Still reeling from the election debacle at home, Araxie and I boarded a plane for Yerevan to volunteer with Citizen Observer as election monitors. More than 2000 additional volunteers were needed when we registered, and maybe a look at Armenia's election would give us needed perspective.
Before arriving we had both waded through various training manuals, a two hour video, and the second night in Yerevan we watched animated training videos well into the night. The in-country training seminar lasted four and a half hours, and we were thankful that we'd prepared with the materials beforehand, as many volunteers obviously had not. The process made a lot more sense after the seminar tied it all together. The handouts were useful on Election Day, and we consulted them frequently for guidance. It was a completely new voting process and there would be fumbles throughout the day.
On Election Day, we awoke blearily at 5 am in order to start monitoring at 6:45. Good thing we were up so early because our scheduled taxi never showed up. We walked in the breaking dawn to our polling stations, about 5 minutes from our apartment. After a few false starts we found the location and met up with our monitoring partners. The polling place was set up according to regulations by the local precinct committee members, and the preparations for the 8 am start of voting went smoothly.
At 8 am a long line of voters materialized and the new election process began. In my precinct the machines for voter identification worked well throughout the day, in others they did not. When President Sarkisian went to vote, the machines could not identify him after several attempts! After the initial identification, the voter receives a coupon. The voter then shows the coupon to one of the registrars, signs and receives the ballots for all 9 parties participating in the election, along with a ballot envelope. The front side contains the name and number of the party and the back lists individual candidates.
Now the voter waits in line for an open voting booth. Once inside the booth, the voter chooses the ballot of her preferred party and places the other 8 in a bin for unused ballots inside the booth, a check on potential fraud. The voter may now, if desired, put a check mark by the name of an individual candidate on the back of the party ballot, or simply put the ballot unmarked into the envelope. Many voters were confused by this new, complicated process and required help. A citizen from the queue, duly registered by the secretary, was recruited to assist voters unable complete the process alone. Other voters asked for clarification from a committee member, who was barely able to sit down during the voting. Her sleek high heeled boots were quickly replaced by sensible oxfords when it became clear she would be on her feet for many, many hours.
After choosing a party ballot, the voter places it inside the envelope, seals it and goes to present her coupon to another committee member. Her ballot is stamped and she places it in the ballot box. Now she has voted and exits. Though the process was complicated and new, the long lines moved fairly well in spite of the difficulties.
As observers my partner and I watched carefully to see that process was being followed. My partner also translated for me, as the language barrier is a real hindrance. Unfortunately he had no prior experience either, the significance of which I realized when our Citizen Observer coordinator showed up to check on us. I had just returned from lunch and my partner had left. A man I didn't recognize, but took to be a voter waiting at the ballot box station, caught the coordinator's eye. "Who is that man?" he asked emphatically. I said I didn't know and that he had just appeared. The coordinator was suspicious and confronted the man, who turned out to be a Republican Party operative with no credentials allowing him to be there. His presence at the ballot box indeed seemed questionable. After some heated words, he left but slowly. Shortly after the coordinator left, the man reappeared outside the polling place talking to voters, which may have been a violation of the election rules. By the time my partner returned, the party member was gone for the time being. It was the only potential violation we reported. In Araxie's precinct there were other violations reported. A larger number of older people needed more assistance, which left room for procedural errors which Araxie and her partner were able help correct.
A few observers from the EU appeared very, very briefly (about 5 minutes each), and didn't appear to do much other than attempt to talk to the secretary, glaring at or ignoring the goings on. I later read that the OSCE declared the elections clean (Citizen Observer registered about 2000 violations). Their appearance didn't do much to improve my impressions of the organization or its effectiveness.
By 8 pm everyone was exhausted and the polls closed without incident. The complex procedures to prepare for the (manual) vote count went according to regulation in my precinct. This took some considerable time, but around 9:30 pm the count began. The ballots were counted by hand, held up for observers to see and results by party called out and recorded. There were 981 ballots and this took a long time. When the first questionable ballot appeared, it took about an hour to agree on the correct process for invalidation. Then the ballots were turned over and the individual candidate count began. Everyone was struggling to stay awake. Rivers of coffee flowed and the air was thick with cigarette smoke in an effort to keep the committee members and observers awake.
At the beginning of the count, the YELQ party was easily outpacing the ruling Republicans, with the Tsarukyan party not far behind. By 3:30 am the count was finished, and the ruling party had 100+ votes more than its nearest competitor. Exhausted, everyone but the Secretary slumped in their chairs, waiting impatiently for her to fill out the official extract of the voting protocol. Again we couldn't get the prearranged taxi service to pick us up, so just before dawn Araxie and I walked back to our apartment to sleep well into the afternoon.
Looking back on our experience, we agreed that it was unquestionably worthwhile. We also agreed that we could suggest some changes to help observers. We discussed the language barrier and both of us had already decided we would volunteer again when our Armenian language skills reached a threshold level.
The percentage of the eligible population that voted was significantly higher than in the US, a positive sign for Armenia's developing democracy. In our precincts the committee members seemed careful about following procedures. Four parties gained seats in this parliamentary election. To all the diasporans who have complained about corruption in Armenia's government and electoral process, I would say that one should consider the level of corruption in the mature US democracy and realize that in a developing democracy the corruption takes different forms than in the US, but that no government is immune to the corruption that comes with power. I would also suggest that you join us next time around to help encourage cleaner elections and the further development of the emergent democracy in our homeland. If we all pull together for Armenia and Armenians all over the world, what can't we accomplish for our future?