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Modern Voting Systems Did More Harm Than Good In Afghanistan's Recent Elections

Employees of the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) unload ballot boxes from a turck at a polling centre ahead of legislative election in Kandahar Province on October 26.

Hafizullah rocks on his hospital bed in pain, an oversized bandage covering the nub where his finger used to be.

This is the price he paid for exercising his right to vote in Afghanistan's October 20 parliamentary elections. Shortly after electoral officials in Helmand Province marked his finger with indelible blue ink -- a simple way to help prevent multiple voting -- Taliban fighters abducted Hafizullah and cut off his finger.

Hafizullah's experience illustrates the difficulties of employing even the most rudimentary methods to create a transparent voting environment, let alone the new methods attempted by the Afghan authorities for this election.

In an attempt to prevent the widespread fraud that has marred previous votes, the authorities introduced computerized voter lists at each of the country's 4,900 polling stations. At the very last minute, they launched a biometric voter-verification system.

But instead of helping transparency, the new systems added to the chaos and ultimately undermined the credibility of the vote.​

If this wasn't obvious on election day, it became crystal clear on October 23, when officials started tallying results and uncovered confusion over what votes would be counted or discarded as a result of widespread technical and organizational failures.

'It Was A Mess'

"When I went to the polling center to vote, it was a mess," says Ejaz Malikzada, a political activist in the capital, Kabul. "The biometric devices didn't work. My name was also not on the voters list, even though I registered to vote."

Malikzada, who left without voting, listed several other reported irregularities pertaining to the election: voters casting ballots multiple times, ineligible voters casting ballots, and a shortage of observers at polling stations.

Afghans lined up to vote in eastern Khost Province on October 20.
Afghans lined up to vote in eastern Khost Province on October 20.

More than 5,000 complaints over irregularities were lodged by voters and candidates across the country. Dozens of people were also arrested and charged with interfering in the elections, or for fraud.

Muhib Shadan, a voter living in the west of Kabul dominated by the Hazara community, said mismanagement was widespread there, too.

"At some polling stations in west Kabul, the voter lists were from other provinces," Shadan claimed. "Biometric devices were not working in most of the polling stations. In some polling stations, the batteries of the devices were dead. The staff at the polling centers were not trained well."

Mariam Solaimankhail, a candidate for the nomadic Kochi minority that is guaranteed 10 seats in parliament, said that, like many Kochis in Kabul, she was unable to vote because her name did not appear on the voter list.

Voting was extended by a day at 401 polling stations, including 45 in Kabul, that failed to open on October 20 because of technical issues.

But even that move appears to have harmed more than helped.

Afghan election workers wait for vote-count papers at the database center of the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission in Kabul on October 24.
Afghan election workers wait for vote-count papers at the database center of the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission in Kabul on October 24.

The Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), a civic action body that has been monitoring the ballot, said the decision to extend the vote opened the way for fraud when half-filled ballot boxes were left open all night in some polling centers.

Independent election observers said issues were even more widespread in the countryside, where the Taliban has clout and there is less government control and oversight of the elections.

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan said around 4 million people voted, less than half of the nearly 9 million voters who registered -- and it is widely suspected that a significant number of the votes counted were fraudulent.

Even before the vote, analysts had raised eyebrows over suspiciously high voter registration, particularly in restive southern and eastern provinces where registration exceeded the number of eligible voters. There was also improbably high registration of women in some central and northern provinces.

Setbacks were also evident in the southern province of Kandahar, where voters went to the polls only on October 26, almost a week after the nationwide vote. The delay was caused by an attack on October 18 that left nearly the entire provincial leadership dead or wounded.

In the southeastern province of Ghazni, meanwhile, the elections were postponed indefinitely due to disagreements over the representation of different ethnic groups.

Which Votes To Count?

As the election commission began to tally the votes, confusion reigned.

Before the vote, election officials had said they would only count votes that had been verified by biometric devices and voter lists.

But observers said that at some polling stations only biometric verification or voter lists were used, while in other polling centers neither of the two systems were used.

Afghan employees of the Independent Election Commission load biometric devices in to boxes at a warehouse in Kabul on October 10.
Afghan employees of the Independent Election Commission load biometric devices in to boxes at a warehouse in Kabul on October 10.

"We have concerns regarding the management of the process and which votes will be counted," said Muslim Shirzad, one of more than 2,500 candidates nationwide who competed for the 249 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Ahmad Shuja Jamal, an Afghan analyst who researches security and human rights issues, said many people cast their votes without following the correct procedures because of issues with biometric devices and voter rolls.

"The rule book has not been written on how to deal with these issues," he said. "[Election authorities] have only given vague assurances to the public that they would audit these failures in a fair way without explaining the technical procedures and standards."

As Hafizullah lies in his hospital bed after surgery in Helmand, he says he hopes his sacrifice was worth it.

"I went to vote because it was our duty and our right," he tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "We risked our lives to vote. I hope it will count for something."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.