At the Mihal Grameno school on the outskirts of Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina, three signs greeted voters as they cast their ballots in parliamentary elections this weekend: No guns; No smoking, and; Report election fraud via text message.
“One of the reasons I voted today,” smiled Vjosa Misini of Fushë Kosovë while exiting the school, “was that I had more confidence in the integrity of the election because of Vote & Watch.” Ms. Misini was referring to the platform launched by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (KFOS) which empowered the entire Kosovar citizenry to be watchdogs over their own electoral process. And active watchdogs they were.
Despite low overall turnout, citizens submitted close to 16,000 text messages to Vote & Watch on Election Day. For those who had stood witness to some of Kosovo’s previous elections, the fact that the vast majority of those messages came back positive was cause for relief.
Indeed, when Kosovo last held parliamentary elections in 2010 large-scale tampering with ballot boxes was documented. The US ambassador at the time characterized the experience as an exercise in industrious vote stealing. The population was left embittered, spurring KFOS to establish Vote & Watch to try and deter bad behavior going forward, document fraud should it occur, instill a heightened sense of democratic ownership among the populace, and collect data to feed into long-overdue electoral reforms.
To transform Vote & Watch from an idea into an operational system KFOS reached out to the corporate sector for assistance. Telecom, media, broadcasting, PR, and advertising companies all chipped in—underscoring how for them democratic stability was good for business. This year’s national elections were particularly important. It was the first time that all citizens—minority Serbs included—were expected to participate in significant numbers. A landmark political agreement between Kosovo and Serbia in 2013 made this possible, and a transparent and uncontested outcome would reinforce both the principles of that agreement as well as stability across the Balkan region.
A small election monitoring team from the EU was joined by cadre of domestic election monitors to travel to the different polling stations. Our thinking, however, was why rely solely on hundreds of official observers to monitor thousands of polling stations when we could arm the entire citizenry—those with the most at stake in the outcome—with the tools to monitor the integrity of their own elections. Logic dictates that when millions of watchful eyes are empowered to report fraud, the propensity to commit fraud should decrease.
It is not possible to draw conclusive causality links between Vote & Watch and the fact that this weekend’s voting saw no repeat of the fraud and controversy surrounding the 2010 democratic contest. The campaign’s main purpose was to act as a deterrent to prevent fraud, which—despite some isolated incidents—seems to have been largely achieved. The fact that citizens disbursed nearly 16,000 text reports, even in the absence of large-scale problems (86% reported everything was ok), suggests that civic activism and ownership over the electoral process was heightened. As for feeding into the forthcoming debate on electoral reform, which is sorely overdue, KFOS is deploying a team of experts to review the data collected from citizens and advocate for appropriate solutions.
Politically, very little changed on Election Day. The governing party edged out its main rival and everything looks set to return to the status quo ante. But process-wise everything changed.
Emerging from the Dardania school in central Prishtina shortly before polls closed, Anita Gora summarized the campaign well: “I want my children to grow up in a country with honest elections,” she said. “Vote & Watch makes that more likely.” KFOS hopes it can make it more likely that Ms. Gora’s children will get that chance.