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Our catastrophic voting system

Let's talk about voting, Mahmoud Salem writes

Mahmoud Salem
Mahmoud Salem

As we enter the seventh week of the post-30 June transitional era, there has been a notable absence of discussions over what this next phase’s priorities should be. The external and internal focus has been the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins and the situation in Sinai, which are important in their own right, but in no way should they distract us from focusing on the issues that will define us as a nation, and most importantly, on the mechanisms of future conflict resolution.

Let’s talk about voting here for a minute.

In the past two and a half years there have been five different occasions on which Egyptians went to the ballot box and exercised their new found right at voting, but there hasn’t been a single time one could actually verify the integrity of the process or the results. Report after report citing thousands of election violations and incidents of voter fraud have been released, and not a single investigation was launched.

The few local or international observers that actually manage to get a permit to observe the voting process all issue reports that detail the systemic violations that occur and even they admit of only being able to cover a miniscule number of polling stations at best. But even if they do manage to bring out thousands of trained observers to cover all of the polling stations, the numerous ways or levels that a person or a party running for elections can rig the votes turns the entire process into nothing more than a well-organised farce. To illustrate my point, allow me to cite the different ways and levels of which one can commit voter fraud in our great democracy.

Level one: Direct individual vote buying, also known as the chump’s game. Not only is it a costly endeavour (a single vote can be sold from anywhere from EGP100-200) it’s also very hard to verify for the fraudster. That being said, it happens, and is an effective method at getting a couple hundred extra votes here and there.

Level two: Direct mass vote buying, which is similar to direct vote buying in cost, but not in logistics. On this level you are dealing with a vote agent, someone who can mobilise thousands of votes from his areas to vote for your candidate, and will ensure the delivery of such votes in your favour. The vote agent will utilise a number of methods, the most famous of which is the rotating ballot, where he will give the voter an already checked ballot (which he buys off the polling station workers) to place inside the ballot box instead of the ballot they give him inside, and in turn gives that unchecked ballot to the agent standing outside to confirm his vote. The agent checks the new ballot and gives it to the next “voter” in line, and starts the cycle all over. Many vote agents exist in every district; the best will not only be able to churn out the votes, but also manage different voter lines at the same time.

Level three: Polling station mass vote sale, a process in which you buy your votes directly from the polling station workers, which is more convenient and far less costly. This usually takes place at the final hours of the second day of voting, when the polling stations are mostly empty and supreme majority of voters have voted. At this point the workers go through their rolls, count the names of those who didn’t vote, and offer to sell their votes wholesale at 2000LE per 500 votes, and then fill the ballots and sign the names themselves. This is why many times people will go in to vote and find their names already checked in the rolls.

Level four: Bribing the ballot counters, who are usually government workers whose name and contact information one can obtain using an appropriate bribe. The unprofessional ballot counters will simply put any number that favours their candidate or unfavours his opponent regardless of the actual vote, counting that most likely there would not be a recount of that specific box. Professional ballot counters will provide the same results, by simply invalidating as many of the votes of their opponents as they can, which is as easy as making an extra check mark on their ballot. This way if there was ever a recount, their numbers will check out.

Level five: The judges level, which happens at the time of final vote tallying, wherein one of  the judges will go down to every ballot counter’s table and gets the number of votes every candidate received and writes it down on a piece of paper. What the ballot counter tells him and what he writes can be completely different, and given that they only announce the total votes at the end, they can change the final tally as they please. This level requires either having a direct relationship with the judges, but usually is reserved to the people in power, who will issue a direct order to the judges to bring out a specific result they wish.

Final level: The voter rolls level, which happens when the state wants to directly affect the results of the vote, and is almost undetectable. Given that producing the voter rolls is the responsibility of the paragon of integrity and transparency that is the Ministry of Interior, they are usually filled with thousands of duplicate/fake/dead names. And since the interior ministry is also the governmental body that issues state ID’s, they can issue thousands of fake ID’s with the names of those fictitious voters. Specific people are given those ID’s and voter-ink removing solution, and voila, thousands of fake votes, undetectable to the experienced observer, enter the ballot box as valid votes.

Illogical jumps in the amount of eligible voters, like the 12 million extra eligible voters that were suddenly added to the rolls between 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential elections are usually a big hint, but careful inspection of the voter rolls provided to each candidate per district on a national level confirms it, given that they find thousands of duplicate names with the same voter ID in multiple polling station in multiple districts. Evidence of this has been found, and law suits have been filed, but no investigation has ever been made, since it would implicate the state itself, something that the state isn’t too keen on.

These are only a few general examples, and god knows there are hundreds of other methods to utilise, but the conclusion is the same. If political parties are keen on actually moving forward with the country, then our voting system has to be overhauled completely, by cleaning up the voter rolls, taking the voter roll and ID issuing powers away from the interior ministry, setting up an electoral committee that is not made up of the judiciary, but from the different parties in Egypt, and quite possibly set-up a different voting methodology all together. Otherwise, any election or referendum will be no different than any other election in Egypt’s history: state-influenced, illegitimate and fair only in the way it allows everyone to cheat.

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