Reforming the Precinct Election Commissions

Publication Date: 
2 Aug 2009

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The current electoral law reform debate – whether parliamentary or presidential electoral law, or a unified electoral code – has primarily focused on the electoral system itself.  Efforts are directed toward increasing the accountability of elected officials, empowering the electorate, broadening the geographic distribution of MPs, and just generally improving the quality of governance in Ukraine.  These efforts are welcome, and should be encouraged to continue.  That said the process of electoral law reform presents an opportunity to repair other aspects of the election system, specifically administrative problems that to date have not received attention. 

Ignoring administrative shortcomings can have a profound impact on the democratic process.  Poor election administration can disenfranchise voters, create opportunities for fraud and abuse, delay results, and ultimately call into question the legitimacy of election results.  A weak legal framework creates unnecessary risks that can destabilize the entire process.  Nearly five years on from the electoral events of 2004 and with public faith in institutions at an historic low in Ukraine, now is the time to consider all available measures to improve the quality of the democratic process and begin to reclaim public trust.

With that in mind, this paper proposes improving the quality of election administration by reducing the size of Precinct Election Commissions (PECs).  Currently the number of commissioners in a PEC is very high relative to countries of similar size and circumstance as Ukraine.  Concurrently, lawmakers should consider reducing the maximum number of voters assigned to a precinct to accommodate the change in PEC size.  These reforms would create precincts of a size similar in proportion to other European countries.  Smaller commissions and smaller precincts will deliver substantial logistical benefits to the election administration:  precinct commissioners would have an easier time controlling the event, voters would have shorter waits, results would be compiled more quickly, commissioners would be less fatigued and mistakes would be reduced. 

Background

Precinct election commissioners are the Election Day staff that make up the lowest level of the election administration hierarchy and essentially control the event.  PEC commissioners are the staff who work throughout the day conducting polling activities and throughout the night counting the votes and delivering the results to be centrally compiled.  Fundamentally, it is the combined efforts of these 500,000-plus individuals that make an election in Ukraine.  Consequently, the formation of PECs and their operations are the most critical aspects of election administration and demand attention in any electoral reform discussion.

The appointment of PECs in Ukraine is by definition a political process, as it is the political parties and candidates who nominate thousands of individuals to be commissioners on Election Day.  The selection is fraught with difficulties as parties struggle to recruit enough candidates to cover all polling stations and receive their full share of representation on Election Day.  The phenomenon of ‘technical candidates’ goes a step further.  Allies of serious contenders in the election put themselves forward as candidates, not with any real intent of competing, but merely to register commissioners, thereby effectively increasing the serious contender’s representation in these commissions. 

As the selection process unfolds some commissioner applicants are invariably rejected for being politically biased, other applicants withdraw from consideration when the scope of duties becomes clear, still others are unaware they have even been put forward for consideration until after they have been appointed.  It is vital that the PEC composition process is balanced, inclusive, clearly explained and practical.  However, the current system in Ukraine is ambiguous and would benefit from some modification that keeps these principles in mind.

The current PEC composition system in Ukraine is open for debate.  According to the current and newly approved (by Parliament) Presidential election law, PECs are composed in the same manner used in 2004 – each Presidential candidate can put forward 2 commissioners per PEC.  Hypothetically, if the same number of candidates run for President in 2010 as in 2004, this creates the possibility of 48 commissioners per PEC (there were 24 candidates).  With over 33,000 precincts in the country, this also leads to potentially 1.5 million commissioners that would need to be trained and managed by the Central Election Commission.

Current reformers have proposed that this system be replaced by the PEC composition method employed for Parliamentary elections.  In this system, each parliamentary faction is entitled to be represented in each PEC and has the right to nominate two, three or four members, depending on the number of voters assigned to the PEC (maximum is 2500).  In previous parliamentary elections an average 16.6 commissioners per PEC were appointed per commission, an improvement but still a large commission when compared to other countries. 

For example, Spain has a population of 46 million people, roughly the same as Ukraine, yet their PECs have only five members.  Italy has a population of 59 million; its commissions have only six members.  Poland’s PECs are a bit larger, ranging from 6 to 10 in size.  All countries considered have PECs much smaller than Ukraine and manage to serve large populations effectively. 

One must also consider the many alternative methods for appointing PECs.  In Spain PECs are selected by public lottery.  In Italy the appeals courts and municipal election commissions cooperate to appoint PEC election commissioners from a pool of qualified candidates.  In Poland PECs are formed in cooperation between political actors and local authorities, with PEC commissioners nominated by political actors and one person nominated by the head of the relevant local authority.  

Today it seems unlikely the Ukrainian public would welcome a governmental appointment process as unbiased.   Such appointment of commissioners in practice often leaves relatively powerless civil servants facing substantial pressure from local political powers to do their bidding.  Consequently, it is arguably better to engage the political parties in the PEC formation process from the beginning to obtain some political balance.  However, reducing the size of the PECs should not be difficult, whether it be through lottery or other transparent method.

Conclusion

The appointment of PECs is a political process, in Ukraine necessarily so, and consequently a consensus must be achieved among political forces to create a politically balanced election administration at the lowest levels.  However, by reforming the administration of elections within polling stations, Ukraine can bolster its ability to conduct elections of an international standard. 

Election laws should be amended to reduce the number of Precinct Election Commissioners, to ideally no more than 10 per precinct.  Doing so reduces the expense of conducting elections, eases the task of training commissioners, reduces confusion (and at times, suspicion) on election day by clarifying areas of responsibility and reducing the crowd of commissioners that often builds in precincts, and discourages the registration of ‘technical candidates’ by removing one of the main incentives for the phenomenon (extra representation in election commissions). To accommodate this change, Ukraine should also explore amending its election laws to reduce the number of voters per precinct. Doing so would ensure reductions in Precinct Election Commission size would not increase the size of queues of voters, increase the length of the count or otherwise burden election commissioners.

Election Day administration must strike a precarious balance between fair political representation and efficiency in the appointment of Precinct Election Commissions.  In this paper IFES highlighted specific issues in electoral administration that should be addressed when discussing reform of existing electoral legislation. The concrete changes proposed in the nature of Precinct Election Commissions, could, if adopted, greatly improve the Election Day experience in Ukraine.