Fair Elections under Military Occupation

Suggestions inspired by the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan

Part of the Voting and Elections web pages
by Douglas W. Jones
THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA Department of Computer Science

Copyright © 2004. This work may be transmitted or stored in electronic form on any computer attached to the Internet or World Wide Web so long as this notice is included in the copy. Individuals may make single copies for their own use. All other rights are reserved.


-- DRAFT, April 13, 2004 --

-- First posted, April 11, 2004 --


Today, the United States finds itself in the role of an occupying miliary power in two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. This role does not fit well with our national self image, and in order to make this role palatable, in the short run, our government has promised to hold fair elections, as soon as possible, in both countries. This makes the situation quite different from that in post World-War-II Germany and Japan, where we continued the military occupation for most of a generation after the war, with a gradual restoration of democracy while a whole new generation grew up under the occupation government.

In our technology obsessed era, it is natural that our government will look first to high-tech election technology, for example, the direct-recording electronic voting machines built by Election Systems and Software or Diebold Election Systems. These machines offer the possibility of instant results, and they are built to hardware standards that makes it easy to imagine shipping them in large numbers by helicopter, or in small numbers by horseback, making distribution to all corners of a remote undeveloped country quite practical.

There are other vendors of direct-recording electronic voting systems, but most of the other systems are larger and heavier, require auxiliary battery packs, or are otherwise unsuited to the difficulties of conducting elections in an occupied third-world country.

Unfortunately, these machines are also the subject of numerous allegations of serious security problems. It hardly matters whether these security problems are real or imagined, what matters is that they are widely discussed, taken seriously by large numbers of commentators, and rebutted with equal seriousness by the vendors of these systems.

It also matters, very much, that one of the central allegations about these voting systems is that they are particularly vulnerable to manipulation by insiders, either by the manufacturer or by the technicians in the election office who program them for a particular election.

If the United States, as the occupying military power, provides these machines for use in an occupied nation, one where a large fraction of the population does not believe our stated goals and does not trust us, these allegations of insecurity will be all that is needed to bring the election into disrepute. Even if the election administered by the United States is, in actuality, entirely honest, the losers will be able to charge that our technicians manipulated the totals, and we will have no way to prove that we did not do so.

Furthermore, the government of the United States will face significant questions at home if a single-source no-bid contract is used to buy or rent voting systems from either of the vendors mentioned above. It happens to be the case that both of these vendors have close ties to the current administration. There are at least two vendors who make suitable machines, and a failure to open the bidding to allow them to compete is bound to lead to allegations of inside deals quite similar to the allegations our administration already faces over its relationship to Haliburton.

What Should We Do?

So, what should we do? Can an occupying power conduct a fair election in a third-world country, and do so in a manner that convinces the population of that country that its votes have been fairly counted?

There is one factor which most United States residents do not understand about elections in the rest of the world, and that is, that our elections in the United States are uniquely complicated when compared to those in every other country in the world. We insist on voting for president, senator, congressman, governor, state legislators, county board members and a whole raft of other offices all on the same ballot. No other country in the world runs elections that are this complex! In the rest of the democratic world, the typical election involves one office, member of parliment. The parliment elects the prime minister and approves the cabinet, and the cabinet, runs the government, appointing regional governors who appoint mayors, police chiefs and judges.

If elections are held in Afghanistan or Iraq, they will most likely follow this parlimentary model, with just one race on the ballot in each district. This makes use of hand-counted paper ballots far easier than it is in the United States!

But still, how does an occupying power administer an election that is accepted by the populace as a whole? There is no guarantee that this can be done without years of trust-building, but if there is an answer, it will probably rest on a classic element of fair elections, the cooperation of opposing parties to run the election. Whenever an election is run by one party, without cooperation from the opposition, that party has no check to prevent them from cheating. This is how elections in the Soviet Union were run, and for that matter, it is how elections in Chicago were run in the bad old days when the dead were frequent voters.

How does an occupying power convince their opposition, or more specifically, at least one significant opposition party to join with the occupiers to conduct an election? This will not be easy! We need to put forth a plan for the conduct of an election that convinces the opposition that it is fair, that convinces the opposition that they can win if they play the game by the rules proposed, and that convinces them that the occupiers intend to play by the rules. I do not know if this is possible.

A Modest Proposal

I propose the following set of rules as a candidate for the conduct of an election under military occupation. I propose it under the conservative assumption that the situation in the occupied country is near anarchy and that, therefore, the occupying forces will bear almost all of the responsibility for the conduct of the election, and I propose these rules only as a starting point for a debate of how to carry off the nearly impossible task of imposing democracy on a nation that is near anarchy.

I am ignoring the problem of determining who is allowed on the ballot, but it is clear that the ballot access rules should be sufficiently relaxed that nobody can charge that they are unfair, yet sufficiently difficult that the number of candidates is no more than about 7 in each election district. Debates involving more than this number are hard to follow, whether they are carried out in person, broadcast by the media, distributed by handbill, or printed in the press.

Voter Registration?

First, I'd propose dispensing entirely with voter registration. Countries that have suffered recent wars and civil unrest simply cannot be expected to have decent government records from which voter elegability can be determined. Simply dispense with this entirely and rely on other means to keep people from voting twice. For example, use the kind of indellible skin dye that has been used for years to mark the backs of the hands of audience members at rock concerts as proof that they paid the admission price. So long as the polls are open for a shorter time than it takes to scrub this stuff off, the lack of a mark on the hand of someone who can show that they are of voting age should suffice.

How can someone prove that they are of age? This is tough. People in recent postwar societies have frequently lost much of their personal documentation, so required use of identity documents will either disenfranchise many people or invite widespread document forgery. Something far simpler may be appropriate. If a man has a beard, he's through puberty. People get their wisdom teeth at around age 18. I am not sure how best to apply such tests, but I cannot see reliance on a voter registration system in these circumstances.

Don't bother with proof of residence. Again, in recent postwar societies, residence tends to be very fluid. Homes have been destroyed, documentation lost, and many people are wandering, searching for an opportunity to start over. Let people vote where they are on election day. If someone has sufficient mobility to have a choice, let them make that choice. This requires that all voting be in person, with no absentee ballots!

Before Election Day

I propose that the ballots themselves be paper! Print them on hard to forge ballot paper, certainly, but rely on other measures, which I will outline, to assure a fair count. Ballots should have candidate photos, local language candidate names, and transliterations into the Roman alphabet so that the occupiers can read the names.

For each polling place, the following kit of material should be prepared and packed in a sealed box: a sealed stack of preprinted ballots, three broken-down cardboard boxes, one to serve as the ballot box and two cut down to create voting booths, Strapping tape to assemble the boxes, pencils for marking the ballots, die-markers for marking voter's hands, a roll of "police line, do not cross" tape, or equivalent, two camcorders compatable with the local television standards, with sufficient video tape to record the entire proceedings, and envelopes in which copies of the election result can be sealed, one per election judge.

And, of course, suitable polling places should be identifed, based on population estimates. Because these are single race ballots, voting will be much faster than in a general election in the United States, so the population served by a polling place can be larger than a precinct in the United States. One polling place per 500 to 1000 expected voters is reasonable. The polling place should not be a cramped room because ample space should be provided for observers. A large room or courtyard would be ideal, and there should be at least two tables, one to hold the ballot box and one for the voting booths. The polling place needs a defensible perimeter, so it should not be an open space.

Election Day Setup

The entire kit should be delivered in a sealed box, under guard provided by the occupying forces, at least one hour before the polls open. The guards should have radios that can communicate with the district election office. Why should the guard for the ballot boxes and the polling place be provided directly by the occupying forces? Because the alternative is worse. Occupiers invariably seek and train collaborators, and the natural temptation is to make the election seem more legitimate by having the collaborators run it. Unfortunately, these collaborators are generally very minimally trained, and they may have very strong motives to interfere in the election, since if it goes against collaborationist candidates, their very lives may be endangered. Furthermore, they are not necessarily any more respected by the local population than the forces of the occupier, who are, at the very least, respected for their armed might.

But, if the polling place is guarded by soldiers of the occupation, why would the citizenry trust them enough to pass through the guard and vote? This is a difficult queston! It is essential that the occupiers work very hard to earn trust, even in the face of armed resistance, and in addition, in this role, it is essential that the orders governing the troops guarding the polling place be published in the local languages. If possible, representatives of the opposition should be invited to all briefings for these troops, and the briefings themselves should be broadcast with translation into the local language.

Prior to the election, the occupiers need to find local representatives of the opposition willing to cooperate with the election. The greater their distrust of the occupying forces, the greater their assurance will be that the election is honest. Ideally, they should be genuine representatives of the armed resistance to the occupation, and their cooperation need only last for the duration of a truce that centers on election day. The very last person you want in this role is a collaborator, someone who has been working routinely with the occupiers. They will be seen as stooges of the occupiers by most in the opposition, and they can not be trusted as a witness to the proper conduct of the election because of their relationship to the occupier.

Opening the Polls

In what follows, I assume at least one representative of the occupying forces and one representative of the opposition will serve as election judges, but things work better with two and two, both because this allows for breaks, and because this allows two opposition parties to be represented, something that is important where there are deep divisions in the occupied country, An hour before the polls open, the election judges should jointly unseal the election kit. If they do not find the required parts inside, it's the occupier's fault for sabotaging their own election, so the occupying forces have a strong obligation to get things right up to this point.

From the moment the election kit is unsealed, this entire procedure must be carried out within plain view of as many eyes as possible, representing as broad a cross-section of the local population as possible. This is why it is essential that the polling place be in a large room or courtyard. The guards should work to assure that those oberving do not interfere with the conduct of the election or with the right of others to observe, and two of them should begin using the video cameras to make a permanent record of the proceedings as soon as the cameras are unpacked.

First, before the polls open, the judges should use the "police line" tape to divide the polling place in half, one half for observers and one half for voting. With the tables set up, the judges should assemble the two voting booths on one table and the ballot box on the other table. As they assemble the ballot box, they should demonstrate to all present that it is empty. Then, they should unseal the pack of ballots for the district. The number of ballots in that pack should exceed, by a large margin, the estimated voting-age population of the district.


With this preparation completed, the polls can be opened. The guards should keep the number of voters in the polling side of the polling place small, no more than 4 or 5. Waiting voters and those who have finished should be encouraged to watch from the observing area, although the crowd there should be limited so that those who intend to watch the entire day's proceedings are not jostled by the crowd.

On entry to the polling place, the voter goes to the table with the ballot box and the spare ballots. If the voter's hand is not marked, the voter is handed a ballot and his or her hand is immediately marked. Voters then mark their ballots in the privacy of the voting booth, and then fold it and hand it to the judge who deposits it in the ballot box.

If there are only two election judges, the one representing the occupiers and the one representing the opposition take turns at the two offical roles for the duraiton of the voting period. With four judges, they form into two teams of two, where each team is composed of one each from the oppositon and from the occupiers, one team distributing ballots and checking and stamping hands, and one team guarding the ballot box. The video cameras should view the room from opposite sides, generally following the activity around the election judges.

When an election judge needs to take a break, the polling place should always shut down for the duration of the break, with all people present stepping away from the ballot box, the stacks of ballots, and the voting booths.

Closing the Polls

At the close of the polls, with the public right to observe still strongly in force, the ballot box should be opened and the ballots should be counted immediately. This should be done by two of the judges, one representing the occupiers and one representing the opposition, sitting side by side as they sort the ballots into piles, where each pile contains only votes for one candidate, and where final piles contains ballots that they dispute the interpretaiton of, ballots that they agree are blank, and ballots that they agree are spoiled. During this process, if there are other judges, the other judges sit to the sides, each monitoring the process and joining in the discussion only where there are disputes.

To count a ballot, the two judges hold it up so that the observers can clearly see the marking on the ballot, and then they declare how it is to be counted. Disputed ballots should be extremely rare in this system, and all disputes will be very public.

At the end of the sorting, the number of ballots in each pile should be counted, publically. Each judge should verify the count. When an agreement on the count is reached, this number should be recorded. I propose that the official record of the vote be recorded on blank ballots, written next to the candidate name for each candidate, with the numbers of disputed, invalid and blank ballots written below, or in some other agreed place on the ballot. Nothing, however, prevents special reporting forms from being used for this purpose. Multiple copies of the official record should be written, two for each judge to personally carry from the polling place, and all copies should be signed by all judges In addition, one or more extra copies should be made.

These extra copies of the offical record should be posted immediately in public. One copy of the record for each judge should be sealed in an envelope, with the flap signed over by all judges. Those copies should not be unsealed unless there is a dispute about the count at that polling place, and then, they should only be unsealed in the presence of observers, when all judges have been reconvened to arbitrate the dispute.

The unsealed copies should be retained by the election judges for reporting back to their respective organizations as proof of the election totals from that polling place. The occupying forces and the opposition should be able to compute district-wide totals independently from these records, and their totals should agree. If they don't, the judges should reconvene at the polling place to unseal their sealed copies and reconcile any differences, in public.

Also, as soon as the totals are posted and the sealed copies sealed and countersigned, radio contact should be established with the election headquarters for the district and the totals should be transmitted, by radio. This should be done twice, once by a judge representing the occupiers, speaking to his counterpart at the headquarters, and once by a judge representing the opposition, similarly. Both should be done in public, so that everyone can hear the conversation.

After everything is done, the two official video records of the polling place are turned over to the judges, one copy going to the opposition, and one to the occupiers. If there is a dispute about the conduct of the election at this polling place, these tapes can be reviewed as part of the resolution.


I suggest that an election conducted along the lines proposed would be very difficult to challenge, and it would be very difficult to manipulate, and it would be very difficult for the occupiers or the opposition to back out of their agreement after the fact, claiming that something had been done that invalidated the result.

Of course, the occupiers face a very real risk. If parties they oppose win the election, the occupiers will have a hard time disavowing the election and continuing to impose military rule. If they do so, the legitimacy of any future offer of democratic elections will be open to serious question. What the occupiers hope to earn through this process is a grudging admission from their opponents that, yes, despite everything, the election was basically fair and the outcome really does reflect the will of the people.

Why didn't I suggest securing the ballot box itself after the election? Because I can't see any way to assure the security of the ballot box under these circumstances. Joint custody between the occupiers and an opposition that includes those committed to armed resistance won't work. Either the occupiers take it away, leaving the opposition with no reason to trust the occupiers not to tamper with its contents, or it is left in the community, with essentially no way to guarantee its security. Therefore, the whole point of this election procedure is to conduct things so openly and so transparently on the first count that there is no need for a recount. It may even be appropriate, as the last act in this drama, to burn all of the ballots except for those that were used to retain the official records of the election!