Summary Assessment Report of the Extraordinary/By-elections Held on April 29, 2023
International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) carried out an observation mission of the parliamentary by-elections in the 26th election district of Poti, Khobi and Senaki municipalities and the extraordinary mayoral elections in Terjola and Tsageri municipalities. The elections were held almost in a non-competitive environment. Only two candidates, representing Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GD) and Free Georgia, were competing for the parliamentary seat in the Poti, Senaki and Khobi single-mandate constituency, while in Terjola and Tsageri municipalities, only one candidate (from GD) was running for the mayor's office.
ISFED observation mission consisted of 29 static observers deployed in precinct election commissions (PECs) and 2 mobile groups. ISFED observed all the polling procedures, from the opening of polling stations to the tabulation of results, in those PECs where votes were cast electronically.
Based on the reports of ISFED observers, the polling underwent in a peaceful environment, without significant violations of electoral regulations. The voting procedures were conducted in an orderly manner. Electronic technologies accelerated the voter registration process. However, the malfunction of electronic technologies in some precincts disrupted the voter verification, ballot casting, and results tabulation procedures. Violations of the secrecy of the vote were also observed. In particular, there was no mechanism to protect the secrecy of the vote during repeated attempts to place a ballot paper in vote tabulation machines or after its spoiling.
Some PEC members struggled to use the technologies and required the assistance of upper election commission representatives, especially at the beginning of voting. Voters also found it challenging to use vote-casting technologies. Many of them needed help in scanning ballot papers.
In some PECs, representatives of political parties or election observation organizations intervened in the duties of PEC members. Moreover, PEC members and representatives of political parties were actively taking notes and tracking down the voters who turned out to vote.
The lack of competition did not prevent the ruling party from using the malign practice of mobilization and tracking down the voters, often within 100 meters of polling stations, which is prohibited by the law.
Throughout election day, ISFED filed two complaints regarding procedural violations. The Poti District Election Commission (DEC) upheld both of them.
- Opening and Setting up of the Polling Stations
ISFED observers were allowed to enter and observe all (29) polling stations. The polling stations were equipped with all the relevant and sufficient materials, including electronic machines for voter verification, voting, and tabulation. The polling stations were opened and set up in accordance with legal norms and procedures. At 8:00 am, almost all (27) polling stations were ready to accept the first voter.
Violations/inaccuracies in the process of opening and setting up polling stations:
- At polling station #3 in Poti, the PEC did not publish the voters' list printed from the verification machine. The problem was addressed after an ISFED observer raised the issue;
- At polling station #1 in Khobi, the PEC could not launch a voting procedure until 08:40 am due to the malfunction of an electronic voter verification machine. Moreover, the printing and publicizing of the voters' list, printed out from the verification machine, was made possible after some delay, following the polling procedures;
- At polling station #7 in Khobi, one of the vote-casting and tabulation machines failed to activate. Thus, the PEC commenced its duty using only one functional electrotonic machine;
- At polling station #9 in Poti, a voter verification machine was functioning with disruptions and periodically required re-activation.
Voting has run without significant violations and transgressions from the polling procedures. Electronic technologies mostly simplified and accelerated the polling process, especially the voter identification procedure. Voters were allowed to vote after presenting relevant personal identification documents and undergoing the inking procedure. However, in some precincts, violations of the secrecy of the vote, an intrusion in the duties of election commissions, unduly fulfilling responsibilities by PEC members, campaigning in favor of the ruling party, and mobilization and tracking down the voters were observed.
Violations in voting at polling stations:
- At polling station #14 in Terjola, registrar members of the PEC were privately keeping notes of the voters who turned out to vote. An ISFED observer noticed that one of the registrars handed over the list to a GD representative. Note-keeping stopped after the objection of the ISFED observer;
- At polling station #14 in Terjola, a registrar member of the PEC and the GD party representative were instructing voters to vote for the ruling party. The practice stopped after the objection of the ISFED observer ;
- At polling station #14 in Terjola, a ruling party representative and an observer of the election observation organization Politics and Law Observer were intervening in the duties of the PEC and, in some cases, taking over their functions;
- At polling station #9 in Poti, a voter who did not manage to place an envelope in the ballot box was assisted not by a dedicated PEC member but by a representative of the observation organization Politics and Law Observer. Also, a representative of another observation organization Association Free Generation accompanied a voter in the voting booth. An ISFED observer filed a complaint regarding the case, later upheld by the relevant DEC;
- At polling station #1 in Poti, an observer of the Politics and Law Observer was tracking down the voters at the polling station and was intervening in the duties of PEC members;
- At polling station #8 in Poti, an observer of the Politics and Law Observer and a GD representative were tracking down the voters;
- At polling station #1 in Terjola, registrar PEC members were instructing voters about how to cast their vote by showing the example of voting in favor of the GD candidate, which had the signs of campaigning;
- At polling station #5 in Terjola, one ballot paper was found to be missing after the return of the mobile ballot box. The incident was explained by accidentally providing a voter with two ballot papers. After the instruction of the relevant upper election commission, the ballot box was not opened at the polling station and was sent to the DEC.
Violations and shortcomings in voting via electronic technologies:
- At polling stations #1 in Terjola and #25 in Tsageri, voters could not independently place ballot papers in voting and tabulation machines. Even PEC members found the procedure hard to execute, especially at the beginning of polling, and needed assistance from the representatives of upper commissions;
- At polling stations #2, #3, #4, #16 in Senaki, #11 in Khobi, #3 in Poti, #25 in Tsageri, and #2 in Terjola, voting and tabulation machines rejected some ballot papers, and PEC members had to substitute spoiled ballot papers with new ones. At polling stations #9 in Poti, #25 in Tsageri, and #2 and #14 in Terjola, the rejection of some ballot papers and subsequent confusion resulted in the violation of the secrecy of the vote;
- At polling station #3 in Poti, marker ink got spilled on a voting and electronic tabulation machine, which disabled its scanning function. The necessary cleaning procedures temporarily paused the voting process;
- At polling stations #2 in Khobi, #24 in Terjola, and #9 in Poti, voters were leaving precincts without ensuring that the ballot papers were dropped in ballot boxes. In some cases, the ballot papers rejected by machines were spoiled, and voters lost their votes. As a result, imbalances in summary protocols appeared;
- At polling stations #7 and #8 in Khobi, #3 in Poti, and #1 in Terjola, either voter identification or voting and tabulation machines were improperly functioning for some time. The technical maintenance personnel timely addressed the issue.
Trends/violations observed outside the polling stations
In all three election districts, especially in Terjola, voter mobilization, organized transportation, and tracking down of voters were observed. These actions were mainly observed within 100 meters of polling stations. The Georgian Election Code prohibits people's gathering and voter tracking around a polling station within this distance. Voters were also collectively transported to polling stations. Some vehicles stayed at polling stations for a relatively long time. Some voters also communicated with the people in the vehicles before entering or after leaving polling stations.
- Vote Count and Tabulation
Vote count procedures were essentially conducted in accordance with the regulations. At almost all polling stations, preliminary results' receipts were printed from electronic voting and tabulation machines, and vote count procedures were completed transparently. Relevant polling materials were sealed according to the legislative requirements.
Violations in the vote count and tabulation procedures:
- At polling station #9 in Poti, the secrecy of the vote was violated while transferring the ballot papers from the mobile to the main ballot box. The relevant DEC upheld the ISFED complaint regarding the case.
- At polling station #25 in Tsageri, an imbalance (the surplus of cast votes) was identified in the summary protocol. In particular, the sum of votes received by the electoral subjects and annulled ballot papers exceeded the number of voters who cast their votes. According to the PEC, the imbalance was caused due to the provision of an extra ballot paper to a voter who cast his/her vote using a mobile ballot box. Later, this ballot paper was erroneously placed in the main ballot box.
To address the shortcomings identified by the observation mission and improve the practice of using electronic technologies, ISFED recommends the following:
- The Central Election Commission (CEC) should thoroughly analyze the practice of using electronic machines, with particular attention to the challenges and malfunctions identified in the polling process;
- The CEC should ensure better training of PEC members in terms of using electronic technologies so that they complete their duties without assistance from upper commission members;
- The CEC should continue informing the voters regarding the technologies introduced, particularly on the functioning of electronic machines for voting and tabulation so that the secrecy of the vote is not compromised while utilizing the technology;
- Standardized information on voting should be created and distributed, for instance, by placing illustrative instructions for voters at polling stations. Only PEC members should not solely be responsible for explaining voting procedures to voters;
- To prevent the violation of the secrecy of the vote and/or spoiling of cast votes, voters and PEC members should be given clear instructions to make sure that a voter does not leave a polling station without placing a ballot paper in a ballot box;
- The CEC should elaborate a relevant protocol to deal with the instances of rejecting and thus spoiling the ballot papers to avoid the violation of the secrecy of the vote;
- Political parties should refrain from employing the negative practice of mobilizing and tracking down voters at and outside polling stations;
- The police should proactively react and take adequate legal measures to address voter mobilization and tracking instances happening within 100 meters perimeter outside polling stations.
ISFED election observation mission was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the financial assistance of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content of the report is the sole responsibility of ISFED and does not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.