ERA report: Cambodia’s vanishing frustrated voters

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 20 January 2014.]

Several of the NGOs that formed the Electoral Reform Alliance spent a large part of the first half of last year claiming that the process and result of registering voters are defective and that this disadvantages the opposition. So it is not surprising that this is a major theme in the ERA report released in early December.

A problem of credibility arises because these claims are wildly different from each other.

The 30 October Cambodia Daily carried an interview with Laura Thornton, the Cambodia country director of the National Democratic Institute, a pretend NGO (it is funded almost entirely by the US government) that has a record of supporting conservative forces without regard for their attitude to democracy. The NDI appears as the directing force of the ERA.

The purpose of the interview was to publicise a survey Thornton said had been conducted by the Center for Advanced Studies.* According to Thornton, the survey found that “29.5 percent of citizens attempted to vote on election day, but were unable to”.

This is quite an astounding – not to say absurd – figure. It implies that 2.86 million people (29.5% of 9.68 million registered voters; the number would be even larger if it included people who thought they were registered but were not) turned up at the polls (“attempted to vote”) on 28 July and were turned away. It equally implies that NGO and CNRP observers at polling stations didn’t notice nearly a third of would-be voters being refused. It is not surprising that this “survey” seems never to have been publicly released, although the ERA report authors are still happy to cite unnamed CAS reports as support for their claims.

A quite different figure comes from Theary C. Seng, the founding president of Civicus Cambodia. Civicus’ website describes the organisation as “nonpartisan”, although Theary Seng publicly boasts of campaigning for Sam Rainsy ever since 1998 (“Cambodia’s tipping point”, Phnom Penh Post, 16 August 2013). She says that “fifteen per cent of voters – about 1.2 to 1.3 million of 9.6 million registered voters” were unable to vote – about half the CAS figure.

Seng cites as the source for this a National Democratic Institute-written document. In fact, this document, whose full name is “Report on the Voter Registry Audit (VRA) in Cambodia 2013”, says nothing about how many registered voters were unable to vote – it could hardly have done so, since it was produced in March 2013, well before the election. And there is nothing in it that I can find that justifies Seng’s numbers, even if her clumsy arithmetic is corrected (1.2 to 1.3 million is 12.5% to 13.5% of 9.6 million, not 15%).

The NDI report says that the VRA could not find the names of 10.8% of the people who said they were registered. However, after further investigation, this figure declined to 8.8%. The NDI report of the audit, written before the correction, said that the margin of error was 2.0-3.5%. An error of 2% out of 10.8% is an error of 18.5%.

So far, from the critics of the NEC, who all agree with each other that there is something fishy about the voter registration, the number of Cambodians deprived of their vote has declined from 28.5% to 15% (or 13%) to 8.8%. But there is more still to come.

The ERA report’s authors don’t give a specific figure, but they present a chart, “Voters with identification whose names were not on the voter list”, which indicates a range: the percentage of polling stations in which there were no, few, some or many instances of names not on the list (Figure 9). The chart is based on a survey conducted by Transparency International Cambodia (TIC) and, according to the ERA report’s authors, “provides statistically meaningful information on the conduct of voting and counting … with a high degree of accuracy”.

According to the chart, in 40% of polling stations, there were no instances of intending voters whose names were not on the voter list. Furthermore, there were no stations at which “many” (more than 50) such instances occurred. At 52% of stations, there were from 1 to 10 cases, and at 8%, there were 11 to 50 cases. The survey’s “high degree of accuracy” thus allows us to calculate national minimum and maximum figures for how many would-be voters’ names were not found on election day. Since there were 19,009 polling stations, the minimum would be 19,009 times 52% plus 19,009 times 8% times 11, while the maximum would be 19,009 times 52% times 10 plus 19,009 times 8% times 50. These figures, respectively, come to 26,613 and 174,883. These are 0.27% and 1.8% of the number of registered voters. The midpoint between the minimum and maximum, a bit less than 101,000, would represent 1.0% of registered voters, less than one-eighth of the figure in the NDI report’s VRA.

There was another survey, as the ERA report notes: “The NGO Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (NGO-CEDAW) deployed 730 election observers to 656 polling stations across the country, who recorded similar findings. A total of 1,772 instances were reported of eligible citizens unable to find their names on the voter registry.” That is an average of 2.7 cases per polling station. Applying that figure to the 19,009 stations gives a national total of 51,324, or a bit over one-half of 1% of registered voters.

And one more:** “COMFREL election day monitors observed at least 9,052 cases of citizens unable to vote because they could not find their names on the voter list.” COMFREL had 11,908 observers to cover 19,009 polling stations, enough to view more than half the stations, far more than would be necessary for a statistically reliable survey. Hence the total of such cases is likely to have been less than twice the observed 9,052 – around 18,000.

And there you have it: the self-appointed “monitors” of Cambodia’s elections are agreed that the number of eligible voters whose names were not on the list was nearly 3 million, and also 1.2-1.3 million and 1.045 million (8.8% of 9.68 million) and 101,000 and 51,000 and 9,000. Aren’t Cambodians lucky to have such experts to tell the government and the NEC how to run elections!

* The ERA report calls it by the same name, but the organisation’s website gives the name as Center for Advanced Study.

** This paragraph was rewritten on 30 January, because the original version reflected a misunderstanding that COMFREL had observers in all polling stations.

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