sensitive and it is something to be taken very seriously. “Anything that is an administrative error can be interpreted as something much more serious. Once the stories start getting spread by media or civil society, it can be hard to recreate what actually happened.”
Based on her observations in Tunisia, Therese began think about what appropriate relationships between officials and candidates might look like during different stages of the electoral cycle and how these relationships may influence public confidence in the election. The high level of contact seen in Tunisia during the registration phase may be appropriate, but once the voting stage begins there needs to be formalisation of relationships and a buffer between officials and candidates to in order to protect the integrity of the election.
“It may be the ‘biggest logistical event’ of peacetime, but we don’t prepare people – both the candidates and commissioners.
“Elections are so much more than just logistical events, they have got to be one of the most stressful as well. Of course we have to get the logistics right, but we also have to manage the stresses and attend to the human dimensions to ensure an elections’ integrity.”