Engaging the election process
In engaging the election process, there are three things to keep in mind: observe, analyze and respond. It qualifies what you do in an election process.
Gathering information during the election
- Working with election observers:
Observers are key assets in an election process. It is necessary to make arrangement for deployment of election observers ahead of election; work out and test the chosen means and protocol for information exchange between observers and the ESR. This is able to also put in place troubleshooting mechanisms for situations where the established protocols fail. There is also a likelihood that events will not play out as planned, so contingency planning is very necessary.
The ESR can arrange observers directly or through its partner organizations, but what is important is that in every instance, there is a clear reporting line and a back-up plan. Observers must be instructed on which information is important, so as not to flood the ESR with irrelevant information.
- Develop other information sources:
To ensure that the ESR works with the widest possible range of information, it is important to have other information assets outside the observers.
Observers may strictly follow their reporting template, which may not be comprehensive enough to cover every incident or there may not be observers in certain parts of the country. Such information gaps will have to be filled from other sources and these should be sought out as early as possible. Sources may include family, friends or trusted colleagues who live in those areas or have access to information in that area. However, such sources must have in place mechanisms to verify credibility, since receipt of partisan information could be damaging. The ESR will also need sources within government and the security forces, as well as the election management body. You are not employing spies, but you are maintaining avenues for information gathering. Sometimes, people working for government who are committed to democracy willingly give out information which ordinarily they cannot officially give out. Hence, the ESR needs to make it safe for whistleblowers to come forward.re over, the Situation
- Providing analysis
Analysis of elections and events around the election must be evidence-based; it is one thing to receive raw information and another to analyse and put such information to good use. Situation and information analysis is fundamental to the work of the ESR. It is on the basis of such analysis that the ESR will identify the issues, decide its recommendations, identify what steps to take, who to engage and what other options are available to it. Hence, it is necessary that analyses are objective, based on verifiable evidence and accommodate a broad spectrum of ideas and views. Positions have to be vigorously debated. Where necessary, the ESR can invite non-members who can share ideas on specific issues but these have to be equally analysed to be objective to the purpose of the ESR
- Ensuring rapid response and suggesting solutions
The ESR’s response to events must be prompt and constructive. This is not just a matter of providing commentaries. Depending on the development, a response might be a press release, a policy brief or the calling of a meeting with stakeholders. What determines the choice is the goal the ESR wants to achieve and which pressure points might be the most relevant. The ESR can simultaneously hold advocacy meetings with government or the election management body, while taking the issue to the public through a press release or radio or television interviews. Most times these responses complement each other and it is imperative to promote inclusion of such stakeholders to make such addresses to the general public.
- The Situation Room should plan ahead for likely problems.
In engaging the elections process, the following stages of an election require particular attention:
(a) Election logistics: In most emerging democracies, this is problematic. There is always a disconnect between planning and actual execution; for example, materials may not arrive on time or there may be other flaws with the logistics arrangements. These gaps can mar the electoral process. It is important for the ESR to monitor this closely and to flag gaps wherever they exist. Getting information about the logistic arrangement is not always easy though; you may have to make extra effort to get concrete information and efforts must be made nonetheless
(b) Collation Process: Voting in polling stations during elections is usually uneventful. The major challenge comes in the counting and collation of results. A lot can go wrong and much that was not anticipated. When figures are invented or altered, it destroys the credibility of the whole election. The collation process was contentious both in Nigerian and Liberian elections. In Nigeria, the ESR saw collation as the weakest link in the election process. It is important for the ESR to be able to closely follow the collation of results at every stage of the process, thus through the night in most cases – and to flag irregularities. Collation of results is a very sensitive aspect of the election process and MUST be given every possible attention.
(c) Electoral violence: The ESR should estimate the chance of election-related violence and should have a contingency plan for how to react to it. The ESR should be able to predict possible flash-points during the election, have a framework for documenting violence and mechanism for rapid response targeted at both the general public and government, especially the security forces.
(d) Run-offs: Most run-off elections are contentious and sensitive. It is important for the ESR to plan adequately for a second-round scenario and deploy adequate resources to meet likely developments. In Liberia and Senegal, the
Presidential elections went into a run-off and in Liberia in particular, the ESR played an active role in handling the crisis that arose out of a boycott by the main opposition party.
- Provide alternatives:
Sometimes government or policy makers do the wrong thing simply because they have not analyzed or prepared appropriately. Be prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and present effective arguments for why things should be done differently. If you spend all your energy condemning, your voice will likely blend in among other government bashing and may impair your ability to make any difference. This is why the composition of ESR needs to reflect diverse experiences and skills. It’s not enough to identify problems. The ESR must have some proposals for how to address them.
Providing timely and reliable information to the media
- Information dissemination:
ESR analysis and media releases have to be widely distributed to broad range of audiences. There is need for the information to reach both policy makers and the general public. While you may want policy-makers to take a particular decision, you also want the general public to have a proper understanding of the issue, so that they can also put pressure on government. In some instances, your advocacy may just be targeted at the public to help clear up misconceptions. In this era of information technology, the ESR must make good use of the web. It is important that the ESR have an up-to-date website, twitter account, blog and broad mailing list, to ensure adequate distribution of information. The blog allows for feedback and in some instances helps to capture additional information from the public.
- Do not say it, if you can’t verify it
There is always a tendency to go with the crowd. It is not unusual to hear that a particular situation has occurred in a particular trouble spot and to find that everybody around repeats the rumor as true. Corroborate your information and stick to the facts no matter how politically inconvenient it might be. It is not enough to quote your sources, unless those sources are rock solid and with the sources consent. If information you have distributed turns out to be false, it destroys your credibility. So the simple rule is, if you cannot verify it, then don’t say it. At the minimum, be sure to have a credible source that can stand by a report.
- Don’t make bad situations worse:
Be sensitive! You can make your point without inflaming the situation. The easiest way to achieve this is to focus on solutions and not the problem. Statements can and should be framed in diplomatic language which is sensitive and clear language
Maintaining confidentiality where needed
There are instances where confidentiality is necessary. Not every activity of the ESR should be publicized. If, for instance, there is a volatile security situation which the ESR is covertly trying to address, perhaps by talking to influential figures that might intervene, you don’t want to advertise that. This in no way suggests that the ESR should be run as a “secret club”, but discretion must be exercised regarding the kind of information that can be shared.
In instances, where whistleblowers in a sensitive position are providing information to the ESR, it is very important to protect their identity not just to protect their safety but also to ensure a steady stream of reliable information.
Taking necessary steps must be taken to ensure that individuals are not put in harm’s way. Security must be factored into an ESR engagement plan. Such a plan should identify possible security risks and take steps to address them. Where necessary and helpful, the ESR may have to work with the police and other security forces that have been provided for the election process. In determining a location for the ESR, it is important to consider security challenges. An ESR should be located in a safe and stable neighborhood. Election-related engagement comes with some level of risk. If your life is in danger you need to walk away. You can always pick up the fight from another place. Do not play the hero or mindlessly court danger! It could endanger others, as well as yourself.