The South Asia Channel

Rocking the Afghan Vote

Afghanistan’s recent elections have been marred by corruption, inaccurate voter registration, and high costs. Here is how to change the system to make each vote count.

An Afghan election official enters a voter's details as he looks at an identification card at a local polling station in Kandahar on April 5, 2014. Afghan voters went to the polls to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, braving Taliban threats in a landmark election held as US-led forces wind down their long intervention in the country. AFP PHOTO/Banaras KHAN (Photo credit should read BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

As has been well-reported, Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential and provincial council elections were marred by extensive technical difficulties — unconfirmed numbers of eligible voters, inadequate security, vague district and village boundaries, and interference from military and civilian government officials. Yet they also took a heavy financial toll on the system.

According to the Joint Task Force on Election Assistance, the direct cost of the first round of voting proved to be especially high — approximately $109 million — for a country that falls amongst the poorest in the world. The task force noted that the average cost per voter (of the 13.5 million who voted) was $8.08. While this figure is lower than the global average for stable and post-conflict democracies ($8.41 per voter), it is much higher than states that have established efficient voting systems ($4.01 per voter).

The Independent Election Commission (IEC), the main body that administers elections in Afghanistan, faced four major challenges in 2014: 1) the inadequate recruitment of temporary non-technical workers on the day of the elections; 2) a lack of balance in the distribution of polling stations across the country; 3) the absence of voter registration lists at the polling centers; and 4) the lack of a reporting mechanism to determine turnout by the end of Election Day.

As Afghanistan prepares to hold elections for the parliament, and possibly for district councils (for the first time), there is an immediate need to improve the election system — an endeavor that first requires a comprehensive needs assessment, starting with the existing electoral structures and processes based on the current electoral laws. As for the discussions about canceling the current election laws through presidential decree, they are unnecessary as the current laws can accommodate changes in the processes and procedures that would bring about significant improvement.

Working within the current framework of election laws — which includes a provision for developing a voter registry — will also help the IEC enhance its reform efforts and recommend technical improvements that will increase the efficiency, transparency, and credibility of the process.

To address the technical challenges Afghanistan faced during the 2014 elections, I propose the following recommendations.

  1. Hire proficient temporary election workers.

In the 2014 presidential and provincial council elections, the IEC encountered numerous problems with regards to recruiting the District Field Coordinators (DFCs), who were responsible for managing district election activities. After their employment, the DFCs faced intimidation by various factions who were behind the introduction of fraud into the election process. Most DFCs, particularly those in remote areas, did not have any other choice but to succumb to the pressure exerted by powerful individuals and groups in the communities, and quit.

In future elections, hiring public school teachers and civil servants as DFCs could eliminate these challenges. They will be less likely to break the rules and commit fraud as that would risk their jobs as government employees. Assigning them to do the job would also eliminate the costs associated with hiring DFCs. At present, there are around 200,000 teachers working in public schools throughout the Afghanistan. The IEC estimates that 113,500 polling staff members (temporary staff who are working in the polling stations on Election Day and are recruited by DFCs) will be needed for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The abundance of teachers would more than cover that need.

As for the potential challenges in distributing the teachers to each of the 7,000 polling stations and the general lack of female teachers, this may be addressed by a presidential decree which gives these individuals the authority to fill the possible vacuum by hiring individuals upon need.

  1. Create a voter registry.

Problems in voter registration have been a key reason behind the miscarriage of elections in Afghanistan since 2004. The partial census in 1979 — the last official census to be carried out, which only gathered data on 67 percent of the country — shows an estimated population of 15.5 million. To date, there has not been any accurate data collection effort to determine Afghanistan’s population numbers and geographic distribution. This has made it very difficult to improve the voter registration process, which was developed with much haste and little thought for its sustainability. For the 2004, 2009, and 2014 voter registration processes, 20.3 million voter cards were issued for an estimated 15 million eligible voters. Lessons learned from past voter registration drives need to be applied to the e-Tazkera (Electronic National Identification Cards), while ensuring there is a way to deregister the deceased and avoid the issuance of duplicate cards — two issues that plague the current voter registry scheme.

Engaging the Wakil-e-Gozars (Community Representatives) at the municipality and city levels, and cooperating with the Community Development Councils (CDCs) — through the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development — at the village level can be very helpful in addressing the pitfalls in the voter registration process.

One of the roles of the Wakil-e-Gozars is to attest to the validity of one’s application for a national ID card. This process would assist in providing a list of names to form the basis of a precise voter registry. Wakil-e-Gozars could be tasked with completing this list for each polling center, which would then be posted at the polling centers on Election Day to validate the identity of the voters.

Likewise, the CDCs record the community populations, which could be used as an accurate census for eligible voters in the countryside. These confirmed records will provide the IEC with an exact figure of eligible voters list at the village level.

  1. Establish a National Voter Registration Center.

The National Voter Registration Center (NVRC) — which is managed by the IEC at both the central and provincial levels — should be established prior to receiving the approved and validated eligible voters list constructed from the voter registries. The NVRC should develop a comprehensive database where all eligible voter details will be coded and entered, and ensure that only eligible voters can vote by disseminating the list to election centers. The NVRC will also reclassify voters as they move to ensure that they are not deprived of their voting rights.

This will enhance the credibility and transparency of the election process in accordance with the improvements and reforms that have been requested by the government and people of Afghanistan.

  1. Properly allocate approved polling centers.

Afghanistan’s initial polling center allocation was done in 2003, when there was no population count and no accurate boundary data for the country’s regions. Furthermore, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, which is the main body handling administrative affairs at the sub-national level, was not yet established. Despite the directorate’s creation in 2007, the IEC has remained handicapped by a lack of information about the exact locations of polling centers in relation to the surrounding population.

During the 2014 elections, several sections of the voting population — like those in prisons, hospitals, or military barracks — did not have access to polling centers. In future elections, polling sites need to be both fixed and mobile, and procedures need to be in place to allow poll center staffers to vote well before Election Day.

One positive byproduct of the 2014 elections was the ability of the IEC to map the locations of all the polling centers on Geographic Information System software, which gave the IEC a baseline for reforming the distribution of polling centers. But to ensure the proper allocation of approved polling centers, it is important to have the approved list of registered voters so that the IEC can place the polling stations where they are needed.

Meaningful reforms in the Afghan election system are crucial for strengthening democracy and preventing election-induced political and civil strife that could push the country to the verge of collapse. Elections within a flawed regulatory framework will not only hurt the legitimacy of the state, but will also make the public lose faith in the process.


Sareer Ahmad Barmak is a Commissioner at the Independent Election Commission, where he oversaw Afghanistan’s controversial presidential elections in 2014. He also observed the 2015 presidential elections in Sri Lanka and the 2014 parliamentary election in Bosnia.