The chair of Georgia’s Central Election Commission, Tamar Zhvania, has decided not to give civil society organizations access to digitized precinct-level data on the country’s October-27 presidential Election Day, preferring only to release it officially as prescribed by Georgian law.
JumpStart Georgia, a registered Georgian non-governmental organization that works to improve the application of data to advocacy campaigns, had access to that same data during the 2012 parliamentary elections, and published it on the Election Data Portal, a website that allows anyone to explore, understand and use such election data. The site can show instantly a variety of indicators -- such as which precincts have more votes than actual ballots, and which precincts’ data does not pass specific logical checks. This enables the general public to see easily if the data for any given precinct is correct, or if anything strange is going on. [Editor’s note: JumpStart Georgia receives funding from the Open Society Georgia Foundation, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org is a separate entity within the Soros network].
The main reason underscoring the chairperson’s decision, as told to JumpStart Georgia on October 18, is that if mistakes are made while CEC representatives are entering data, the CEC does not want to be responsible if the erroneous data is then used in the public domain.
So, while the CEC will make aggregate district-level data available publicly on its website, it will not make its digitized precinct-level data public. If anyone wants that information, they will have to take each precinct protocol (there will be 3,741 protocols) and digitize it themselves. That is a pretty monumental task for most people and organizations.
While Zhvania’s fear may be understandable, the thing is, it is just that -- fear. Allowing civil society access to the precinct-level data on election-day represents an opportunity; it should not be something to fear.
Imagine an army of volunteers wanting to help you do your job, find any mistakes, and help you correct them before it is too late. That is just what JumpStart Georgia offers. And that, ultimately, is what civil-society participation in government activities and decisions is all about.
To be fair, the CEC encourages monitors at polling stations to bear witness and expose procedural and legal violations during the election and we applaud those efforts. Also to be fair, JumpStart Georgia discovered after the 2012 parliamentary elections that data from every overseas district (that is, for each of the 46 overseas polling stations) had been incorrectly entered into the CEC’s database. It was an error that CEC officials did not discover themselves.
Georgia is a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a voluntary partnership of now 60 countries that encourages governments to commit to taking concrete steps to becoming more open, transparent, and improving the participation of civil society in government activities.
Within that framework, Georgia ought to share its digitized precinct-level data as a move to allow civil society greater participation in the election process. Zhvania’s response to this, however, is that the CEC decision is not relevant to the OGP, and the OGP applies to other things, not these.
Zhvania should note that the OGP is what both civil society and its elected representatives want and need it to be. Elections and their results are too important to disallow civil society organizations to participate in every facet. Civil society is not a thing for you to fear, but an opportunity for increased public participation in government activities and the benefits that participation brings with it.
While JumpStart Georgia has found an alternative way to digitize the precinct data, and, thus, replicate the work the CEC is already doing, this should not be viewed as a solution.
On the one hand, we now have an independent mechanism to digitize precinct data that we can count on moving forward independently from the CEC. This a good thing, since apparently it is at the whim of the CEC if civil society will have access to its digitized precinct-level data on election-day.
On the other hand, we do not have the opportunity to see if what the CEC is entering is correct until the official data is released. At that point, though, the numbers would already be official, mistakes and all. Performing an independent audit while comparing it to the CEC’s data on election-day seems ideal, but for now, that reality remains elusive.
Eric Barrett is the executive director of JumpStart Georgia.