Vote and Beyond: We created awareness and mobilized parties on election security

Vote and Beyond: We created awareness and mobilized parties on election security

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Vote and Beyond: We created awareness and mobilized parties on election security Vote and Beyond, the association that successfully monitored Turkey’s June 7 election, will continue to operate until political parties can themselves overcome the soft spots of the system before and after polling day, according to its president.

“We have created awareness and mobilized political parties. There can be no going back from that awareness. The day we will retire is not so far away,” Vote and Beyond’s Sercan Çelebi told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Tell us briefly what is Vote and Beyond.

Vote and Beyond was established in December 2013. It is a civil domestic election monitoring mechanism, a civic movement that uses its constitutional and legal rights to observe elections on election day. 

We do two things: We cover the part that is visible, sending independent observers who are trained in electoral law to balance the playing field for all parties. They intervene when necessary so that processes are in line with the law and the regulations.

We also do cross tabulation to check the official results by collecting the ballot box protocols and comparing it at the province level and at the ballot box level to make sure that the transition from the ballot box protocol into the government software is done in the way it is supposed to be.

What triggered the establishment of Vote and Beyond?

There were a lot of people, especially after the Gezi Park protests, who wanted to do something practical and wanted to be part of the solution. And there was an acute problem around election security; suspicion that the elections were manipulated if not outright rigged. We asked ourselves, “what can we do as civil society?” The answer was to go and see for ourselves. 

In the March 2014 local elections we were only present in Istanbul, where around 28,000 of our volunteers were deployed on polling day. In the 2014 presidential election we covered six cities, despite having fewer volunteers. On June 7, we had 56,000 volunteers deployed on polling day in 46 out of 81 provinces. We aimed to cover two thirds of the electoral base but we ended up somewhere between a third and half of the electoral base. 

As far as the aggregation of the votes is concerned, we covered almost 100 percent of them. Based on 190,000 ballot box protocols, we made public our initial data showing city by city the loss or shift of votes. We saw that this was minimal. Around 40 million people voted and the total shift between five political parties was 27,000. This discrepancy is acceptable standard deviation.

Tell us about the success factors.

First, identify an acute problem around which you can collect everybody, independent of their ideologies. The transparency of election day was a common denominator for everybody, so we wanted to make sure the process is transparent and convincing. 

Second, we had red lines on two subjects: One was our language. We were bipartisan, equidistant from all parties and we remained so until the end. We talked with political parties but we did not collaborate with them. There were instances where we did need their support. Turkish election law does not allow NGO’s to have an official presence at polling stations. So we used political parties’ channels to have the legal presence to intervene when necessary and to have the official copy of the protocols. The Republican People’s Party [CHP], the Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP], the Anadolu Party and the Liberal Democrat Party [LDP] helped us with this. But at the local level a lot of friends talked to other parties, including the Vatan Party and the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], and got passes through their connections. The Justice and Development Party’s [AKP] official response was “we have our own organization, we don’t see an added value,” which we respected. 

Financial independence is also key. We were very transparent about the source of our funding. We did not accept institutional funding. We used crowd-sourcing mechanisms. For this election we got funding from 400 people, ranging from $5 to $5,000. Finally the basis for all our activities was the law itself. We did not do anything beyond or outside the law.

You also seem to have benefited from the advantages of technology, such as giving training online.

That was a matter of numbers. It’s difficult to train everyone face to face, especially when you’re talking about 56,000 volunteers. We provided face-to-face training and online training. Some face-to-face training was broadcast live, and one such session was viewed by 7,000 people. We also made sure people read the manual. If volunteers were there at the polling station without knowing when and how to intervene they could actually cause damage.

One of the things of which I am most proud was our meeting two weeks before the election. It was an open mic and we told everybody that they could for 2.5 hours ask us any question - about me, the leadership organization, or the processes. I have never before seen that type of transparency. 

Tell us what it takes as far as time dedication is concerned. 

First, it takes a number of individuals who are willing to prioritize. Then you need to have a hierarchy that is based on the level of priorities. We had a general coordination team of around 10 people who worked 24/7 for six months for this election. For them Vote and Beyond came first, before their work, family and friends.
We then had 50 to 60 people who formed working groups around funding, communication, and legal issues. These people kept their jobs but dedicated a substantial amount of their time. 

Then came other layers such as district heads and regional heads. We managed really well about who took what type of responsibility; people declared from day one the amount of time they were willing to dedicate.

Let’s then come back to your conclusion about elections.

Bearing in mind that none of what I say will have to do anything prior to the election, we should be happy and lucky that we have a very good basis. We have a system that, as far as legal basis goes, the information technology infrastructure is concerned and the institutions running the processes like the Supreme Electoral Council [YSK], the processes are very clearly defined. They are controllable and the institutions are doing a good job.

There is a soft spot in the system, which is the assumption that all political parties are actually covering polling stations both on a quantitative perspective, which means they will send people, and from a qualitative perspective, which means people they are going to send are trained on elections. When that is not the case, the political parties that are organized better [on these practices] have the say on election day and do control the process. That is the job that we filled.

We had instances where people voted without proper ID checks. Some voters came in and saw somebody else had signed their names; we had people vote before it was found out that their names were not even on the list.

We had a lot of elderly people escorted several times by the same people who were supposedly manipulated by these people to vote for this or that party. 

The overall observation is that there needs to be two way process where A) voters need to know our rights better; we need to be better educated about how to vote, and B) the officials at the polling stations who run the process need to know their rights better, along with voters’ and observers’ rights. We need a two-way education to solve these problems.

The gravity of the situation is not something we should worry about, if political parties and civil organizations such as ourselves own the process. For instance, people who were officially appointed by the government actually consulted our volunteers. 

We saw the need and filled the gap, but at the end of the day, it is the political parties’ responsibility to provide that.

Then let’s talk about the counting stage. I even had colleagues saying that votes would not be properly registered at the YSK.

We saw virtually no issue at the aggregation level. When people say things like this without basis and data, it causes a lot of concern and distrust among citizens that sometimes leads people not to vote. 
As a mission, we ask how we can control this. We have access to information at the ballot box; there are protocols. We aggregated ourselves. Then, we have the final outcome and official results, and, even if we don’t see the process in between, we can compare the beginning with the end and that’s how we did it.  Of the 190,000 protocols and 135,000 ballot boxes, we saw 27,000 vote discrepancies; this is more than acceptable. 

Contrary to what a lot of people said and believed, we found virtually nothing. This is not to say all was rosy and there is nothing wrong. Our conclusion is that these mismatches don’t happen if you are present there to monitor and check. We were present and we declared we would cross check. We identified that nothing happened.

So you worked as a double-check mechanism. Since you said discrepancies were within the standard deviation, do we still need this double-check mechanism for future elections?

Until the day political parties are capable of doing this across the country, we need this double-check mechanism done by civil society. It will take people who want to do this through political parties, people who get the training through political parties and an IT infrastructure to do this cross check.  I think Vote and Beyond was the one organization that did this in the most efficient and timely manner. You only have a 48-hour window to process the entire data and come up with objections. We were one of the few, if not the only one, to do it efficiently. Until the political parties are at that level, there will be a lot of room for civil society to step in and fill the gaps.

Can you quantify your contribution, like if we were not there, this amount of votes would have been wasted or shifted etc.?

That is really difficult. About 80 percent of our job is deterrence, which means we are there and we are going to intervene if we see something incorrect. The other 20 percent is when we actually intervene and fix the processes. But the real impact is the deterrence. We made sure that people are talking about the ballot box priority; we made sure that political parties who never prioritized that before felt their obligation and said, “We better send people because we can’t leave the entire system to an NGO. People are talking about it and they are going to look to our people at the ballot box, so we need to get our act together. “

So you triggered an awareness among people and parties.

Absolutely. We made sure that people’s attentions were focused on this and the right things. A lot of people wrote about the impossibility of controlling the system and there were scenarios about the system being attack or algorithms being changed.

What we did is divide [the processes] into areas that can be controlled by the people, those who wanted to be part of it. Control the election day, control the aggregation process and you cover the value chain. I think it worked.

Do the irregularities happen out of bad intention or ignorance and simple human mistakes?

It’s a bit of both. It is very difficult to quantify it. It’s a very difficult complicated system and it is almost impossible to run a system without any errors.  The discrepancies are a lot less than we expected. That’s why we need the two-way education.

What do you advise political parties to do?

They need to have a representative in each ballot box all over Turkey and the IT infrastructure to cross-check the results. We hope to retire when they will succeed at these.

How do you see the future in terms of election security?

I don’t think there will be any going back from this awareness. All our citizens need to know we have a system that works well on election day. Yes, the system has soft spots but they can be overcome if the processes are properly owned. Political parties were much better organized this time compared to the past two elections. There is a lot of progress on determining the problems and it will take some time to overcome these problems. But we don’t think we are far away from that day.

Do you have any anecdotes you can share with us about the election day?

When a blind person came to vote and was asked, “Who do you want to escort you to the ballot box?” The blind person asked whether there was someone from Vote and Beyond. This shows the level of trust we have established among the people.

What type of feedback are you receiving?

A lot of people thanked us for making them part of the process. This means that there are people who want to use their energies to be beneficial to the society; we provided an alternative channel, which it seems they have not find through the political parties. 

As a society, our reflex is this: When we are not familiar with an issue, we tend to accept what we hear about it as truth. Someone says to  us, “You can’t control the elections. We have no idea about it. But we accept that and we use it to do nothing about it.But when a couple of people come together, question it and create an alternative, people quickly overcome their prejudice. Yes, we need to trust more; yes, we need to question more. We need complain less and take action more. Lack of action brings even more ignorance, which strengthens the hands of those who want to abuse that.

Will you really retire?

Our biggest dream is to come to the point on the electoral day where will retire. But this is a network of people that can come together where they see they can contribute. There are other areas where the support of civil society is required. So we are not going anywhere. But we will decide on that later.

Who is Sercan Çelebi?

Vote and Beyond: We created awareness and mobilized parties on election security

Sercan Çelebi is the co-founder and president of “Vote and Beyond,” Turkey’s first and only civic domestic election monitoring organization.

A graduate of German High School of Istanbul, Çelebi holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and international studies from Yale University. 

He is the chief operating officer at the Studyo Group of Companies, the Istanbul-based umbrella company with a broad range of investments, primarily focused on different areas of mainstream and social media.

He has taken part in several international projects, including the COPA Argentinean Universities Program in Buenos Aires and at the International Institute for Political and Economic Studies (IIPES) in Crete, Greece.

He has worked as an intern at the Turkish Grameen Bank Microcredit Project in Diyarbakır, as well as at the U.N. Development Program in Argentina.

In addition to his native language he is fluent in English, German and Spanish.