Friday, December 16, 2011

TOP STORY >> Observer back from Russia

Special to The Leader

While tens of thousands of Russians demonstrated against perceived widespread election fraud following the Dec. 4 parliamentary vote, a member of the Arkansas Election Commission says she personally saw problems but not direct evidence of fraud when she visited about a dozen polling places on election day as an official observer at Nozorossiysk, a commercial port on the Black Sea.

“Their election officials were dedicated and experienced—voting was fine, but quality of process deteriorated during the count, with apparent manipulations including several serious indications of ballot stuffing,” said Susan Keith Inman, paraphrasing part of the preliminary report from the organization she represented.

Inman is the former director of elections for Arkansas and for Pulaski County, and founder and president of the Arkansas County Election Commissions Association.

“I didn’t witness ballot stuffing, but some others did,” Inman said Monday.

She was part of about a dozen people, including four Americans, to observe the elections in the Krasnodar territory. At the invitation of the Russian Federation, team members were recruited under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, a multinational organization that dates back to before the end of the Cold War, Inman said.

In all, the OSCE sent 160 observers, mostly from Europe and Central Asia, she said.

Separately, the U.S. State Department sent observers.

She said she heard reports of protests and demonstrations but didn’t witness any.

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the NBA team, the New Jersey Nets, said Monday that he would challenge Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for president in the March election, signaling more trouble for Putin, currently prime minister and the former president. Putin has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade.

Prokhorov’s announcement comes in the wake of widespread protest against Putin and his party, United Russia, over the allegations of election fraud.

Despite the alleged fraud, United Russia lost about 20 percent of its seats in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, but hung on to a narrow majority.

Putin’s former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, said he was ready to form a new party.

In its preliminary report, the OSCE found the election “problematic,” Inman said. “That’s why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out critically,” she added.

Also among its preliminary findings, the OSCE noted that result protocols were not publicly displayed in more than one-third of polling stations observed. Throughout election day, observers also reported a number of instances of obstruction to their activities, in particular during count and tabulation.

“That’s the issue that puts a cloud on the election,” Inman said. “At the tabulation center — it closed down, and you can’t see what’s going on. They would go into rooms we couldn’t go into, and they (were supposed to) post numbers, but they were not doing that. They said their computer system was down,” according to Inman.

“My area was Krasnodar territory. The actual city is Nozorossiysk, a commercial sea port,” Inman said.

“Election officials seemed knowledgeable and voters would come in with identification, sign their names, get paper ballots, and directed to a voting both with a curtain. There, they would check a box next to the candidate they wished to vote for, Inman said. Some places had electronic voting and ballot scanners.”

She said members of her group were up until 5 a.m. while officials counted ballots behind closed doors.

Among unusual things she witnessed — election officials and observers took ballot boxes to hospitals and jails to allow people confined there to vote.

While many polling places in the United States are churches, not so in Russia, she said. Most seemed to be in cultural centers, municipal buildings, hotel lobbies and schools.

Since Inman began work as a volunteer, she has also been sent to observe elections in Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Moldova, Kurdistan, Tajikistan and Belarus, some more than once.

Inman says she generally goes once a year to monitor elections.

The observers are not paid, but the OSCE makes and pays for flight and hotel reservations and reimburses the volunteers for other expenses..