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Balloting changes threaten secrecy

Balloting changes threaten secrecy

A NEW regulation from the National Election Committee (NEC) appears to water down

a compromise intended to protect voters from intimidation and give them greater anonymity,

critics say.

The regulation allows votes to be counted at the 'sub-commune' level - in groups

as small as three villages - instead of the five to seven villages that make up the

average-sized commune.

Last month, a compromise that changed the vote count from the village-level to the

communes helped end an opposition boycott of the National Assembly.

A commune-level ballot count was seen as a way to ensure the winner of the polls

didn't know which villages voted predominantly for the loser.

But NEC regulation 7.9.2 on ballot counting states: "The ballots of at least

three polling stations shall be mixed together in a large waterproof bag."

Critics worry that "at least three polling stations" will likely be interpreted

as "only three".

"To go from the commune count to a sort of inter-village commune level seems

to be an unwelcome move," said one Western diplomat.

NEC deputy chairman Kassie Neou denied that the regulation amounts to a change in

policy and said that votes will not be widely counted on a sub-commune level.

"If the commune has three or four polling stations, that is how it will be counted.

If it has 19, that is how it will be counted. We don't specify five or seven [villages]

per count. There has been no change. All the commune votes will be mixed and counted

together for maximum security."

An electoral aide, however, left little doubt that votes would be counted in clusters

of three villages, asserting that constraints imposed by election equipment effectively

mean three villages is all that can be counted at one time.

"We don't want to lose a ballot. The containers we have to hold the ballot boxes

- they are big blue bags - can only hold three boxes," he said.

One critic called it "ridiculous" to risk increased voter intimidation

because of the size of ballot receptacles. "They can get bigger containers,"

he said.

One vote counting change Kassie Neou did acknowledge was that the NEC has decided

votes will be held overnight and counted the next morning.

"People work all day, it is a big day. They transport documents to the commune.

That is already 15 hours of work," he explained.

He said post-vote ballot security will be guaranteed by poll staff and national observers.

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