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Elections and Registration in Afghanistan (ERA) Project

Planning For Voter Registration
ERA Topical Report #7


Kerry Heisner
March 2003

1.  Introduction

Voter registration for the elections scheduled for June 2004 in Afghanistan presents a daunting task. Aside from Afghanistan's large population, tough geography and very important cultural considerations, the voter registration process must also take into account the challenges of registering returnees/internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as refugees living in neighboring countries and in many other countries around the globe.

This document details information that will be useful in formulating voter registration strategies. The information was collected during February/March 2003 from interviews with both Afghans and internationals working in relevant fields.

The document includes information on target groups within the registration process including:

The document also contains information on mapping resources, data input capacity and security considerations.

2.  Voter Registration Strategy and Participation of Women

Several factors combine to complicate voter registration strategies in Afghanistan. These factors include the geography of the countryside, the large number of villages, challenges to the participation of women, illiteracy, district/provincial commanders/warlords who instead of cooperating with the registration process may attempt to frustrate or actually oppose it, security for the registration process and the issue of participation by nomads.

With sufficient resources e.g. transport options including access to helicopters when necessary, appropriate timing to avoid winter months and thorough planning, logistical challenges such as geography and village disbursement can be addressed.

However other issues will continue to prove most challenging throughout the first election in Afghanistan. The participation of women in both the registration process and the election process is most important if the election result is to truly reflect the will of the people. However, village women in Afghanistan, for the most part, cannot read or write, have no access to outside information, are expected to remain within the house and generally await direction from the males of the family. During the information collection phase for this document, women who have, to a degree, broken out of the standard and males who were progressive stated repeatedly that the only way women will be able to participate is with the cooperation of males in each province, district, village and importantly, each family group. During discussion, village women themselves stated that they may not be able to participate in registration and voting as they cannot read or write, know nothing of the outside world and would await the decision of the males of the family on the question of participation. The family males, during separate discussion, also stated that it would not be possible for their women to participate as they could not read or write and had no knowledge of issues outside the family home. However the same men were open to the idea of allowing their women to participate if an information program was undertaken to explain the registration and election processes to the village women. The males stated that these information sessions must be conducted by women (this issue is most important), at the village level and at a suitable site in the village chosen by the village leaders.

Separation of males and females during both the registration and election processes is paramount. Only female staff will be able to process females at either a registration site or polling center, and it will be necessary to have separate areas for each. Discussions must be held with the leaders in each village as to the best way of achieving this separation. This issue has both logistical and staffing repercussions as it will affect the quantity of registration and election material/equipment, the number of staff and even the number of training sessions, as female and male staff will need to be trained separately.

A strong rapport must be built by regional ICEC/registration officers with provincial governors and with district leaders who have been advised on cooperation by the relevant provincial governor in order to secure support for both the general registration process and, in particular, for the participation on women Registration teams must have contact with the village leaders, and in general as many males as possible within each village in order to secure the permission required by women within each family group to be allowed to register and ultimately to vote. Patience and discussion during this process is of utmost importance.

A very sensitive issue concerning the registration of women is the issue of photographs. A decision is required as to whether or not, as a fraud protection measure, a photograph will appear on registration cards. Discussion with Afghan women in Kabul would indicate that photographs are acceptable because, for example, it is a government document. However village men interviewed initially indicated that the taking of a photograph of a woman without a burqa would not be acceptable. After further discussion on the issue they became more positive using a process whereby a female registration staff member would take the photograph, away from the presence of ANY male, and the registration card, including the photograph, would be given to the woman concerned for safekeeping until polling day. On polling day the female would only show the registration card to a female polling officer. It should be noted that UNHCR require a photograph of all returnees, including women, if financial assistance is to be given (refer to Returnee section of this document).

Useful discussion on participation by women can be had with Tajwar Kakar [Administrative Deputy for Women's Affairs, Ministry of Women's Affairs] together with her advisor, Cheryl Ray, or the USAID Gender Advisor, Judy Benjamin.

Knowledge of a registration and election process by most Afghans is negligible or non-existent. The concept of each individual, including women, voting for a representative is new to many. Afghans have experienced many years of war from external forces and conflict from internal sources. Afghans want a change in the system but remain wary of the future because of the past.

A most important aspect if success in the registration process is to be achieved is the implementation of a comprehensive and targeted information/education program reaching down to village and family level. Equally at provincial governor level, a public relations campaign is necessary to sell them on the process in order to gain their support for the process. Afghans need to understand what an election is, how the registration and election processes are connected, how registration and voting translates into representatives, the role of representatives in a democracy, what a political party is, and the role of a political party. With regard to an information campaign village males also stated that they would prefer local women to be trained to deliver information to the women within the local area/villages. They also stated that the preferred method of delivering information, aside from personal presentation/discussion, was by the use of screens and video. (IFES consultant Barbara Reinhardus produced a plan for an information and education program. See Topical Report #10.)

Locating suitable premises for registration sites/polling centers may also prove challenging and must be decided in consultation with village leaders. Schools do exist but are sometimes distant from some villages making it difficult for the elderly or infirm to participate. Appropriately qualified staff able to read and write, especially for processing of women, will also be difficult to locate. School teachers and hospital staff may be available. A national agreement for the use of schools and teachers should be agreed with the Ministry of Education.

As to be expected, security will be a major focus for the registration and election processes. It is highly likely that without sufficient military support for the registration process combined with security on the ICEC, field registration teams, equipment and sensitive registration materials, no registration may be possible in some areas. However major decisions are required to ensure that adequate security will be available during the registration and election processes. Currently the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mandate is limited to assisting government security within the Kabul area, and advice is that this limited mandate will remain. Coalition forces are engaged in active duty in various parts of the country and currently have no mandate, and most likely capacity because of their present active role, to provide security to a registration/election process. Currently cooperation by governors/commanders is the only option that can be used to safeguard the process. A thorough analysis of this security situation is required if the democratic process is to be safeguarded. Good security also means that ICEC headquarters, regional offices and field teams have access to up-to-date daily security intelligence. UN Security (UNSECOR) holds both daily and weekly security briefings. In Kabul the briefings are held on Saturday in the UNDP compound with weekly meetings at 1400 hours. Contact for these briefings is Des Charles. UNSECOR also issues a weekly security report. The reports are by region and give a good description of the security situation generally. Aside from detailing the security situation, the reports highlight the key players in the security situation in each region. Regional offices must also link into, and have UN approval to be part of, the relevant regional UN security briefings conducted in each region by the UNSECOR Regional Security Officer so that they are always aware of developing security situations which may affect field activities.

Voter registration will need to be undertaken using a combination of fixed registration sites and mobile registration teams. The selection of either a fixed site or a mobile team will need to be determined by the circumstances of the target group to be registered. This document addresses these issues when discussing target groups. Examples of the use of a fixed site versus a mobile team can be seen when considering returnees and nomads. Although fixed sites would normally be established to service larger communities (cities, larger centers etc) they may also need to be established and maintained within specific areas of each province to service the continuing need created by returnees (see part of document dealing with refugees/returnees). Mobile teams normally servicing smaller permanent villages may also need to be used to service the needs of nomads during specific months of the year depending on their internal migrations (see part of document dealing with nomads).

The establishment and maintenance of district profiles is a time-consuming but operationally valuable exercise. UNHCR is currently establishing both district profiles and fact sheets which ICEC should access. Details of these profiles/fact sheets are included on page 6 of this document.

3.  Mapping Resources

Maps are available from two sources in Kabul:

4.  Returnees/Internally Displaced Persons/Refugees

UNHCR is responsible for the processing of returnees to Afghanistan. For the period March 2002 to 31 January 2003, 1,817,288 persons returned to Afghanistan. Repatriation from camps in Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and other countries is expected to re-commence (following winter) during mid to late March.

For the year 2003, 1,200,000 persons (600,000 from Pakistan, 500,000 from Iran and 100,000 others) are expected to return to Afghanistan. This figure is an estimate and the actual figure may be higher. The peak months of return are the summer months May to August with the flow of returnees reduced by October/November. On return to Afghanistan returnees either go to an internally displaced persons (IDP) settlement or into the general community. In country UNHCR operates on the basis of six regions (west, east, south, north, south east and central). Aside from the Office of the Chief of Mission (UNHCR, 41 Peace Ave, Shahr-e-Naw, Kabul) within these six regions are six sub-offices (one for each region), field offices and field units. The six sub-offices have access to, communicate with and maintain the IDP settlements. Currently there are 19 organized IDP settlements within the six regions but also other spontaneous settlements. Population numbers vary within the organized settlements and the population estimates are as of January 2003. Voter registration regional officers and voter registration teams will need to work closely with the UNHCR sub-offices in order to facilitate registration by eligible persons within IDP settlements.

UNHCR are also compiling District Profiles and District Fact Sheets and have to date completed 150 profiles/fact sheets. This is about half way through the districts. All profiles/fact sheets should be obtained by the ICEC as they contain most useful information for the registration process (including number of schools, teachers etc). Contact for these profiles is Solmaz Dabiri, Mass Information Coordinator at UNHCR.

UNHCR in Kabul maintains an up-to-date database on population estimates both for returnees overall and individual IDP settlements, together with statistics on returnees by district of destination. The UNHCR Database Manager is Sardarwali Wardak ( and up-to-date information is available from him.

The UNHCR Protection Unit monitors returnees to see if their basic human rights are met and currently has 53 officers throughout Afghanistan. The Protection Unit conducts daily missions into the field from sub-offices, field officers and field units, and works closely with the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriates. The Senior Protection Officer, Zafnab Sheikh-Ali (, can arrange joint field visits with ICEC/voter registration officers if required. The head of the Kabul area unit is Ann Maymann, who has on her staff one officer whose part duty has been designated as election assistance because of the concentration of population in and around Kabul. The Assistant Chief of Mission- Protection is Phillipe Leclerq.

UNHCR has also established 12 Encashment Sites within Afghanistan through which all returnees go on return to Afghanistan in order to receive food, cash, inoculations, school information etc and on average returnees spend a couple of days at these sites. Information regarding voter registration, and eventually the election process should be made available by the ICEC to all returnees who are processed through these sites. UNHCR contact to make arrangements for such a distribution of information is Niyazi Maggerramov, Senior Field Coordinator.

A most important issue for registration is the expected continuous flow of returnees back into Afghanistan over the summer of 2003. If voter registration is undertaken on a rolling basis, using fixed and mobile sites, returnees will continue to arrive in districts/villages after the mobile teams have completed the initial registration phase in that area. To meet this demand for continuous registration it may be necessary to continue to maintain specific fixed sites either in Encashment Sites or in each district that have the capacity to register returnees for all sites in that district. Allocation of voters to the correct polling center at the village of destination would need to be addressed in the development of registration software. Failure to address this issue may lead to serious confrontation during the election itself. UNHCR maintains that up to five million refugees are still over the border from Afghanistan (Pakistan 3,000,000, Iran 2,000,000). It should also be noted that aside from UNHCR- organized return of refugees, other groups spontaneously decide to return to Afghanistan without UNHCR assistance. If a decision was taken to have specific fixed sites continue to operate e.g. at Encashment Sites (after the completion of the general registration) to meet this expected demand, consideration would need to be given as to the timing of the production of provisional voters registers for the Exhibition and Challenges phase.

Most returnees may not possess any original identification documentation. Documents that they may still hold include the Tazkira—a national ID card from the 1970s, a refugee card from the 1980s or a ration card with a photo. UNHCR undertakes a verification and registration process of returnees prior to their return to Afghanistan from Pakistan or Iran. This verification process, from this year, includes iris recognition in order to eliminate duplicate/multiple re-entries. At the completion of the process returnees are issued with a Voluntary Repatriation Form (VRF). The VRF is issued to each family group and contains details of each family member and from July 2002 includes a photograph of each family member. The photographs are also of female members of the family as UNHCR has a policy that, simply stated, unless a female has a photo taken without the burqa, no financial assistance will be given to that person. The VRF is an important document for future UNHCR assistance to returnees and therefore must be safeguarded and kept. The VRF could be used as a registration identification document for family members included on the document. It should be noted that UNHCR has an internal document detailing the process for verification.

The options for registering refugees currently outside of Afghanistan were outlined in my February document on voter registration and were based on the registration and elections processes conducted by IOM in Kosovo and East Timor using both in-country (fixed sites and mobile teams) and postal procedures. Further discussion with UNHCR Senior Regional Coordinator-Repatriation, Salvatore Lombardo, have only reinforced the many difficulties to be faced, especially in Pakistan, in relation to voter registration. A body such as IOM that is familiar with the Afghan refugee situation in each country and has experience conducting such programs will assist in overcoming the many difficulties to be experienced during the forthcoming election. If the ICEC makes the decision to either wholly or partially conduct the out-of–Afghanistan voter registration and election processes in-house, it is most important that the scale and complexity of the task is realized and that sufficient and experienced resources are allocated to the task.

UNHCR has established a Mass Information Unit which distributes information to camps and groups both within and outside of Afghanistan. The Unit is coordinated by Salmaz Dabiri and may be used by the ICEC to distribute educational information relevant both to the registration and election processes and also to assist with other issues such as the recruitment of qualified registration/election staff in-country.

5.  Nomads/Kuchies

The participation of Kuchies in voter registration will require specific strategies encompassing the migration patterns of the various groups/tribes. There are two types of Kuchies in Afghanistan—nomadic and semi-nomadic. Nomadic groups have livestock but no fixed dwelling and migrate according to season, and semi-nomadic groups have livestock and a fixed dwelling in one site but still, with part of the family group, move livestock to higher pastures during summer. The total population of Kuchies in Afghanistan is probably about 1,500,000 but, after three years of consecutive drought and the consequent loss of stock, a large proportion may not be migrating to find pastures.

The welfare of Kuchies fall under three agencies:

The Vulnerability, Analysis and Mapping Unit (VAM) of WFP has produced a Pastoralist Vulnerability Study (Frauke de Weijer) containing much relevant and useful information regarding Kuchies. VAM has also produced a map of migration patterns. For further detailed information on Kuchies, contact Abdul Zuhoor Mehri within the VAM unit. VAM Unit coordinator is Frauke de Weijer but was out-of-country whilst this document was being prepared.

In brief, the following migration patterns apply to Kuchies. Kuchies who migrate have both designated winter and summer pasture for their livestock. Winter pastures, used from October to March, are in the provinces of Kandahar, Hilmand, Nimroz, Farah, Herat, Nangarhar, Laghman, Khost and Kunar. In March and April, Kuchies migrate with their livestock to higher summer pastures. Generally speaking, Kandahar, Khost and Hilmond migrate to Ghazni and Zabul provinces. Those from Farah and Herat go to Ghor and Logar, and from Nangarhar, Laghman and Kunar go to Logar, Kabul, Kapi, Parwan, Wardak and Bamyan provinces.

These migrations take between one and one-and-a-half months. It should be noted that there are some problems with migrations as, although Kuchies have designated pasture areas, other groups such as the Hazara (the original groups from the designated land) are now resisting migration of Kuchies onto those lands.

Each nomadic tribe has a leader/malik. Meetings (shura jirga) with maliks to discuss timing possibilities and locations for voter registration can be arranged through either the VAM Unit of WFP (Abdul Zuhoor Meri) or through the Deputy Minister for Tribal Affairs, Mr Babrakzai. Any strategy to register Kuchies will need the cooperation of relevant maliks. Maliks can authorize/arrange, for example, that a tribe remain in one place for a set period whilst registration is taking place. Tribal shepherds would continue to move livestock to fresh pasture, if required, during this time. Registration for Kuchies may need to be undertaken following completion of the general voter registration in other parts of the country (most likely conducted during the summer months) because of migration patterns. Mobile registration teams could undertake registration, in conjunction with advice from relevant maliks, during the time of lower winter pastures (post October) and prior to migration to higher summer pastures (pre March). This decision would depend on the whether or not access to the higher summer pastures was difficult because of geography and road conditions.

6.  Data Input/Information Technology

If a manual system is used to collect voter registration in the field in Afghanistan, a datacenter for data input to allow the production of provisional and final voters registers, with associated reports, would need either to be established in Kabul or the data would need to be transported to an existing facility outside of Afghanistan.

An operational datacenter with sufficient capacity does not exist in Kabul. The closest to such a facility is an obsolete and non-operational unit in the Ministry of Reconstruction. The Central Statistics Unit (CSO) responsible for the conduct of the pre-census is currently seeking funding to refurbish the facility to international standards capable of census processing. The refurbishment includes 80 to 100 linked PCs using an internal network only for data security reasons. The refurbishment includes separate server rooms, high speed printers and continuous power from dedicated generators.

A decision on UNFPA funding is still pending. Time is a factor in any decision to try to use this facility for voter registration data processing. Even if a funding decision was made today, a lead time of three to four months would most likely be necessary before the facility was operational. This time includes the refurbishment of the space itself to computer center standards, purchase and installation of hardware and, very importantly, the recruitment and training of local staff to an input accuracy standard necessary for input of data from the pre-census or voter registration.

The Government of Afghanistan would also need to prioritize the time use of the facility between pre-census and voter registration. It is understood that CSO will require a proportion of the capacity of the center. ICEC may wish to have a financial partnership with CSO on the refurbishment costs in order to gain access to the facility. Contact for further discussions on the future of the facility is Graham Jones at CSO.

The alternative to the above facility is for data to be transferred to an existing facility outside Afghanistan. There is precedent for this approach as initial Kosovo election data input was in India and data for East Timor was processed in Australia. This approach, however, raises issues of data control, data security and output quality—all of which need to be monitored if outsourcing is to be successful.

Finally, it would be to ICEC advantage to institute, at the earliest possible time, an IT assessment/needs analysis for voter registration programming and processing. Sound IT is the key to success in data capture/processing and allows both the accurate and complete allocation of voters to assigned polling centers and the timely production of provisional and final voters registers. The IT assessment should also focus on voter registration fraud issues such as multiple registrations and data issues such as duplicate or missing data.

7.  Disabled Persons

The welfare of the disabled in Afghanistan is the responsibility of the Ministry of Martyrs and the Disabled. At a meeting with the Minister, Abdullah Wardak, it quickly became obvious that the Ministry does not have the resources to assist the disabled. The Ministry is attempting to register the disabled (the UN estimate is between 800,000 and 900,000) but to date has only registered 60,000 persons. However the validity of a percentage of these registrations is in doubt as some registrants may not actually be disabled and registered believing that they may eventually receive a financial bonus. The Minister urged discussion with the United Nations Office for Project Services-Comprehensive Disabled Afghans Program (CDAP) which works closely with the Ministry and has more capacity and knowledge of the disabled than the Ministry itself. The Head of CDAP is Dr. Majid Turmusani. CDAP is active in six provinces.

Other organizations also work in the provinces. The Mine Action Center for Afghanistan (MACA) from UNOPS is active in most provinces. Contact for further information on the distribution of organizations working with the disabled in the provinces is Mohammad Qasim from MACA. A map showing the current distribution of organizations working with the disabled in the provinces is attached.

Contact at regional, provincial and district level should be made with these organizations. Local contact is the best method of determining how information on the registration and election processes to the disabled can be disseminated.