Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Practice Ballots

The Cambodia Daily today reported that government officials and party activists are going door to door in some parts of the country asking people to mark practice ballots, reportedly instructing them to tick the CPP box. The article also put “practice ballots” in scare quotes and mentioned the potentially related issue of intimidation via their use.

If, as reported in the Daily, government officials operating under color of authority are conducting practice ballot marking sessions and instructing people to mark a particular party, this is a clear violation of election law and complaints should be filed with the NEC and/or CEC. If the complaints are not properly addressed it can be held up as yet another example of the partisan bias of a CPP-stacked NEC. If, on the other hand, government officials are claiming to be acting in a personal capacity when conducting practice ballot marking sessions, this may constitute a loophole in the law which may also be better addressed by a more balanced NEC.

Nevertheless, practice ballots have been employed by party activists in every election since 1998, (perhaps 1993 as well,) and not only by the CPP. In its legitimate use, it is done to help illiterate voters and inexperienced voters identify and correctly mark their preferred party on the ballot come election day. Mismarked ballot can cost parties votes to the degree that it can even have a significant effect on the voting results. (See example below.) And, of course, if the practice marking is conducted by party activists, the activists will instruct the voter as to how to mark the ballot for their particular party. As far as I can see there is nothing illegal about this. Insofar as the CPP may be effectively using this training more than other parties, it is not something for other parties to complain about but to copy.

Regarding the possible misuse of marked mock ballots, in all previous national elections in which party activists have conducted practice ballot marking, there have never been any significant reports from observers of those marked mock ballots being used for nefarious purposes in the real election. The mock ballots almost always distort or blur the parties other than that of the activists conducting the training, and otherwise do not appear to be authentic ballots. Further, ballot box stuffing and other fraudulent practices in which some might imagine the mock ballots being used has never played a significant (if any) role in Cambodian elections.

It was also mentioned in the Daily story that some people have complained that they feel intimated by activists/government officials asking them to mark practice ballots. If it is government officials acting under color of authority, then as mentioned above, voters are entitled to feel intimidated and should file a complaint. If, on the other hand, it is merely party activists, people should simply say ‘no’ if they do not want to participate. To suggest that Cambodian voters, after 20 years of elections, are incapable of refusing to participate in partisan activities is to take a demeaning paternal attitude regarding the capability of Cambodian adults. At some point, people must be expected to stand up for themselves.

One example of how mismarked ballots can impact the election results can be found in 2003 National Assembly election in Prey Veng province. Due to the large number of parties participating in the 2003 elections, a butterfly-style ballot was employed on which two columns of parties and tick boxes appeared side by side. The mismarking of these ballots by a significant percentage of voters seems to have earned SRP an extra seat at the expense of the CPP.

The Rice Party, an obscure party that did not even campaign in Prey Veng, received an inordinately large number of votes, most likely due to the butterfly design of the ballot placing the Rice Party tick box immediately to the left of the CPP logo, apparently leading some inexperienced voters to tick the wrong box. Like other minor parties in its league, the Rice Party probably should have received less than 2000 votes, but instead got 24,891 votes, an astounding 5% of the total vote in Prey Veng. FUNCINPEC was similarly affected, with the minor party opposite FUNCINPEC on the ballot also receiving an inordinate number of votes. Also, many of the spoiled ballots had a tick for both the Rice Party and the CPP. In all likelihood almost all of the votes for the Rice Party were intended for the CPP. The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) was unaffected by similar mismarking because, just by chance of ballot design for Prey Veng province, it appeared alone with no other party next to it. This loss of votes for the CPP to the Rice Party has had a direct effect on the seat allocation. The final seat allocation was CPP (6), FUNCINPEC (3), SRP (2). But if the CPP had received only 15,000 of the Rice Party’s votes (a conservative estimate) the seat allocation would be CPP (7), FUNCINPEC (3), SRP (1). The mistaken votes for the Rice Party denied the CPP a seat and gave it to the SRP. After the election CPP party officials told me that in the future they would conduct more rigorous ballot marking practice to make sure that there would be no similar reoccurrence.


  1. This year the CPP seem to be using extraordinary and draconian methods to fix this election – far more than usual – despite having completely marginalised the opposition and controlling most aspects of public life. Furthermore it’s quite possible that if they didn’t use such underhand tactics and fought the election like a normal democracy they would win anyway. So why act the way they do? An avenue few (if any) have discussed is superstition. When the year ends in a three the CPP runs into problems. In 2003 the CPP didn’t get enough votes to be declared the winner, which led to Cambodia not having a government for over a year while the result was sorted out, and in 1993, the CPP lost to FUNCINPEC but refused to concede power, which led to joint rule and eventually the 1997 coop.

  2. Yes, their tactics have certainly been more heavy-handed than the last three elections. I'd characterize their behavior as paranoid. I have my doubts about it being rooted in superstition though. I would speculate that it has more to do with the feeling that their control of the media is slipping due to radically increased internet penetration, that they might be losing some of their traditional countryside support due to land issues and possibly that their own non-public polls show support slipping in their traditional base. There does seem to be something of a bored malaise amongst the electorate - a desire for change for the sake of change.

    As for the inability to form a government in 2003 (and 1998) it was not due to 'sorting out the results' but with the 2/3 National Assembly vote requirement to form a government. If the winning party received less than 2/3 of the seats as it did in 98 and 03, that requirement forced the need to negotiate with a losing party in order to create a coalition and get the necessary 2/3 vote. That 2/3 NA vote requirement was changed to 50%+1 in 2004, significantly reducing the likelihood for the need for such a coalition.

    As for the factional fighting of 97, the tensions generated by the joint government certainly was a (if not the) major contributing factor, but the concurrent dissolution of the Khmer Rouge and the power imbalance that that threatened also played a significant role.