A secret ballot is an essential prerequisite of any free election. Even in the most sophisticated of democracies ensuring the privacy of the voter so that his or her choice will be secret is a crucial part of the electoral process.
The issue becomes much more serious in societies in transition where voter intimidation is widespread, and where vote buying remains a serious problem, resulting in a voter needing to show his vote to the buyer to justify the payment.
In elections in the Caucasus over the last two decades a pattern has emerged that requires attention. In the central constituencies of the capitals the procedures concerning the secrecy of the ballot is often strictly adhered to. However the further away one goes from the capital the bigger the problem becomes. In areas densely populated by national minorities the problems become even more serious, sometimes reaching a point where voters are actually asked to show their vote to members of the Precinct Elections Commission before putting it into the ballot box. In some situations in rural areas the head of the family sometimes demands to vote for the whole family – and sometimes is allowed to do so!
Central Elections Commissions and their subsidiaries at District and precinct level need to put special attention to this problem and not assume that procedures are going to be followed, because often they are not.
The layout of the polling stations often leaves much to be desired, making the possibility of privacy very limited. The presence of unauthorised personnel inside polling stations is also often a problem.
However the worst culprits are often people who are in the polling station legitimately, either as precinct commissioners or as legitimate observers. Their behaviour is often intrusive, and illegal. Such behaviour should not be tolerated and it should be noted by both international and domestic observers of the election if it occurs, since it undermines the trust of the electorate in the process.
In the elections in Georgia in a few weeks time this issue needs to be looked at very strictly by international monitors. Many Georgian electors are already complaining of intrusive behaviour by people turning on their doorstep ahead of the elections, either to conduct opinion polls or to canvass for a particular party. In the highly charged and polarised political atmosphere that exists in Georgia ahead of the elections, the sanctity of the secrecy of the ballot needs to be paramount. Both political parties and agencies conducting opinion or exit polls need to respect the voter and those who don’t should be charged according to the provisions of the law.
prepared by the editorial team of CEW