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Afghanistan: Election Organizers Say Ink Problems Resolved

Richard Atwood of JEMB with ballot to be used in Zabul Province The October 2004 presidential election in Afghanistan was marred by controversy over the indelible ink meant to mark voters’ fingers and prevent them from voting more than once. In many cases, the ink was easily rubbed off -- leading some to question the integrity of the results. But the organizers of the 18 September parliamentary elections say they have resolved the problem. Extra security measures also have been put into place to prevent tampering with ballot boxes during the weeks after the vote when they will be transported to counting centers across the country.

Kabul, 15 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The organizers of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections vow there will not be a repeat of the ink scandal that upset so many Afghan voters during presidential elections last year.

Faruq Wardak, the chief of the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) secretariat during the presidential vote, was surrounded by a crowd of angry voters when he visited a polling station in eastern Kabul last year just two hours after the voting began.

Scores of voters held up their voter-registration cards with cancellation holes punched in them to show that they had voted. They also stuck out their thumbs and shouted that they had easily wiped away the ink meant to prevent double voting.

Wardak told RFE/RL later that day that the ink scandal was a lesson that would change the way the country’s parliamentary elections were run. “We are learning lessons. Some of the mistakes that we may make here will not be repeated in the parliamentary elections, which is going to be much more complicated,” he said.

One reason for the ink scandal is that polling-station staff had not been adequately trained about how to apply the indelible ink on voters' fingers.

But JEMB chief of operations Richard Atwood now says the ink problem has been resolved ahead of the parliamentary vote. “As during last year’s presidential election, we’re inking voters’ fingers to prevent them voting twice," he told RFE/RL. "And because of the focus on last year’s ink, we’ve put particular attention on the inking this year to ensure that there is no confusion in polling stations.”

Atwood said the UN and Afghan officials organizing the 18 September ballot are confident the measures they’ve put into place will allow voters to have faith in the election process and in the official results.

“We’re only using bottled ink rather than the pens that we used in some places last year. The ink itself has been tested extensively to ensure that it stains voters’ fingers properly. You can see on the bottle that there is a cartoon which explains exactly how the ink should be applied. Inside the bottle there is a sponge, which soaks up all the ink so that it is applied properly across the finger. And the voter’s finger will be stained even before they receive the ballot. So when a voter comes in, the first step is that the inker will wipe their finger with a tissue to remove any substance that may prevent the ink staining. The voter’s finger will then be dipped up to the knuckle in the ink and allowed to dry before the ballot is issued,” Atwood said.
“The ballot papers are tracked continually from the moment they arrive in the country down to provincial level and down to the polling stations." - JEMB's Atwood

When the ink is first applied, it appears purple. But within minutes, the stain turns black. Atwood said polling officials will encourage all voters to blow on their inked finger before they are given a ballot so that the ink dries more quickly.

“All 160,000 staff members -- all off our polling staff -- have been trained to apply ink exactly like this. And we hope that on election day all voters will have their fingers stained even before they receive a ballot,” Atwood said.

With Afghans voting for more than 5,800 different candidates in 69 separate parliamentary and provincial-council elections, there also are concerns about the complexity of the voting process. Some ballot papers are long. More than 400 candidates appear on the seven-page ballots to be used in Kabul Province.

Altogether, there are more than 40 million ballot papers. They include nearly 20 million ballots for the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), or lower chamber of parliament, another 20 million for provincial-council races to determine who helps appoint the upper chamber of parliament, and another million constituency ballots for members of nomadic Kuchi tribes.

The weight of all that paper to be transported to counting houses after the vote is about 1,142 tons.

Atwood said it has been an enormous task to train election workers for some 26,000 polling stations nationwide. “Before the voter receives a ballot, their voter-registration card is punched and we record the voter-registration-card number on the voter list to provide additional mechanisms to prevent double voting," he said. "After the close of polls, we will seal the ballot boxes with metal seals which are extremely resilient and certainly are not prone to breaking. Each seal has a unique serial number which can be recorded by observers and [candidate] agents in the polling station.”

It also is a challenge to ensure that ballot boxes are not tampered with while being transported from the polling stations to the counting houses. Nine helicopters are being used to carry ballots to and from remote areas. Some 1,200 deliveries are to be made by cargo trucks. Donkeys, camels, and horses also are being employed.

But Atwood said security measures are in place that will let election officials know if ballots have been tampered with. “The ballot papers are tracked continually from the moment they arrive in the country down to provincial level and down to the polling stations," he said. "So the JEMB knows which ballots have been issued to which polling station. Polling officials stamp the back of the ballot when they issue it to a voter. The ballots themselves have a number of security features -- watermark, micro-print, and a background pattern which prevent counterfeiting.”

Some 84,000 election observers have been accredited. They include international observers from both government and nongovernmental groups, independent Afghan monitors, and the agents employed by each candidate. They will be monitoring not only the voting process, but also the transport of ballot boxes from the polling stations to the counting centers -- and the process of actually counting the votes.

For more news and analysis on the Afghan parliamentary elections, see "Afghanistan Votes"