Viewing Armenian Elections Through a Disability Lens
Against a backdrop of troubled Presidential elections in February and March of this year, and the more recent National Assembly elections on May 25, 2003, a small Armenian NGO shined its light on the electoral process, acting as a reminder that democracy’s work is not complete until all citizens can exercise their universal right to vote.
Over the past six months, the Lusastgh Charity Union of Vanadzor:
- organized the first election observation missions in Armenia by citizens with disabilities;
- conducted a radio and television public education campaign on the rights of voters with disabilities;
- hosted a televised dialogue on disability that was attended by 14 candidates for seats in the National Assembly; and
- helped to quantify the number of disabled and hospitalized voters who were disenfranchised due to structural barriers in the election process.
The International Foundation for Elections Systems (IFES) provided technical and financial support through its offices in Washington and Yerevan, with funds from the Swedish government, as part of the IFES “global initiative to enfranchise citizens with disabilities.”
Symbolically, the word “lusastgh” means “morning light.” And that is what this small NGO and its election observers with disabilities accomplished: they put a spotlight on the widespread disenfranchisement of Armenian citizens with disabilities.
Background: Starting Small
IFES first met with the leaders of the Lusastgh Charity Union in January 2003. The NGO’s Director, Ms. Nune Pepanyan, invited to that meeting disability leaders from Vanadzor, Spitak, and Stepanavan – three cities in Armenia’s Lori Region. When first approached with the idea of observing elections, the Armenian disability leaders were apprehensive. They could not visualize themselves or their peers observing elections. And they categorically could not imagine people who were blind or deaf serving as election monitors. How would they observe? How would they communicate?
Their response, their reluctance, was surprising. IFES has worked with disability organizations in over a dozen nations, and had never encountered this reaction. Disability issues were nothing new in Armenia. The devastating earthquake of 1988, centered less than 15 miles from the site of that first meeting, left thousands of Armenians with permanent physical disabilities. The earthquake was the genesis for international attention and assistance, and for the very existence of many of Armenia’s disability organizations.
Whatever the cause of their tentative embrace of the idea of monitoring elections – perhaps Armenia’s relative isolation from the world; perhaps because we were in a provincial capital – it was necessary to start with a modest effort.
The Observation Effort
Four cities were chosen by Lusastgh for the initial observation effort in February, 2003. In the Lori region, Vanadzor, Stepanavan, and Spitak were chosen because Lusastgh has a track record of working in those cities with an alliance of disability organizations.
Working in Spitak was an obvious choice, due to the lingering effects of the earthquake on the lives of many of its citizens. Lusastgh also reached out to include disability leaders in Yerevan, where they worked closely with Paros, an NGO with rich experience in cultural and recreational activities.
Eleven individuals with disabilities were recruited and trained to work as Election Day observers for the initial effort in February for the first round of Presidential elections. At left is an observer from Vanadzor.
A slightly larger number of non-disabled people were trained to work prior to the elections, documenting whether polling stations were accessible. Observers were trained by IFES/Armenia and Lusastgh staff in the application of Armenian election law and practice; in the code of conduct expected of an election observer; and in understanding and completing election monitoring forms. The observers with disabilities visited close to 50 polling stations on Election Day in February. Most polling stations were not accessible to voters with disabilities. And few voters with physical disabilities were seen voting.
By May 25, for the National Assembly elections, Lusastgh’s effort had expanded to five cities – Vanadzor, Spitak, Stepanavan, Yerevan, and Gyumri – with a total of 34 observers with disabilities.
Taking the Message Public, and Monitoring the Candidates
As part of its project with IFES, Lusastgh worked closely with a television station in Lori to produce two programs, broadcast, respectively, on February 6 and February 13. Entitled “To the Democracy,” the programs included interviews with people with disabilities and with local election officials, discussing the difficulties faced by voters with disabilities and the public attitude toward people with disabilities.
Closer to the February elections, Lusastgh and IFES/Armenia arranged for additional public education opportunities: a twenty minute segment on Good Morning Armenia, a highly rated news and entertainment program; and a half-hour program on Lori TV that was broadcast twice on election eve. IFES staff and Armenian disability leaders appeared on these programs.
The publicity, and the positive response from viewers, gave Lusastgh and its observers’ confidence, and helped to erase some of their early reluctance.
For the May 25 National Assembly elections, Lusastgh expanded it observation effort to include a monitoring of the candidates themselves. On May 17, Lusastgh arranged and participated in a televised forum on Lori TV, at which 14 candidates for the National Assembly engaged in a dialogue on disability issues: the first time this had occurred in Armenia. Lusastgh’s Director, Nune Pepanyan, participated in the discussion, which was moderated by a journalist with a disability.
Election Day Concerns
While the Central Election Commission (CEC) did issue a decision calling for polling stations to be accessible, this was rarely achieved. The observers from Lusastgh found that the vast majority of polling stations were inaccessible to wheelchair users. Similar results were found by international observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. These two photographs illustrate both accessible (in Spitak, below) and inaccessible (in Yerevan, right) polling stations.
Election Day concerns of the Armenian disability community result from the requirement that all voters must take place at public polling stations. For example, a change in Armenian law resulted in the discontinued practice of “home-based voting,” which had previously allowed citizens with disabilities to vote at home. While home-based voting was discontinued due to concern that it increases the risk of fraud, no effort was made to enfranchise individuals who are unable to leave there homes to vote at polling stations that are often inaccessible. Armenian disability groups estimate that resulted in the disenfranchisement of thousands of citizens.
In addition, Armenian election practices make no provision for hospital-based voting, effectively disenfranchising anyone who happens to be hospitalized on election day. According to the World Health Organization office in Yerevan, there are nearly 13,000 hospital beds at Armenia’s 118 hospitals. An occupancy rate of even 60 percent would render nearly 7,800 individuals disenfranchised due to illness alone.
The Armenian Central Election Commission welcomed the observers with disabilities, and, as mentioned, did issue a decision calling for election sites to be made more accessible. However, if real and lasting election reforms are to be put into place, the CEC will need in the future to demonstrate a greater commitment to working with local disabilities organizations to remove structural barriers that impede or prevent participation in the elections.
Next Steps in Armenia?
The work over the past six months has helped to educate the public and election officials about the needs and rights of voters with disabilities, and has helped Lusastgh and other disability NGOs strengthen their resolve to take a more active role in the political and electoral sector. Over the coming weeks, IFES will assist Armenian disability groups as they meet to draft and advance recommendations for improving Armenian election law and practice, and as they plan a forum where these specific recommendations are shared with representatives of the Armenian Central Election Commission.