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Elections and Registration in Afghanistan (ERA) Project

Issues for Voter Registration
ERA Topical Report #6

Kerry Heisner
February 2003

1. Voters Register

Discussions on voter registration issues for Afghanistan currently focus on how registration is to be achieved and whether registration of voters is actually necessary at all.

Conducting an election without a voters register in Afghanistan, a country with a traumatic past, may lead to disenchantment with the electoral process amid accusations of election fraud. Even under the 'no registration' option, voters would still need to prove their eligibility on polling day according to a set of eligibility criteria yet to be decided.

The most recent example of an election in a post-conflict situation without a voters register was the presidential election in East Timor in 2002. The 'no voters register' option was chosen because inaccuracies and omissions in the civil registry database would have produced an unsuitable voters register. Even though no voters register was used on polling day, all voters still were required to produce their registration cards at the polling center on polling day to prove eligibility to vote. Indelible ink was used to mark the fingers of voters so as to eliminate multiple voting. Afghanistan does not have a civil registration or identity card system.

The conduct of an election using a voters register gives transparency to the election process. An election must not only be fair and free, it is also important that it be seen as fair and free. A voters roll gives transparency to the election process and confidence to the participants by allowing the public to scrutinize and challenge the register prior to polling day.

If a voters register is to be used in Afghanistan on polling day, there is a need to ascertain if a resource already exists in country from which the voters register could be extracted or whether it is necessary to plan and carry out a voter registration process.

For a voters register to be established, some basic but important information, including the full name of each elector, his/her address and date of birth, must be gathered in a database that can be manipulated to allocate voters to polling centers/stations. At the time of collection of data, coding should be used to identify the registration site and the elector so that this allocation can occur.

A pre-census is underway in Afghanistan and a database of information is being established. The pre-census is not collecting the details mentioned above and it is therefore not possible to extract a voters register from that database. However, the pre-census is collecting data that will be useful to the electoral process, including village locations and building assets (possible registration sites and polling centers). It should be noted that the pre-census field work is currently estimated to be completed by December 2003 with data input complete by March 2004.

No other resource currently exists in country from which a voters register could be extracted.

Two other options for the establishment of a voters roll remain: extraction of data for a voters register from any proposed future civil registration process or a dedicated voter registration process. Extraction of data for a voters register from any proposed civil registration process would need to be on the understanding that the requirements of a voters registry are paramount in software development for civil registration. There are past examples, e.g. East Timor, where the election process suffered because this was not understood from the beginning. The problems associated with the East Timor civil registry database are outlined later in this document.

Given the proposed timing of the election in Afghanistan, and the harsh winter conditions late in the year, a decision is required as soon as possible on whether to proceed with a dedicated voter registration process. It must be noted that a voter register and the election process are deeply entwined. If a voter registration process is to be undertaken it should be under the control of the national election management body. In this case the ICEC should ensure that the voter registration process has only one aim—the establishment of an inclusive and complete voters register that allows the maximum opportunity for voters to cast their vote on polling day. The success of the voter registration process will also depend on full involvement of Afghans in the planning process so that they take ownership of the process and take cultural considerations into account. Finally, dedicated voter registration processes come with their own economic cost to which donor countries must agree.

2. The Data Collection Process

Ideally during a voter registration process, in order to maximize election transparency and minimize accusations of election fraud (roll stacking), registrants should be required to register personally at a registration site. Also to minimize accusations of election fraud due to multiple voting, electors' names should only appear on one voters register, namely the voters register established from data at the registration site at which the voter registered. For polling purposes each registration site should be re-established as a polling center/station on election day, and each voter should be required to return in person to that particular site to vote.

The number and location of registration sites (and therefore ultimately polling centers/stations) needs to be determined based on population statistics, maps from the pre-census, intelligence from other organizations already in the field, and field visits by ICEC staff. As stated above, electors would return to vote at the site where they registered. The maximum size for a polling center, situated in good premises, is about 3000 voters before the risk of losing control on polling day becomes too great. Therefore the maximum registrations at any one site should be limited to 3000. There will of course be many polling centers, servicing small localities, with less than 3000 registrants. Each polling center would be comprised of several polling stations up to a maximum of six stations each serving 500 voters. At the time of registration voter allocation to polling station would be progressive with the first 500 registrants being allocated to the first polling station, the second 500 to the second station and so on. Voters on polling day would return to the same polling station in the polling center where they registered to vote, and each voter should be informed of this at the time of registration. During registration each voter would be assigned a unique registration number to identify the voter and the allocated polling center/station.

As a guide only, if Afghanistan had 10,000,000 registered voters, and all sites had registered 3000 voters, a total of approximately 3500 registration sites/polling centers would be required. However, in reality, as many sites would register less that the maximum of 3000, the actual number of registration sites/polling centers could be approximately 5000.

The voter registration process could be carried out as either a rolling process e.g. province by province, or it could be run simultaneously in all provinces for a fixed period of time. A rolling process has the advantage that a smaller well trained group in each province would do multiple sites and even travel across provinces if necessary. The rolling process would allow the ICEC to better manage such issues as security, access and weather conditions. The registration process would need to be managed at least at the regional level, but provincial level management might become necessary in some cases.

Two methods are available for the collection of data in the field: direct electronic input in the field or manual input of data from paper forms. In the direct entry electronic method, the field team directly enters the data from face-to-face interviews with applicants into a lap-top computer. The data is stored on CDs, which are progressively dispatched back to a data center where the information on the CDs is fed into a database. A recent example of direct electronic input in the field in a post-conflict situation was the parliamentary elections in East Timor during 2001. For this election, voter registration was part of a civil registration program organized and managed by a UN donor country, using an external contractor for the technical aspects. The system was, however, plagued with problems in the field, including hardware problems (laptop computers and web cam breakdowns) caused by the harsh tropical conditions, software problems, missing CDs resulting in voters names missing in the database, and careless work by some field staff with the result that whole villages were electronically coded in the field to incorrect districts and therefore parliamentary seats. East Timor, like Afghanistan, has very poor technical capacity and harsh climatic and physical conditions. These conditions may cause problems for the direct electronic entry method.

An alternative to the electronic method is for the field team to complete, on behalf of an applicant, a paper registration application (from answers to questions). The paper applications are progressively forwarded to a central location for data entry into a database. A duplicate copy of the application is kept in the field (regional office) for later reference, if required, and a system of accountable, tamper-evident bags is used to dispatch the forms to the regional office and on to the data center. The manual system would probably be more appropriate in Afghanistan. As it has been used previously, procedural manuals already exist and could be adapted for Afghanistan, saving time in an already tight election timetable.

Both methods allow the database to be interrogated for duplicate registrations. Both methods allow the inclusion of a photo. For election fraud reasons, the voter would appear on the registration card either by the use of a web cam for the electronic method or by the use of a Polaroid and dry lamination in the case of the manual method. The issue of photos on registration cards in Afghanistan requires consideration, particularly in relation to female registrants. Both methods require a great deal of planning and preparation—including IT expertise. Indelible ink is still placed on voters fingers to safeguard against multiple voting regardless of which method is chosen. The manual method requires the establishment of a data center to input the data from the paper applications. The location of such a data center, either in country for political reasons or out-of-country for technical reasons, would have to be determined. Alternatively an existing data entry contractor could be used if sufficient security safeguards were in place.

3.  Decisions/Actions Required for Establishing a Voter Registration Process

The establishment of a voter registration process is a complicated undertaking that requires thorough planning and preparation and is dependent on important decisions and actions. The following list is not meant to be sequential, as many of these actions can be undertaken concurrently:

4.  Out of Country Registration

Over the last four years there have been two examples of registration and voting processes being extended to eligible nationals outside the country where the election/consultation was being conducted: Kosovo and East Timor. In both situations, an outside body dealing with such groups (the IOM) was allocated the task of conducting both the registration and election processes for these external groups. This allowed the election administration in country to concentrate its resources on the challenges of the in-country election process. However, approval of IOM procedures, documentation, timeline and budget remained with the in-country election management body. Out-of-country registration/election processes were conducted by IOM using a combination of in-person and postal operations depending on where the different groups were located. IOM developed relevant procedure/documentation based on already approved in-country procedures/documentation and then had those procedures/documentation approved by the in-country election management body.

The conduct of later elections reverted to the control of the in-country election management body in the case of Kosovo, and for East Timor the eligibility criteria were changed for subsequent elections to allow only in-country voters to register and vote.

Delegating registration and voting processes for eligible out-of-country nationals to a responsible external body allows the election management body in country to concentrate on the challenges of the first election while still maintaining authority over out-of-country operations. If the election management body in country decides to maintain direct and hands-on control of both in-country and out-of-country operations, its capacity must be expanded so as to ensure that it has sufficient resources and expertise to control both processes concurrently. The workload in implementing and managing an out-of-country registration/election operation from in-country for a first election is considerable as it includes all aspects of an in-country operation but complicated by a management that may be pre-occupied with the challenges of the in-country operation.

Therefore, the ICEC must decide very early whether to directly conduct both in-country and out-of-country registration and election processes or whether to delegate the out-of-country process to an external body such as IOM while still having approval control of the process.