Citizens Monitor Elections Themselves in Turkey

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Last November 1st the eyes of the world were set on Turkey. National elections were taking place and a lot was at stake: the refugee problem has become a full scale humanitarian crisis, a conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) rages the South-East and ISIS becomes an ever-growing threat since it expanded operations to Turkish territory.

It is the second time in five months for Turkish citizens to go to the ballot box as the last elections were on June 7. In these elections the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in parliament and decided to have snap elections after failed rounds of coalition forming. Meanwhile, public trust in fair elections has declined. According to a survey conducted in 2007, 2011 and 2015, people’s trust in fair elections declined from 70 to 48 percent and people’s suspicions of unfair elections increased from 28 to 43 percent. This comes in the wake of corruption scandals, media shutdowns and the traumatizing experience of the Gezi park protests.  All these factors combined form a dangerous cocktail which, when ignited, could have far-reaching consequences for Turkey and its surroundings. That’s why fair elections are more important than ever.

To ensure fair elections is Vote and Beyond’s raison d’etre. Vote and Beyond is an association that ensures the transparency of the voting process and started as a grass-roots movement in Istanbul. Its amount of members surged from eight volunteers at its founding day to 70,000 during the latest national elections. Vote and Beyond ensures fair elections by appointing people to a voting office, have them count the votes and upload their observations to a cross-checking application. All members are volunteers. They are taught about their rights as citizens, the rules of an election, what makes a vote valid, how to count votes and how to report them. This takes place during and around elections in half of Turkey’s 81 provinces.

The association has been catching steam in recent times. Its membership increased from eight to 70.000 in one and a half year time. People become volunteers because they fear unfair elections. “I feel that something is wrong”, said a volunteer, “I vote yes, but I cannot fully trust the authorities, I always question them.” Many accidents such as power outages or burned votes have occurred during election days, which made people suspicious: “In some rural areas people protect their votes by waiting with guns until the authorities come and take the votes.”

To report the observations, the association makes use of a system called T3. T3 is a crowd-sourced, cross-checking software designed for election result input. Ballot box records are scanned and uploaded by volunteers. T3 then assigns a digital version of the election result from each ballot box to three random volunteers across the globe that login to the system and input their assigned digital version. Finally, results are confirmed only if three randomly selected volunteers input the same results of the same ballot box record, hence the name T3.

T3 aims to be an alternative to SEÇSİS, the official counting system. Some Turkish media referred to both the official results and the T3 results when writing about the national elections. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also referred to Vote and Beyond in their report on the latest national elections: “Despite legal constraints, civil society monitoring of the electoral process is de facto vibrant…..The civil society platform, Vote and Beyond, informed the OSCE/ODIHR LEOM that they intended to deploy above 60,000 observers.’’

After the parallel vote tabulation exercise, the results of T3 are compared with the official results. If there is a discrepancy, it might mean that some form of ballot box fraud was involved. When the difference is significant, a group of volunteers well-versed in electoral law (around 1,000 lawyers from bar associations across the country support the association) objects the outcome at the Higher Electoral Board (YSK). This will set into motion a legal process in which the association appeals to the rule of law to correct the fraud. In the last elections they found a discrepancy of 0.02 percent but it had no significant effect on the outcome.

Some criticize Vote and Beyond for being a Western-backed conspiracy with the aim of undermining the power of the ruling party. Its critics argue that most volunteers are against the ruling party so they can never be objective. But Vote and Beyond claims to be apolitical and to solely focus on fair elections. “For the first time ever, my generation took part in a political process without having official ties to politics, and it made a difference … A very large group is now mobilized to make changes,” co-founder Sercan Çelebi told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview.

So far we have only discussed the vote part. But what does beyond stand for? On its website, the association explains: “Beyond protecting our votes, we have determined three fields for ‘beyond’ work to sustain our mission to contribute to the future and see better days in our country: (1) expanding and improving the network of volunteer observers for the ballot boxes; (2) creating a pressure group to amend hitches in the election system; and (3) strengthening our social network.”

Thus it seems like Vote and Beyond is an association that is here to stay and can count itself amongst the many other civic movements that are active for a fairer Turkey. To quote our volunteer once again: “I’m able to vote but if someone else manipulates the vote it means they think that my ideas are not worthy and so I cannot decide about my country. I think this is awful. I had to do something. It doesn’t matter whether the lost votes are votes for a party I vote for or not. It is about people’s rights as citizens!”

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