Action Plan Nepal: Enabling Absentee Ballots
Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis have been internally displaced. As many as 5 million live as migrants in India and a growing numbers overseas. JEREMY GRACE explains how they all could cast absentee ballots in the proposed Constituent Assembly Elections.
Ten years of fighting between the government and Maoist rebels has killed over 13,000 Nepalis and produced a substantial human displacement. Estimates on the number of Internally Displaced Persons (DPs) vary, with different agencies reporting figures between 100,000 to 500,000. An unknown but potentially even larger number of persons affected by the conflict have fled to India, joining a substantial migrant labor population already present in that country.
The conflict resulted in the collapse of Nepal’s democratic system of governance, with the monarchy assuming increasingly centralized powers while the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) -Maoist dominated much of the countryside. In early 2005, King Gyanendra dissolved the Parliament and assumed absolute power, ending a 15 year experiment with multi-party democracy. Following weeks of increasingly widespread popular protests, in April of 2006 the King agreed to end his direct rule and restore parliament, which reconvened on April 28.
However, the country’s political forces face a difficult challenge in resolving issues associated with solidifying the cease-fire agreement, organizing a transitional government, reconstituting national and local administrative infrastructure, and conducting elections to a proposed Constituent Assembly (CA). They must balance the need to keep the transition moving forward with the recognition that the CA elections will require careful planning and a realistic timeline. An electoral process that disenfranchises significant social groups would jeopardize the prospect for a sustainable peace.
Some political parties have argued that CA elections could be held by the end of the year. This is unrealistic, given the enormity of the task. In order for the elections to occur in a manner that is inclusive, free and fair, the following core issues will need to be addressed: 1) Transition and ceasefire, 2) Citizenship, 3) Registration & documentation, 4) Electoral formula, 5) Redistricting of administrative boundaries and zones, 6) Census, 7) Voter registration and balloting for IDPs and migrants, and 8). External voting
Many of these tasks are inter-related and the above sequencing is flexible. Nevertheless, a realistic assessment of the election timeline, given the technical and political challenges, would be 2007.
Transition and Ceasefire
In order for the elections to reflect the free will of the people, the SPA and Maoists must reach an agreement on the modalities for the cantonment and/or demobilization of the Maoist cadres. In addition, the Parliament will need to clarify the appropriate role and conduct of the Nepal Army and police in securing the election process.
The negotiations will also need to finalize the process of re-establishing VDC administrative capacity throughout the countryside. Government officials at the village levels constitute a substantial portion of the displaced and state infrastructure in much of the countryside has disintegrated. While the SPA and Maoists have agreed, in principle, that the “People’s Governments” (i.e., the Maoist organized local governments in areas they control) will be disbanded once the interim government is seated, the process of re-building local administrative capacity could prove time-consuming and should be subject to international and domestic monitoring. This is especially important in the context of the Election Commission’s ability to conduct voter registration.
I visited Nepal during May 2006 for this study, meeting with a variety of stakeholders, including political parties, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies. Almost all stakeholders interviewed voiced strong support for a substantial UN role in facilitating and observing any cantonment or demobilization process. The impetus is on the Government and UN agencies to arrange for the details and enter into a formal agreement on the scope and mandate of the operation.
In terms of re-establishing local infrastructure, the government, donors and the international community should be prepared to fund the restructuring of government offices and other property once negotiations are concluded and the situation is safe for VDC officials to return. In addition, the process should be subject to domestic and international monitoring. At the domestic level, NGOs such as INSEC already have a field presence and contact with local NGOs and provide these reporting services in many areas. At the international level, OHCHR will likely expand its human rights monitoring and reporting activities.
In terms of the elections, the Election Commission (EC) will require substantial support to re-establish its operational capacity at the field level. Many VDC Secretaries, who also serve as Village Registration Officers, have been displaced or killed in the conflict. New field staffing and training programs will be required, warranting substantial capacity building assistance to the EC.
The issue of citizenship is critical to the inclusiveness of the electoral process. A new citizenship law seems in order, and the parties are in broad agreement that issue will be raised in parliament soon. In terms of sequencing, a new citizenship law and procedures for acquisition of Nationality should be completed prior to beginning a voter registration program.
Once the citizenship law is revised, international programming and support could be provided to devise a mechanism for the issuance of new citizenship documents, particularly for those who remain displaced. This could be combined with a country-wide documentation or civil registration process. The government might consider establishing a “Citizenship Verification Commission,” that would operate within or in coordination with the National Human Rights Commission.
A variety of models in this regard are available from other post-conflict countries. In addition, once administrative capacity is restored, a nation-wide effort to assess available records at the District, VDC, and Municipality Levels, including tax records, land-ownership etc, would help facilitate the process.
Registration and Documentation
The right to documentation is established in a variety of human rights instruments. Most importantly, the UDHR, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both guarantee the right to a legal personality and “recognition as a person before the law” (See UDHR Article 6; ICCPR Article 16, American Convention Article 17; African Convention Article 5, for example). A basic prerequisite to the realization of this right is adequate documentation proving identity, citizenship, and residence.
Documentation is particularly important in an electoral context in order to guarantee enfranchisement rights while preventing electoral fraud. While the extent of Nepal’s documentation problems is unknown, most agencies and observers believe it is substantial, affecting IDPs and women in particular. Government agencies and the Election Commission will therefore face a stark dilemma: in order to minimize the potential for fraud, strict documentation criteria for participation should be implemented.
Unfortunately, the stricter these criteria, the more likely it is that refugee and IDP applicants will be unable to prove their identity, citizenship, and eligibility and will thus be disenfranchised through no fault of their own.
Nepal will need to take legislative action to eliminate the current statutory obstacles to obtaining documents and establish a mechanism for the issuance of new or replacement documents, particularly for IDPs. However, a national-effort to implement a document re-issuance program should also entail a broader process of registration. These tasks require careful deliberation and planning.
Two possible modalities include an IDP/Migrant-specific registration process (which could prove problematic) or a comprehensive civil registration that would result in the issuance of a new national identity card for all Nepalis. All Nepalis would take part in the civil registration process, and a new national ID card issued to all registrants over the age of sixteen. The civil registration should capture the following data: Name, Age, Current Residence, Village or Municipality of Birth, Intended Residence of Permanent Domicile, and other information based on consultations with the humanitarian community (occupation, skills, etc.). If a decision is taken to issue a nation-wide civil registration card, than a bio-data capture process might also be required.
In order to account for issues of migration, displacement, and lost documents, the registration could follow a three track process. The first track would include Nepalis who possess a citizenship card or could otherwise prove citizenship and are resident in their regular municipality. These persons would simply complete the registration form, be entered into a database, and be issued the national ID card. The second track (occurring in tandem and at the same registration locations) would include IDPs and migrants who possess documents. A third track could be designed to assist and track Nepali citizens who have lost their documents. These persons (whether IDP or not) would present themselves at a registration center, but undergo a screening and verification procedure.
Planning for either of the above scenarios would require close coordination between the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Central Bureau of Statistics, District Offices, and the international community. The information campaign should stress only the nationwide registration process, not the IDP specific elements in order maximize IDP participation rates.
The parties need to determine the electoral formula to be employed in selecting delegates to the Constituent Assembly. The model adopted will have important implications for the conduct of the election, and will affect the representation of different parties and groups. Given the importance of the exercise, all stakeholders should carefully consider the options, and the final decision should be reached transparently and in consultation with Nepal’s vibrant civil society organizations.
Stakeholders were widely supportive of the principle of inclusiveness and minority representation, although how to achieve this goal is subject to debate. Issues of equal representation appeared less important (i.e., vote cost per seat) than basic ideas that all groups should be included. A related set of concerns centers on the size of the assembly. Some argued for a large body, able to reflect all segments of Nepali society, others saw a large assembly (more than 300) as unwieldy. A working number that was expressed by several groups is 250, roughly one seat per 100,000 of the population.
The choice of an electoral formula can have implications for displaced participation. For instance, the current formula for Parliamentary elections, First Past the Post (FPP) in the 205 districts, is one possibility, although most of the parties agree that a move away from FPP would be desirable and widely acceptable.
As a result of the country’s intermixed ethnic demography, FPP in Nepal has traditionally disadvantaged several communities, notably, the Dalits (untouchables) and smaller ethnic groups. While some accommodation could be made through the addition of the set-aside seats, the overall system would still fail to achieve the goal of equal representation in the resulting CA. In addition, determining who should be eligible for the set-aside seats could present political problems that could delay the election timeline.
If the existing FPP system were adopted, redistricting is essential given the substantial population movements in recent years. Also a modality for selecting delegates for the set-aside seats as well as a provision for absentee ballots would need to be worked out. While most stakeholders interviewed believe that substantial population returns will occur should a genuine peace be achieved, experience in other post-conflict countries suggests that these projections are often over-optimistic. A significant number of Nepalis will remain displaced for some time.
Another possible formula is the Proportional Representation (PR) system. This system, with a single national district, provides a straightforward formula that is easy to implement and is broadly inclusive and representative of the country’s political forces. A single nation-wide district also eliminates the need to provide displaced and absentee voters with a unique ballot based on their area of origin (as is required in an FPP or PR system with multiple districts) and removes the need to delineate and apportion districts.
While attractive on the surface, PR in a single national district, employing a closed list modality, can further strengthen the parties (who are widely unpopular among Nepalis already). One option that could help here would be the implementation of an open list or preference system, through which voters mark ballots for both the party and individual candidates. This holds candidates more directly accountable to the voters, and reduces of the power of the parties to select which candidates will automatically fill the mandates generated by the vote outcome.
Given the disconnect PR systems create between voters and parliamentarians, some stakeholders are proposing a PR system based on regional districts. The country is already divided into 14 zones, which could serve as the districts, although many Nepalis have expressed an interest in re-drawing these zones (see below). A seat apportionment process would be required to fix the number of seats elected by each district, which would necessitate a census or other enumeration process.
Utilizing more than one district would necessitate a mechanism for accounting for IDPs and migrants in the apportionment process. If Nepalis abroad are to be counted towards apportionment, it could be to their original place of residence or to a dedicated external district. IDP populations, however, could potentially be assigned their original or their current district. This requires that the census/registration process provide a clear mechanism for identifying which district the voter considers their home.
Finally, several prominent academics and civil society groups are proposing a mixed system that employs elements of both the PR and FPP. One proposal provides for 125 seats to be elected through an FPP formula, and 125 seats to be filled by PR in a single national district. The system can be employed utilizing either one or two ballots, although two ballots - one FPP, and one Party List - is preferable in order to ensure adequate representation of regionally based parties. This proposal raises the same questions associated with both systems discussed above. In particular, it would require a comprehensive delimitation process in order to distill the 125 roughly equal constituencies from the current 205. The more districts need to be re-drawn, the more complex and time consuming the process.
There is considerable expertise among political parties, academics, and civil society organizations regarding the pros and cons of various electoral formulas. However, this expertise is not evenly distributed, and some proposals do not appear realistic. Few of the proposals seem to recognize the important impact that migration will have on the system. The process of agreeing to a formula is perhaps as important as the formula itself. The House should establish a special commission that includes representation or input from civil society, to examine alternative models and make recommendations.
Any formula that is simply agreed to by two or three dominant parties through a non-transparent process could harm the integrity of the election. International support might include arranging for conferences and colloquia that link international experts on the implications of different formulas with various stakeholder groups, including academics, journalists, and CSOs. In addition, civic education programming could be organized through a training of trainers approach, where CSOs are deployed to the VDCs to conduct workshops and seminars on the basic issues involved in different formulas.
Redistricting Administrative Boundaries and Zones
Re-configuring the current 14 zones serves both an electoral and political function. The current zones reflect economic and political imperatives dating from the 1950s, most importantly, establishing control over the agriculturally rich Terai region and linking it to the rest of the country. This was accomplished by ensuring that the zonal boundaries run primarily north/south, which divides the Terai into 9 different zones and more closely links each sub region of the Terai with the adjacent mountainous region. Residents of the Terai believe this weakens their voice in the national political discourse, and would like to see a re-zoning of the country that would divide the Terai into no more than two zones.
Other analysts and parties are looking to establish boundaries that would reflect Nepal’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity and give more voice to minority groups. While attractive on surface, it will be exceedingly difficult to draw lines that accurately capture the ethnic demography.
According to the 2001 Census, Nepal is comprised of at least 60 different ethnic groups, none of whom form a majority at the national level, and few would form a majority in any districting plan composed of less then 20 or so districts. In addition, the substantial migration over the previous years has resulted in a profound intermingling of the population. Attempting to draw new boundaries that would provide majorities to different groups in different areas would be technically challenging and politically contentious.
Some of the proposals for a new electoral formula for the CA and subsequent elections include a PR mechanism based on regional districts, with proposals ranging from 7 to 33 such districts. In addition, these proposals generally call for the establishment of political and administrative infrastructure in these districts. As a result, the country will need to establish accurate and complete data on the current demography of the country through one of the census or civil registration programs described above. This is especially critical in the context of IDP and migrant population participation. According to Human Rights Committee, General Comment 25, Para 21:
“The drawing of electoral boundaries and the method of allocating votes should not distort the distribution of voters or discriminate against any group and should not exclude or restrict unreasonably the right of citizens to choose their representatives freely.”
Any decision to permanently reconfigure the country’s administrative lines should be part of the CA deliberations, and should not precede the CA elections. If, however, an electoral formula for the CA election requires sub-national districts or constituencies, a process of enumeration or registration will be required to ensure accurate representation and equality of the vote. Given the time constraints, it might make sense to adopt the current 14 zones as sub-districts for the purposes of the CA election, rather than adopt new boundaries.
Census: Before or After?
Unless the country adopts a single national district PR electoral formula, a mechanism will be required to apportion seats to the CA in accordance with the electoral formula adopted. The last census in Nepal was completed in 2001, revealing a total population of 23 million persons resident in 4 million households. However, enumeration was not completed in many areas of the country. The Central Bureau of Statistics census also does not account for population movements.
Nepal conducts a census every ten years, so the next census is not scheduled until 2011. Given the likely inaccuracies embedded in the 2001 census, combined with subsequent displacement and population movements, a new census might be warranted. This is especially true if the country seeks to redraw its administrative boundaries and change the electoral constituencies. Given that government agents and professionals were among the first to be targeted by the Maoists, much of the field infrastructure is currently not in place to conduct a census.
Whether to conduct a census before or after an election is a strategic decision. If before, the census can provide baselines of population distribution that validates the voter registration process and provides the foundation for constituency delimitation. However, in post-conflict environments, characterized by continued instability and population movements, the census can become a difficult if not impossible exercise.
If a census is to be used to re-district the country prior to the CA elections, it would need to occur in the summer of 2006, which is extremely unlikely. Therefore, if the CA elections will require redistricting or apportionment, other options would include a partial census combined with sampling techniques, a civil registration process that is designed to provide the data necessary for districting, or districting on the basis of the a voter re-registration.
Voter Registration and Balloting for IDPs and Migrants
IDP registration and voting raises special logistical problems that must be addressed early if the program is to guarantee the widest possible opportunities for participation. There are several important considerations to be made to realize this.
First, there should be a statutory basis for absentee balloting. Section 5.4.2 of the National IDP Policy 2006 provides that IDPs shall be provided the opportunity to cast absentee ballots in their current place of residence for their original constituency. Even before the policy came into force, Nepal had a previous experience with internal absentee balloting. In 1999, a group of persons who had been re-settled by the government in order to establish a national park were provided the opportunity to cast ballots for their original constituency while in the current residence.
Absentee balloting is not just a convenience issue, but directly affects the security of IDPs and their ability to vote their conscience free from physical intimidation and threats. Requiring displaced populations to return to their home communities to vote will put them in direct contact with individuals and groups that may have been responsible for their displacement. As a general rule, the absence of a large scale, spontaneous return prior to the elections indicates that the security situation does not warrant the use of repatriation prior to elections as a means for IDP enfranchisement. In these situations, the only option for protecting IDPs’ physical safety is through registration and balloting in their place of current residence.
The 1990 Constitution’s prohibits on voting from outside the place of permanent residence. A simple act of parliament, preferably in the context of a broader electoral law, should be sufficient to guarantee the realization of this right.
And then there is the challenge of voter registration. Voter registration, which is supposed to occur annually, has not been effectively conducted in much of the country since the Maoist rebellion began in 1996. Most stakeholders, including the EC, agreed that a comprehensive, free and transparent re-registration process is required in order to guarantee access to the ballot.
The EC will need to make special provisions for IDP and Migrant registration. New registration procedures and forms will be needed to ensure that voters resident outside of their regular electoral constituency will be provided an absentee ballot in their present location. Substantial technical assistance and new IT investments will be required to design the data capture elements of the absentee balloting. In addition, a mechanism will need to be devised to account for population movements between the close of the registration process and Election Day. This process should also be prepared to account for ongoing demobilization programs.
One additional option could be to combine the voter registration process with the civil registration program described above. In this scenario, the civil registration database could be designed to capture required voter details, and the voter register extracted form the civil register.
The issue of balloting and counting is equally demanding. In general, IDP communities should be served by dedicated registration and polling centers near their location and staffed by fellow IDPs (and other election workers) who understand their unique needs and procedures. Mixing displaced voters in with regular voters is certainly possible; however, co-mingling voters with varying identification and balloting needs can create long queues and overcrowded polling stations. The separation of these voters from regular voters can speed up the voting process and ensure that long lines and crowded facilities do not result in violence.
Given the reluctance of many Nepali IDPs to identify as displaced persons, the absentee stations should be labeled “Migrant Polling Stations,” and be available to both IDPs and any other Nepali who applied to cast an absentee ballot on polling day.
A second important issue is where and how IDP votes should be counted. In general, it is preferable to mix IDP ballots with those of non-displaced voters based on the constituency where the ballot will have effect and count them in a central location. The EC, however, expressed the view that counting IDP ballots in Kathmandu would be logistically easier than having to sort all the ballots and then send them on to the community where they will have effect. Given weaknesses in transportation infrastructure in many parts of the country, it would make sense to have absentee ballots transported to Kathmandu for counting.
There is also the need to educate voters. Nepali voters will require access to three types of election-related information: 1) Process information regarding the registration procedures, eligibility requirements, and voting dates and locations. This information should be made widely available by the EC and distributed through media outlets, the VDCs, and local CSO counterparts; 2) Sensitization information regarding the political rights, responsibilities, and practices related to a functioning and healthy democratic polity. This information should be the special focus of the EC, international agencies, and donor supported initiatives that build the capacity of the CSOs to carry out local training; and 3) Political information regarding the programs and platforms of the candidates. This information is produced and distributed by the parties and candidates, either directly through paid advertisements, posters, and rallies, debates or indirectly through press coverage and editorials.
In order for Nepali IDPs and migrants to vote with full information, donor-supported programs will be required in all three areas. This will require the development of information distribution platforms that address the difficulties of identifying and reaching IDPs, particularly in more remote parts of the country or where VDC infrastructure remains weak. Nepal is abundantly endowed with active (although still young) civil society organizations, and a mechanism for linking these groups to the information distribution platform should be developed. Training on IDP and Migrant specific procedures and issues could be provided by agencies with experience conducting these programs in other countries.
Technical assistance can also be provided to political parties to build awareness of IDP issues as a party platform issue. Organizing party workshops with such a focus and involving displaced communities in the workshop presentations should be explored with INGOs that work with political parties. This assistance should include encouraging the political parties to establish a Code of Conduct in displaced communities and development of a training program for political party agents to monitor registration and voting in displaced communities.
Finally, election observation will be critical. IDPs are an exposed and almost defenseless population – easily subject to electoral coercion. As a result, the electoral process needs a third-party validation of the integrity of their participation. International and domestic observers should be present in all districts camps through the campaign period and on polling day, and should be authorized to monitor the counting and transport of ballots. Both domestic and international observation groups should include an emphasis on the access of conflict affected migrants to the process. National Democratic Institute (NDI) is currently working with a coalition of democracy and human rights groups to create a national alliance for observing the elections. This work should be expanded and supported as the election date approaches.
Voting from Outside the Country
An estimated 3 to 5 million Nepali citizens reside abroad many of whom were initially displaced by the conflict, and subsequently left the country. These migrant workers comprise 10% to 20% of the population (and since most are of working age, an even larger portion of the eligible voting population). Officially recorded remittances topped 900 million USD in 2004, representing 12% of the country’s GDP. An estimated 53% of Nepali households receive a portion of their income from remittances, which has helped sustain many families through the turmoil of the conflict.
The Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRN) reports that the Government has issued licenses to about 200 employment agencies which hire Nepali workers for foreign employment in 18 countries. The majority of them have gone to Asian and Gulf countries/territories, such as, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, South Korea, Hong Kong Taiwan, Macau, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, etc … Nepalis have also been living and working in the Far East, Europe, North America, and in the Nordic countries.”
While an increasing number of countries provide external voting services, legal frameworks and procedures vary and it is more difficult to identify an inherent “right” to participate in a county’s election process while resident abroad. In the case of Nepal, there is significant domestic support, particularly among the political parties, for extending the franchise to this population. In addition, given the high number of conflict-affected migrants in India, a program that enfranchised these persons is warranted since they are outside of the country through no fault of their own.
The key considerations surrounding external voting can be divided into three general questions: 1) Who should be eligible to vote from outside of their home districts? 2) What system of representation should be established for these voters?, and 3) How can the secrecy of the ballot and election transparency be protected and costs contained if election activities occur on the territory of a foreign state? The first two questions are political, requiring a consultative process between parliamentarians and stakeholders. The final question is technical, requiring the application of best practices by EC.
Eligibility Requirements: The Parliament will need to determine who should be eligible to vote from abroad. The two key considerations relate to citizenship and residency requirements. In terms of citizenship, the constitution clearly articulates that only Nepali citizens are eligible to vote. Any move to enfranchise members of the broader Nepali ethnic community by eliminating the citizenship requirement would be politically unacceptable. However, an unknown number of stateless Nepalis who would qualify for citizenship reside in India. This population should be provided the opportunity to claim citizenship, and thus qualify as an elector, as part of the citizenship process described above. The more complex question centers on residency requirements.
Should eligible external voters be required to demonstrate a linkage with a particular constituency during a defined period of time in order to be eligible? If so, how should this requirement be designed? Most countries that allow absentee voting condition eligibility on the length of a citizen’s absence. Canadian voters, for example, may vote by absentee ballot for up to five years following their departure from Canada, so long as they intend to resume permanent residence at some point in the future. In the United Kingdom, voters are automatically removed from the electoral rolls 15 years after moving abroad, regardless of their intent to return. New Zealand maintains no fixed time-away threshold but does require that citizens return to their home constituency at least once every three years in order to remain on the voting rolls. For Nepal, the parliament must make the needed decisions. Given the documentation problems confronting many Nepalis, a requirement that external voters prove a connection to a particular constituency within a specified time-frame would be particularly difficult.
Representation: Unless the country adopts a single national district, every constituency would be affected by an external voting program, and the calculation of seats could be impacted. Thus, the decision to enfranchise absentee voters will require parliamentary action in order to determine how these votes will effect the apportionment of districts. This would require the implementation of an early registration process for those abroad in order to sequence the electoral timeline and provide sufficient time for re-apportionment to occur. In addition, the external ballots will need to be organized in such a way that the proper constituency ballot is delivered to the correct voter, returned to a centralized counting center, and added to the regular constituency tallies.
This is a logistically complex operation, but has been successfully organized in a variety of different circumstances by national Election Management Bodies (EMBs), often with the support and assistance of International Organization for Migration (IOM). One option for the CA elections (if using multiple districts) would be to create a non-geographic constituency for Nepalis abroad. Several models could be employed in this regard. In Portugal, for example, the parliament is elected through a PR system based on 20 sub-national districts. Two districts – each comprised of two seats – are reserved for Portuguese abroad, one for those in Europe and one for elsewhere. Croatia follows a similar model, except that the number of external seats is not fixed. Instead, the overall turnout of external voters is compared to the overall turnout of in-country voters before the number of dedicated external seats is established.
Depending on the electoral formula employed, the non-geographic constituency makes sense in the Nepali context as it could considerably simplify the logistical elements of conducting an external program, as all those abroad would only require a single ballot. In addition, some of the issues surrounding the design of the residency requirement could be mitigated.
Transparency and Organization: Recent post-conflict elections have utilized three basic approaches to enfranchising those abroad: return/repatriation voting, in-person absentee voting and, postal absentee voting. Return voting programs (as employed in Namibia and Cambodia) require that those abroad return to the home state to cast the ballot. However, special procedures can be established whereby those returning would be served by dedicated registration and polling stations located in Kathmandu and along the border with India. However, these programs do not generally reach a wide percentage of the electorate, and only those with the means to returns twice (once to register and once to vote) are able to participate.
An external voting program requires the EMB to establish facilities in the host-countries where migrants register and vote. This process requires formal agreement with the host-country in order to conduct operations in its territory. The advantage of in-person voting organized in the host-state is increased enfranchisement opportunity, transparency, direct interaction, and ease in verification. But such voting can be costly for logistical reasons, and security also becomes a major concern.
By-mail programs utilize postal, internet and facsimile communications to interact with registrants and voters. Eligibility criteria and application forms are made available through a wide array of media and distributed through clubs and associations. The applicant must submit the proper form along with supporting documentation by mail to a centralized processing facility. This type of voting allows the realization of economies of scale. One problem with postal voting is that the EC would not retain full control over the ballots.
During in-person polling, elections staff lose control of the ballot only momentarily, when it is handed to the voter for marking. Even then the staff can ensure that only the qualified voter enters the voting booth, marks the ballot according to his/her free will, and deposits it in the ballot box. Sending a postal ballot to a voter results in a period of time in which the ballot is outside the supervision of elections staff. Thus, the voter could be subject to a wide range of pressures that compromise his/her freedom of choice. Even consolidated democracies are not free from attempts to manipulate postal balloting. A report on postal voting by the UK Electoral Commission found that party workers sought to influence how votes are cast. In some instances, for example, husbands may seek to control how their wives mark the ballot.
A related problem is the difficulty of convincing voters that their ballot is truly secret. Most postal voting systems require voters to return the ballot inside a sealed “secrecy envelope” together with their registration receipt inside a larger second envelope; Many voters are apprehensive that the system could potentially allow election officials to match the voters name with the marked ballot, compromising voter secrecy. Despite these objections, postal voting is the only cost-efficient mechanism for enfranchising a large and geographically dispersed migrant electorate.
Some recent elections have employed a combination of postal and in-person balloting, and this option might make sense for Nepal if an agreement were reached with India to allow for in-person voting. In the case of Nepal, this would imply an in-person registration and voting operation in various locales throughout India, and a centralized by-mail operation for Nepalis in all other countries headquartered in Kathmandu.
Planning & Administration: External voting requires a significant lead time over in-country operations and should drive the election timeline. If possible, the entire electoral schedule should be first tested against the external requirements. Late decisions, particularly in regards to eligibility and documentation requirements, will significantly affect the participation rates of those abroad. The process must start with information gathering, such as how many Nepalis live in each country across the world, is the country’s foreign ministry interested in cooperating, what is the geographic dispersion of Nepalis within the country, what status do they hold, what documents do they hold, are there well established expatriate clubs and associations, what media and information sources are available to the population, what are security conditions like in the country, etc.
In several recent post-conflict elections, sub-contracting is not unusual. Election administrators sub-contract the actual implementation of the external vote. The logic of subcontracting is that EC staff are election specialists, not migration specialists. By bringing a refugee/migration agency such as IOM on board, the EC benefits from a pre-existing network of field missions that support the program. In the case of India, the extra-ordinary talents and capabilities of the Indian Election Commission (IEC) might also be tapped to assist in the project. In that case, a joint process could be organized with the IEC and IOM to administer an in-person registration and voting process.
Under this scenario, the EC would contract an implementing partner under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) detailing the respective obligations of each party. The Nepali Parliament retains authority over the elections framework, the EC organizes the internal voter registration and polling operations, and the contractor operates the voter registration centers and balloting operations out of country. IOM has been the lead organization in this regard. Its experience in providing election assistance to refugees extends back to the Namibian elections of 1989, and it played a central role in elections in Bosnia & Herzegovina, East Timor, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has also provided technical assistance to EMBs regarding external voting programs in Angola, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Liberia, Uganda, and Sri Lanka.
External voting also should drive the overall elections timeline. All segments of election planning (including the districting, registration process, database development, forms and materials design and ordering, and the registration and voting schedule) should be conducted with an eye to the fact that a by-mail program requires an earlier start than in-country operations and may require the capturing of unique data from external registrants. The EC should consider how an external voting program would relate to regular voting operations and ensure a workable plan to guarantee the right of access to the electoral process. Technical assistance along these lines could be supported by donors.
The Need Ahead
Prompt action is required if Nepal’s displaced are to be provided access to the CA elections in a transparent and inclusive fashion. This report argues that given the unique features of displacement in Nepal, stakeholders should be encouraged to support an absentee polling mechanism both for internal migrants and those abroad. However, substantial technical assistance will be required in order to build public trust in and implement such a project.
Jeremy Grace is Senior Advisor and Research Coordinator for Political Rights and Enfranchisement System Strengthening (PRESS) of International Organization for Migration (IOM). Contact him at: email@example.com. The above article, printed here with formal authorial permission, is excerpted from a report prepared for IOM PRESS in June 2006, funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The views in this paper are those of the author, and not necessarily of IOM, its member states, USAID, or the U.S. Government.
Posted by Editor on July 12, 2006 4:39 PM