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Highly competitive runoff elections with deliberate disinformation and smear campaigns

(November 23, 2020)





On 22 November, runoff mayoral elections took place in Berdiansk, Zaporizhia Oblas; Dnipro; Drohobych, Lviv Oblast; Lviv; Mykolaiv; Nikopol, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast; Poltava; Rivne; Slovyansk, Donetsk Oblast; Uzhhorod; and Cherkasy. OPORA observers conducted long-term and short-term observations of the elections focusing on assessment of the quality of election procedures and the level of democaracy and competitiveness of the electoral process. 

According to OPORA, the runoff elections in each of the eleven Ukrainian cities were marked by high competitiveness, involvement of national poltical leaders, and significant conflict intensity. Because it was so short, the election campaign between the voting days of 25 October and 22 November did not involve large-scale violations of the law. One of the key challenges faced during the campaign was extensive deliberate disinformation or smearing campaigns against the rivals. The conflict intensity during the campaign had an adverse impact on the meaningful dialogue between the candidates regarding future community development. In most cities, except Lviv and Cherkasy, candidate debates never took place. Another issue was the impact of mass media during the runoff election campaign, particularly disproportionate coverage of some of the candidates by national and regional media and prevalence of covert advertising used to either promote or discredit the candidates for the runoff election. 

Once again, the campaign has proven the need to improve legislation on public activities of government authorities and their officials during the election process in relation to inadequate separation by the incumbent candidates of their official duties from eletion camapaigning. Local elections are especially sensitive to the problem considering a close proximity between local governments and voters. The runoff mayoral elections of 22 November were marked by fairly extensive abuse of office by the candidates who, at the time of the elections, held local government offices or had close ties with local government officials.  OPORA assumes that abuse of office by some of the candidates, though not directly violating the law in most cases, could have a negative impact on the rights and opportunities of all candidates.

In the run-up to the election day, our observers reported a few isolated incidents involving vote buying. Unlike the previous election campaigns, the candidates did not offer goods and services to voters en-masse during the campaign. However, as the violation statistics for the voting day suggest, some of the candidates may have used illegal vote-buying schemes. Just before and during the voting day, Ukrainian law enforcement agencies reported identifying some orchestrators and enablers of vote-buying schemes. In addition, OPORA observers detected a number of incidents where voters took pictures of their ballots which may suggest the use of controlled voting and vote buying schemes by some dishonest candidates. OPORA urges the National Police of Ukraine and other law-enforcement agencies to promptly inform the public about the findings of the investigations of election crimes. With that, we would like to acknowledge proactive efforts by the National Police of Ukraine to detect and report any offenses. This provides valuable evidence and enables further progress towards ensuring prosecution for election crimes. 

The runoff mayoral election of 22 November revitalized the issue of new approaches to election administration in Ukraine. Significant workloads for election commission members combined with little financial incentives, especially under pandemic conditions, often end up disrupting the management and conduct of the vote. Even though TEC and PEC members have once again shown their willingness to work in difficult conditions, the parliament, in partnership with the CEC and independent experts, should initiate a non-partisan debate on reforming the election administration system. The debate should focus on such aspects as depoliticizing election commissions, reducing shadow partisan influence on their operations, and increasing financial safeguards for election commission members. Separate but equally important issues are ensuring adequate public access to election results information and improving transparency and accountability in election campaign financing.

Typical violations on the election day

On the repeat voting day, OPORA observers conducted a comprehensive monitoring of the key stages of the election process, from preparatory meetings and polling station opening through the entire voting process, ballot count, and transportation of documents from the precinct election commissions to the territorial election commissions. OPORA observers continuously monitored compliance with the electoral laws and made a comprehensive evaluation of the quality of implementation of the election procedures at a representative number of polling stations throughout Ukraine, namely at 300 polling stations evenly distributed across the country where the runoff election took place. The observers were deployed on the basis of stratified random sampling. Before starting its observations, OPORA conducted two rounds of training and special election day simulations for the observers to train them to respond to different situations and incidents. OPORA’s statistically based observation is an independent practice undertaken only by OPORA with the intention to provide unbiased information about the elections.

By the general assessment of the observers, voters repeatedly photographed ballots at the polling stations during the repeat vote on November 22. This might be a sign of controlled voting meant to influence illegally the final election results in certain communities. This type of abuse was found in 13.58% of polling stations on the election day (a 4.32% margin of error), which significantly exceeded the rate of similar violations on October 25 (1.6% of PECs) and November 15 (5.19% of PECs). Instead, the general statistical data for other types of violations went down as compared with the previous local election rounds.

Illegal attempts by precinct election commissions to hand out ballots and illegal receipt of ballots by voters  who did not present proper IDs were found at 4% of polling stations against 10.04% on October 25, which had been the most common procedural violation at that time.

The situations where voters voted outside the booths, showed their ballots or otherwise violated the secrecy of vote remained quite common. Such violations took place in 4.53% of PECs against 7.52% in the first round.

Ballot manipulation was also less frequent, in particular, the attempts to illegally cast ballots (in bundles) were found in 0.41% of polling stations (0.64% in the first round).

By and large, OPORA observers praised the quality of election administration and organizational support at the polling stations. PECs created appropriate conditions to ensure that the voters could exercise their voting rights to the fullest extent amid the pandemic, but a low inclusion nature of the electoral process requires greater attention and response from public administration bodies at various levels. The monitoring showed that 59.83% of polling stations were not fully equipped on the runoff election day to provide unhindered access for voters with disabilities.

In total, 98.35% of PECs started their work as usual, and public observers did not see any critical problems with commission meeting attendance or any violations of quorum requirements. Despite negative expectations regarding the quorum at PEC meetings, fuelled by faster spread of COVID-19 (including incidence of infection among commission members) and tighter quarantine restrictions, only 1.65% of PECs held their preparatory meetings when they lacked a quorum.

According to the observers, 19.67% of precinct election commissions did not meet the timing requirements for their preparatory meetings, which negatively affected the ability of official observers and other election participants to monitor the election preparations. At 13.81% of polling stations, PEC members did not keep the meeting  minutes that were to include information on the voting preparations. The vast majority of polling stations (81.17%) opened on time, while 18.41% started voting earlier than 8:00 AM.

By the time the polling stations closed, observers had not reported any serious abuse by election commission members or illegal attempts to interfere in the election process. OPORA observers found minor election violations at 11.25% of the polling stations at this election stage, with the margin of error making 4.01%, while no significant procedural violations were found at all. At 99.58% of polling stations, observers had not seen any queues by the end of voting and closure of the stations. Overall, 97.07% of PECs started their final meetings on time (immediately after the polling stations closed), while 2.93% failed to meet this requirement which is important to ensure proper monitoring of the entire ballot count.

In general, OPORA observers appreciated the way the polling stations implemented the legal procedures at the time of station closure and vote count. The issue with the lack of quorum at the final meetings of the precinct election commissions was less significant than during the repeat vote on November 15 (5.19% of PECs). This time, only 1.65% of PEC meetings lacked quorum. The access to the vote count protocols improved. The observers were unable to receive a copy of the protocols only in 1.67% of PECs, against 8.09% on October 25. In 0.42% of PECs, commission members exercised their right to add a dissenting opinion to the vote count protocols when they had critical comments on the counting results.

According to the observers, PEC members committed various procedural violations at the counting stage at 7.95% of the polling stations. In the first round, 10.23% of the stations had such irregularities. Nevertheless, there was no statistically significant obstruction of the vote count by candidates, authorized representatives of party organizations, candidate proxies or observers.

Verified violations of election legislation

On November 22, 2020, OPORA observers identified and verified 275 violations of the election legislation. The key problem with the re-run voting in 11 cities of Ukraine was a higher number of incidents involving voters taking photos of their ballots (48). Most cases of ballot snapshooting were verified in Dnipro (27), Rivne (9), Cherkasy (3), and Poltava (3). The practice of making a photographic record of the ballots may indicate that certain lawless technologies of vote buying and controlled voting were implemented in the cities of Ukraine, especially where the number of documented incidents was high. According to OPORA observers, the National Police of Ukraine actively responded to the incidents, with its officers compiling reports on the persons committing administrative offenses. At a number of polling stations, some voters violated the secrecy of vote, refusing to mark their ballots in a booth for secret voting, or committed acts of hooliganism (6). In a small number of documented cases (2), voters at some polling stations were unlawfully denied their right to vote (2). For example, at one of the Mykolayiv’s polling stations, a voter was denied a ballot because she was accompanied by a child inside the polling station. As a matter of fact, the government decree on anti-epidemic measures during elections only recommended that voters do not take children to the polling stations, and any relevant prohibition was unlawful.

OPORA observers reported 19 violations of the legal requirements regarding vote counting procedures at the polling stations. In those instances, simultaneous (parallel) counting of ballots by several election commissioners was commonplace, making it impossible to monitor the process by all PEC members and other electoral subjects. Again, the practice of delaying vote counting reports was  widespread, as the PEC members were motivated to receive financial compensation from the government for an additional day of office. OPORA also recorded 8 violations of the procedure for drawing up a vote counting report at the polling stations. In particular, there were several incidents of signing protocols before the final count of the votes was complete.

On the voting day, 7 incidents were documented in which OPORA observers faced obstruction. One of the incidents may be called a threat to the safety of the observer (in Dnipro, PEC members threatened the observer, tried to unlawfully seize his phone and would not allow the police to establish the circumstances of the offense). Another form of obstruction to the official observers was the refusal to provide them with a copy of the vote counting report (Poltava and Zaporizhia oblasts, 2 incidents).

The specific details of the violations targeting the official observers point to the need for PEC members to be properly trained, while some incidents also indicate that it is important to make sure that the sanctions for obstructing election observation be applied appropriately. Another violation related to PEC members was the presence of persons not entitled to be there at some polling stations on the voting day (11).

As was the case during the October 25 voting, OPORA observers noted problems on November 15 with the logistics of election commissions (81 incidents). Incidents of non-compliance with the required number of ballot boxes and secret voting booths, and ignoring the requirements to provide special conditions for voting by persons with signs of respiratory diseases were particularly widespread. On a separate note, OPORA observers emphasize that the accessibility of polling stations for people with disabilities remains unsatisfactory.

Of the total number of incidents documented by OPORA, 85 concerned a wide range of procedural irregularities by PEC members. Common, in particular, was the practice of issuing ballots by only one PEC commissioner, although the Electoral Code in this case clearly provides that two commissioners be required to work jointly and control each other. Procedural irregularities also included non-compliance by PEC members with the procedures for holding PEC preparatory meetings, including the procedure for drawing minutes of such meetings.

On a positive note, the number of incidents in which ballot papers were issued to the voters without proper IDs or those who did not have the right to vote was small. OPORA observers have verified a total of 3 such incidents. OPORA believes that the government should continue to inform citizens about the inadmissibility of voting on behalf of third parties and receiving ballots without presenting a proper ID.

Thus, the day of repeat voting featured traditional violations of election legislation in Ukraine, some of which did not have a significant effect on the overall assessment of the process. OPORA emphasizes, however, that the uncharacteristic increase of incidents involving taking pictures of the ballots is a matter of serious concern, calling for an official investigation into potential vote buying schemes.

Voter turnout on election day (according to the OPORA Civic Network)

On the day of the repeat voting, November 22, 2020, the OPORA Civic Network also counted voter turnout, using a statistically representative sample of polling stations where its official observers were deployed. The data was recorded at 12 noon, 4 pm, and 8 pm.

According to OPORA observers, at noon the turnout was 9.7% (error – 0.5%), and at 4 pm, the voter turnout rate reached 22.5% (error – 1%).

In general (as of 8 pm), the integrated voter turnout in 11 cities of Ukraine during the repeat voting on November 22 amounted to 29.23% (1.3% error). To compare, during the voting on October 25, the turnout across Ukraine was 35.9%. During the repeat voting on November 15, the voter turnout in the 7 cities at the same time was 23.9%.

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