In the lead-up to the 2013 general elections, the National Election Committee’s voter list drew significant criticism. Audits carried out by the National Democratic Institute as well as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), found a significant number of names were missing or double registered.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party rejected the election results on the basis of these types of irregularities and decided to boycott the National Assembly.
Finally, in July of last year, as part of an agreement to end the boycott, the government agreed to reform the NEC and start a new list from scratch.
The new bipartisan NEC has its work cut out – to produce a fraud-averse list of some 11 million registered voters in advance of the 2017 commune elections and the 2018 national election, using a biometric (based on physical characteristics) system for the first time.
In theory, the new computer registration process is simple, explained NEC spokesman Hang Puthea. Each eligible voter will present proper national identification (registered in the correct commune), have a photo taken and record a set of thumbprints.
This information will be digitised, and his or her name will appear in a database accessible to election officials in the capital. It should take less than five minutes.
If all goes according to plan, the computers will prevent double names or identification issues. And, election monitors hope, the potential for electoral fraud — along with accusations from either party — will be reduced.
“I think they’re going to reduce the conflict [in] election results,” said Koul Panha, the executive director of Comfrel, which has observed the pilot tests. “It will be secure.”
If successful, the digital system should also reduce voter disenfranchisement, both through a more accurate list and with a widened scope. When the registration period begins, it will be the first effort in Cambodia to register voters at polling stations at the individual village level, rather than at the commune, Panha said.
However, a pilot program, which ran in select areas around the Kingdom from November 1 to November 15, registered only 17,556 of the expected 32,528 names, according to Puthea.
Many of the issues were structural. Some towns didn’t have electricity, Puthea said, and generators would need to be purchased to run the computers. Slow internet sometimes bogged the registration process down.
Others were logistical. Some of the technicians were unable to properly record citizens’ thumbprints. And some people didn’t have national ID cards, especially the elderly, who were out of the workforce, Puthea added.
As of October, based on statistics presented by the General Department of Identification this week, some 6.4 million new generation ID cards have been issued since the program began in June 2012, meaning some 4.6 million cards still need to be issued.
In advance of actual registration, a team from the Ministry of Interior will be organised to increase ID card registration, Panha said.
This week, both Puthea and Panha seemed confident that the NEC could overcome the issues that emerged during the pilot program in time for the 2017 commune election.
The committee receives input from various stakeholders, political parties and agencies, as well as panels from the EU and Japan.
Japan has pledged $1 million for improvements to the computer system.
But ultimately, a large part of the success of the new voter registration system — and the resulting voter list — could depend on Cambodian citizens themselves.
Panha said that any issues with voter turnout could be resolved by upcoming information campaigns.
“I think people will come out this time,” Panha said. “With their picture on the voter list, they can guarantee their right to vote.”