A credible voters list is essential for voter’s confidence in Georgia.

Issues surrounding the voters’ list that have marred previous elections in Georgia – multiple entries, the persistence of deceased voters, and errors in voter information – continue to cause anxiety and low confidence in the democratic process amongst stakeholders and the Georgian electorate.

In an effort to increase confidence in the process a state funded commission was established last year with a view to ascertain the accuracy of the list. The Voters List Verification Commission (VLVC) is chaired by Mamuka Katsitadze of the New Rights Party, and consists of members of ruling party and some opposition parties’ representatives, as well as representatives from several civil society groups.

August 1, 2012 is set as a deadline for the commission to complete voter list rechecking after which the list should be handed over to the Central Election Commission (CEC). The VLVC is also authorized to continue monitoring the voters’ lists after August 1. The Commission launched door-to-door campaign on April 24 as part of rechecking the accuracy of the voter register ahead of the October parliamentary elections. 11,100 field observers, known as registrants, recruited by the VLVC, were tasked to visit every household in Georgia to ensure accuracy of the list.

The VLVC has however already been marred in controversy. Leading Georgian NGOs who are normally the most reliable in monitoring the election process, such as Transparency International, GYLA and ISFED have refused to participate in the commission claiming that the compilation of the Voters List is a primary duty of the Central Election Commission. Some political parties are also accusing the VLVC of not being transparent in its work. One party leader complained that when asked to be provided with a copy of the voters list as it stands they were given a list with millions of names not split up in streets or districts and thus impossible to verify.

A troubled history

Voters’ list issues date back to the November 2003 parliamentary elections. A report by LINKS issued at the time described the compilation of the voters’ list as “the single most significant flaw in the 2003 parliamentary elections.”

Coordinated by the Central Election Committee (CEC), the compilation of the list began in the spring of 2003 and involved data collection from the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Refugees and Settlement as well as Georgian consulates abroad.

It was noted immediately after the release of the preliminary list on October 8, that significant irregularities existed. Following the period of public scrutiny, several District Electoral Commissions (DEC) did not return the corrected lists in time with the legal requirements as stipulated in the Unified Electoral Code (UEC). The Autonomous Republic of Adjara compiled its own list which it refused to submit to the CEC before the polls opened. Adjara’s list raised further questions surrounding the legitimacy of the voters’ list as the total electorate was listed as 20% greater than those registered in the same area for the Presidential elections of 2000.

The final voters’ list was published on October 28, 2003, just five days prior to the polls, as opposed to the requisite ten days as stipulated by the UEC. Voters were only given two days to scrutinize and initiate cumbersome procedures for amendment. The inconsistencies with the voters’ list in 2003 resulted in widespread confusion at the polls and the exclusion of an estimated ten percent of the electorate from voting. International observers noted carousel voting, multiple voting and ballot stuffing amongst other irregularities.

In light of the lack of confidence in the voters’ list of the parliamentary elections, the CEC compiled a new list for the Extraordinary Presidential elections held on the 4th of January 2004. Compilation was devolved down to the DEC and Precinct Electoral Commissions (PEC). The CEC also allowed voters to register on election-day. The LINKS report notes that this process was not fully transparent. As well as individuals being turned away for not having the correct identification documents or being in the wrong precinct on election day, others were added to the lists even if they already possessed registration slips. Moreover, proxy voting and multiple voting were witnessed by observers.

Given the issue surrounding the credibility of the 2003/4 election cycle, the CEC took  some steps to address the issue ahead of the 2008 election. In November 2007, the CEC undertook a nation-wide door-to-door voters’ list verification exercise which resulted in the addition of 65,000 voter records and the removal of 28,000 deceased persons. The voters’ list was then made public and citizens were encouraged to verify it and send in any requests for amendments via the internet, a CEC hotline, or in person at their local PEC. The final list included 3,352,448 voters. Additionally, the CEC continued to allow voters to register on election day; resulting in the registration of a further 85,000 voters.

The Joint Electoral Observation Mission of the OSCE and Council of Europe (JEOM) noted that despite these positive steps, inaccuracies remained a concern for many stakeholders. At least six complaints were submitted to the CEC by opposition parties claiming more than 40,000 records as inaccurate, including multiple and incomplete records, omissions of eligible voters, spelling errors, and deceased persons remaining on the list.

On the recommendation of international observers, the CEC decided to abolish election day voter-registration for the May 2008 parliamentary elections. Moreover, the CEC extended the period for public scrutiny of the voters list from 12 to 19 days. Over 29,000 entries were corrected during this period. The total number of registered voters for the 2008 parliamentary elections was listed as 3,456,936.

According to OSCE observation reports, there was concern as to whether the voters registered actually resided in the indicated residency. In Tbilisi, for example, the OSCE found that 672 addresses without an apartment number had more than ten persons registered at the address, affecting some 12,119 voters. There were also allegations by opposition parties that the voters list was inflated and that discrepancies surrounding multiple entries and deceased persons still remained.

In some areas inaccuracies have increased

The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) conducted an independent audit of the 2008 and 2011 voters’ lists. While there has been an overall improvement in comprehensiveness and accuracy in the lists (just 0.2% of the sample interviewed in 2011 were unregistered, compared to 1.3% in 2008) discrepancies persist. Notably with regard to accuracy of address data errors have actually increased since 2008.

The auditors recommendedGeorgiaconduct a comprehensive census prior to the next election in order to have an accurate picture of how many people are indeed eligible to vote. Furthermore, ISFED called for the implementation of positive incentives for eligible voters to report either moving address, emigration or the death of a relative. The OSCE, for its part has recommended better coordination between the CEC and the Ministries involved in supplying population data.

Both the OSCE and ISFED called upon the Georgian authorities to ensure that the list is made available for public scrutiny well in advance and that all attempts are made to correct discrepancies to ensure the public continues to gain confidence in the democratic process inGeorgia.

Some diplomats in Tbilisi believe that the Georgian government now has at its disposal enough data to be able to compile an accurate voters list if it wants to. It does seem that part of the problem has been resolved, namely the omission of names of people eligible to vote. The other aspect of the problem involving people who are registered in several places remains. Since this could make it possible for multiple or carousel voting to take place, it is important that the list is corrected in time.

Many observers also insist that the Central Election Commission is the body that must be held ultimately accountable for the accuracy of the Voters List and that the process of devolving different aspects of the electoral process to different agencies is a negative development.

Source: CEW