Judge overseeing polling station recounts troubling incidents in constitutional referendum
 
 
A man checks for his name on a roster inside a polling station in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt. Egyptians will be voting on potential amendments to the constitutional including extending presidential limits and widening authority to the military establishment. April 20, 2019
 

In its final statement on the 2019 constitutional referendum, the National Elections Authority (NEA) announced on April 23 that voters had approved the proposed amendments by 88.8 percent, with a 44.3 percent turnout.

The sweeping set of changes allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to extend his rule until 2030, diminish the independence of the judiciary and grant unprecedented powers to the Armed Forces, among other changes.

Yet despite the pivotal nature of the vote, the NEA’s announcement of the official results was brief and included precious few details. There was no breakdown on the number of votes cast abroad versus inside the country, which the NEA did lay out in 2018 when announcing the results of the presidential elections. The NEA also did not disclose certain details previously described as “important” by the head of the former High Elections Commission during the 2014 Constitutional Referendum, such as the number of ballots cast by voters in polling stations outside of their home districts. Also absent were detailed polling statistics broken out by governorate that the High Elections Commission provided to the media and published on its official site immediately after the 2014 results were announced. (The NEA replaced the High Elections Commission when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified the National Elections Authority Law in 2017).

Mada Masr met with the head of a polling station in northern Cairo, a judge, who described several issues of deep concern with the conduct of the vote, including: the lack of a mechanism to prevent unregistered voters from voting multiple times, pro-Sisi party members employed as poll workers, food boxes being distributed as “election bribery,” and the lack of any oversight by civil society or the media of the vote counting process. The judge spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.

 

One ballot box for both registered and unregistered voters

Among the most troubling observations concerned the handling of ballots by citizens who cast their vote at a polling station outside of their residential district.

All voters are assigned a specific polling station that corresponds to the address listed on their National ID card. Yet voters are also allowed to cast ballots at polling stations outside of their residential district, presumably so as not to disenfranchise people who may work or live far away from their officially listed home address.

Yet the judge says the way these non-registered voters were dealt with in the referendum was highly questionable. “Non-registered voting seemed very suspicious to me so I banned it altogether in my polling station,” he says.

On April 19, the judge received separate envelopes containing the ballots, voter rolls, and forms to tally the results. The forms included a table split into two sections: one to tally ballots cast by voters assigned to that particular polling station, and another for unregistered voters. According to the source, the heads of each polling station had been instructed to allow unregistered voting and that these ballots would be placed in a separate ballot box.

But at the last minute, something changed.

“We were all surprised when, at midnight on Friday [April 20th, hours before polls opened in Egypt], we received instructions to place just one ballot box inside each polling station that would hold both the ballots of voters registered at the polling station as well as the ballots of unregistered voters, instead of using two separate boxes,” he says. The tallies of unregistered voters at each polling station would therefore not be available.

The judge says that allowing citizens to vote outside of their assigned polling station raises troubling questions, especially considering that the NEA does not have a mechanism to prevent these unregistered voters from voting multiple times at various polling stations outside their residential district.

He adds that districts split voters into different polling stations nearby. “A voter who lives in al-Warraq is considered an unregistered voter at a polling station in Cairo,” he says.

After casting a ballot, voters are required to dip their fingers in ink as a way to prevent them from voting multiple times. Yet the judge says this method is ineffective as the ink can easily be washed off using vinegar and that it is difficult to examine each voters’ fingers at the polls.

“It was the intention from the beginning to show all ballot boxes as filled with votes,” he says.

Due to his suspicions about non-registered votes, the judge decided not to allow them at his polling station, in contrast to other polling stations nearby, he said. He believes that specially designated polling stations should have been set up for unregistered voters, which would utilize an electronic reader to prevent them from voting again outside of their home district.

During the 2014 Constitutional Referendum, the former head of the now-defunct High Elections Commission, Nabeel Saleeb, said that unregistered voting was one of the biggest issues the Commission faced. The High Elections Commission ended up allocating 146 polling stations exclusively for voters casting ballots outside of their residential district with electronic readers to ensure that no one voted more than once. There were a total of 424,383 votes in this category during the 2014 referendum.

At a High Elections Commission press conference in 2014, Saleeb addressed the issue of unregistered voters, saying, “If  someone is originally from Assiut, I have no way of telling if they voted at their local polling station, or near their place of work in Alexandria, or Cairo, or Sharm el-Sheikh. To combat this, the High Elections Commission immediately added new, special polling stations.”

Pro-Sisi party members in and around polling stations

The judge also pointed to the presence of members of the staunchly pro-Sisi Nation’s Future Party operating both inside and outside polling stations.

“Each polling station had one judge and six staff members, two of whom were members of the Nation’s Future Party,” he says, adding that most other judges overseeing the elections shared this same observation on their private Facebook groups after the first day of voting on April 20. He explained that his polling station committee was made up of four members from various judicial entities and two others who identified themselves as being a part of the Ministry of Local Development.

“My four judicial colleagues and I were surprised that there were young people wearing T-shirts and baseball caps bearing slogans of the Nation’s Future Party bringing meals and drinks into the polling stations for the other two poll workers throughout the day,” the judge says. “Police officials were also in frequent contact with the two poll workers to inquire about the turnout at the polling station throughout each day of the referendum.” Many other judges observed the same scenario in polling stations across Cairo and other governorates, he says.

The judge also said it was remarkable to him that there were young adults, of university-age, wearing clothing branded with the logo of the Nation’s Future Party grouped outside of his polling station. One of them told him they were each receiving LE 1,000 to help voters get to their polling stations over the three days of the referendum.

 

“Election bribery”

The judge says the most significant incident he witnessed was voters demanding evidence they cast a ballot, presumably to prove to the authorities they voted. He recounts one episode when a 65-year-old voter insisted that a poll worker stamp a small slip of paper he had with him. When the poll worker refused, telling the man they have no such stamps, he responded loudly saying, “They brought me from my house to vote and I will not leave until you stamp my slip!”

Meanwhile, a number of voters, especially elderly ones, were requesting voting officials give them an “elections food box.”

“Sometimes I would intervene and explain that food boxes are a form of election bribery but the polling station staff would just tell them that they get the box outside, not in here,” the judge said.

The judge also said that voter turnout would surge during the final hour of each day because that was when the food boxes would run out and cash handouts of LE150 would be offered to voters instead. The judge said turnout was typically high at the beginning of the day, followed by a lull that stretched to about 4pm when a large number of microbuses carrying voters would arrive. This would be followed by another lull until about 8pm when the numbers would increase again.

 

Lack of civil society and media oversight

“The NEA instructed us not to announce the final vote counts for each polling station,” the judge said.

The judge says that vote counting began in the polling station he oversaw at 9:30 pm on April 22, just after the voting window closed on the third and final day of the referendum.

The vote count took place in the absence of any representatives of civil society or the media who were authorized by the NEA to attend, according to the judge. He says he requested security forces to allow journalists and civil society representatives into the polling station, but he was told no one was there.

The judge says that in all the previous elections and referenda he had supervised since 2011, the media were allowed to be present during the vote count, including live television broadcasts. This was the first time in his experience that the counting was done in their absence.

Votes were counted by the head of the polling station and the six other poll workers. They filled out a form with the total number of registered voters in the district, the voter turnout over the three-day referendum, the number of valid and invalid ballots, and the number of votes in favor of and against the constitutional amendments. The judge then submitted the envelope to the head of the local general committee. He says the NEA stressed that judges overseeing the polls should not share the results with anyone other than the NEA.

“I usually take a photo of the results for my station and post it on Facebook, but this time I was prohibited from doing so,” he says.

The High Elections Commission oversaw the 2014 referendum before it was eradicated and replaced by the NEA. Under the guidelines published on its official website for the 2014 referendum, the heads of both the subcommittees and general committees overseeing the vote had to conduct the vote count in the presence of representatives of civil society organizations and media outlets.

“My role ended after I handed in the results of my polling station over to the head of our general committee and left,” he says. “There were no subcommittee judges overseeing the general committee’s vote count and final tally like in previous years.”

Each general committee oversees roughly 60 subcommittees, and is responsible for gathering the results of these subcommittees then turning them over to the NEA. The NEA in turn combines the results of all the general committees and adds the votes of Egyptian expatriates before announcing the final result.

The judge notes that the manner in which the NEA managed the vote tallying made it impossible to forecast total participation rates, as judges and poll workers only had access to the results of their individual polling stations.

According to a previous announcement by the NEA, there were around 61.8 million eligible voters for this referendum, in addition to 368 general committees, and 13,919 subcommittees.

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