Building the Observer Volunteer Network
Quick counts cannot happen without well-organized and trained volunteer networks. Most of the hundreds or thousands of people that form these networks live and work outside the capital city and are not readily visible to the organization’s leadership, international donors and the press. Their often heroic efforts go virtually unnoticed. A case in point:
Rhina Medal, 56, is a volunteer quick count observer in Diriamba, Nicaragua. At a training program sponsored by Ethics and Transparency, she was assigned the most remote polling station in her municipality. Her friends tried to convince her to take a different assignment. She refused, and, on election day, she rode two hours on a bus, one hour in a pickup truck and two hours up a mountain on horseback to the polling station. On election night, despite the fact that the counting process was not completed until 2:00 am, she rode on horseback down the hill and took the pickup truck to the nearest phone to make her report. When asked why she insisted on taking this most difficult assignment, she simply said, “for love of country.”
Effective volunteer networks tap the energy of citizens like Rhina Medal. This chapter describes how to design quick count forms and training materials, build a national network and train and support volunteers. The information is designed to help groups trying to recruit and train large numbers of observers in a fixed and relatively short timeframe.
Chapter Two described a volunteer coordination team. Within that team, the volunteer coordinator is responsible for recruiting and maintaining communications with the volunteer network, and for taking the lead on designing observer forms. The lead trainer designs and oversees a national volunteer training program. The lead trainer, in collaboration with other staff, creates observer forms and instructional manuals, and then designs and oversees a national volunteer training program. The logistics specialist supports the coordinator and the trainer.
Leaders can facilitate the work of the volunteer coordination team in three ways. First, they should provide sufficient resources. This piece of the budget should be carefully designed to allow maximum flexibility and mobility for coordinators and trainers. Moreover, it should be possible for coordinators and trainers to start their work at least six months before the election. Second, they should strive to draw the random sample of polling stations early. If the sample can be drawn before recruiting and training begins in earnest, the team can target efforts to recruit observers in the precise locations needed.1 Third, recruiters should try to establish an observer network that reflects society. To accomplish this, they should emphasize gender balance and seek representation from a variety of ethnic, linguistic, religious, age and other groups. This taps large numbers of people, facilitates national coverage and helps to establish widespread credibility for the quick count. Moreover, polling stations or voting lines in some countries are segregated by gender, which requires at least 50 percent women observers.
If the statistical sample of polling stations for use in the quick count cannot be drawn early, the statistician should provide an estimate of the number of volunteers needed in each local area so that recruiting and training can proceed. It is best to overestimate the numbers needed. In most countries, volunteers who, in the end, are not needed for the quick count observe in non-sample polling stations and report findings for analysis beyond quick count findings.
It is critical to design clear, concise observer forms and training materials. The accuracy of the quick count directly depends on the quality of the materials developed to train volunteers and collect data. These materials ensure uniformity in training and the reliability of information collected.
It is important for the volunteer coordination team to focus on materials design as early as possible, certainly as soon as the law (or regulations) governing the voting and counting processes are available. The most important pieces of materials that the team will create are observer forms and manuals.
1. Observer Forms—Most groups develop separate forms for quick count observers and volunteers stationed at non-quick count polling stations. Quick count observers usually report information via telephone; volunteers at other sites use a separate relay system.
2. The Observer Manual—This manual contains relevant information on the election process and explains, step-by-step, the job of an election observer. (As noted below, manuals for training trainers, regional coordinators and other groups are also needed.)
The volunteer coordinator usually designs the forms. It is crucial that she or he does this in close collaboration with the trainer, the executive director, someone from the technical team that focuses on data analysis and one or more specialists in electoral law. The process begins with a vision of election day, an analysis of problems that historically have occurred and a list of issues that are of most concern to candidates and other key groups. This list is narrowed down to crucial issues to create forms that capture data about key questions concerning the quality of the process but that are not cumbersome. Questions are formulated to reflect the real order of events, and to contain the wording and terminology contained in election law and used by electoral authorities.2 Observer answers to the questions reveal both the strengths and/or irregularities that may occur in election-day processes.
One form is designed to collect information on the opening of polling stations and initiation of voting procedures. A second form is designed to collect general information on voting and counting procedures. The second form also records the results of the count. In many countries a third, and perhaps longer, form is developed for non-quick count observers. Data from this form is compiled and analyzed for inclusion in detailed post-election reports. The more detailed reports can be crucial if electoral controversies develop.
The volunteer coordination team must ask the executive director and the board of directors to review these forms thoroughly; these actors must understand exactly what information they will receive on election day. In some countries, organization leaders have not paid attention to the observer forms until just prior to, or on, election day, only to discover that a question they think is crucial has not been asked. At such a late date, it is impossible to gather systematic information on the crucial issue. In these cases, leaders typically end up calling local committee members for their impressions and putting together less powerful and less credible anecdotal information. Insufficient attention and inadequate planning have significant costs that could usually have been avoided.
The forms must also be field tested with local volunteers. Field testing the forms is often viewed as a luxury and skipped due to time considerations, but it is critical to ensure that volunteers understand the questions as designed. Moreover, coordinators and other local volunteers often possess a wealth of experience inside polling stations. In addition to having voted, it is common for many to have served as polling station officials; they can provide valuable input about the wording of questions contained on forms.
The observer manual is a condensed version of all the information volunteers receive during their training program. The volunteer takes the manual home and is encouraged to review the information before election day. A pocketsized version of the manual can be produced to allow observers to carry it on election day for easy reference.
A well-designed manual is an important asset; it assures that consistent instructions and messages are being delivered at all levels, in all geographical areas. This is particularly important when organizations use a cascade training approach—headquarters staff train regional leaders; regional leaders train municipal leaders, and municipal leaders train quick count observers. The observer manual promotes consistency when time constraints may prevent national leaders from supervising all training programs.
Contents of a typical observer manual include:
- a description of the organization—including mission, goals and contact information;
- a brief explanation of quick counts;
- excerpts of relevant election law;
- a reiteration of the observer code of conduct—including emphasis on impartiality and accuracy in reporting findings;
- step-by-step instructions on the election-day duties of an observer;
- things to remember/bring on election day; and
- telephone numbers and other contact information in case problems develop during the observation.
The volunteer coordinator and trainer should also develop special manuals for groups of volunteers other than quick count observers. These special manuals are usually created for:
- trainers (assuming the lead trainer will form a team that can cover the country)
- regional and municipal coordinators;
- telephone operators/data processors in the central data collection center;
- telephone operators inside a network of private homes or offices in the capital city;
- bikers, motorcyclists or drivers responsible for collecting forms from the network of private homes or offices in the capital city; and
- telephone operators in regional offices.
Like the observer manual, these manuals describe the organization, define quick counts, review relevant election law and reiterate a code of conduct. They also include step-by-step descriptions of each group’s duties. Any manuals designed to train trainers also should include information on teaching tools such as using experiential learning techniques, as well as using flipcharts, visual aids, videos, etc. It is best to keep these training devices simple. It is often inappropriate, if not impossible, to use technological innovation such as a PowerPoint presentation in the rural areas of many countries.
Recruiting is usually best divided into three major phases. First, committees are formed outside the capital city to better manage the massive amount of work entailed in building a volunteer network. Second, local volunteers are recruited to be quick count observers and to fill a variety of support roles required prior to and on election day. Third, the volunteer coordination team identifies groups of volunteers to support the national office during the runup to elections and to fill key jobs on election day.
Regional and Municipal Committees
The most efficient way to recruit thousands of volunteers in a short period of time is to delegate much of the work to regional and/or municipal committees. Therefore, the first phase of a national volunteer coordinator’s work is to travel around the country to organize these committees.3
The number and location of committees depends on the size, geographical characteristics and administrative/political divisions of each country. National organizers must create an effective multi-level organization to ensure that no one is overburdened by work. However, too many layers in the organization complicates communications and makes it difficult to ensure consistency and quality in volunteer training. The most common model is to have no more than two layers of committees outside the national office, one in the largest administrative division such as the province, department, state or region. The second one is either at the municipal or electoral district level.4
Each committee typically consists of a coordinator, a trainer and a logistics specialist at minimum. These roles usually mirror the internal organization of the national office, and consequently each member can communicate with a national counterpart. Regional coordinators build a relationship with the national volunteer coordinator, regional trainers consult with the head national trainer, and so on. That said, the size, composition and division of responsibilities within regions and municipalities should also be responsive to the geographical and political peculiarities of the area being covered.
National staff periodically bring regional leaders together in a central location. Regional leaders benefit from training as a group in three ways. First, they develop an organizational identity important to their motivation. Second, the national staff is assured that all instructions and messages are uniformly delivered across the country. Third, regional and national leaders learn from an open discussion of concerns and joint exploration of solutions to problems.
The bulk of volunteers are recruited at the most local level to cover polling stations in their neighborhoods.5 This way, many individuals at recruiting meetings know each other and can weed out individuals with clearly partisan reputations. In order to get people to attend initial meetings, local recruiters use three basic techniques:
(a) affiliating with existing networks (e.g. religious laity groups, human rights networks, women’s networks and student networks);
(b)establishing contacts with highly regarded institutions such as universities, communication media, teacher unions, labor unions, agricultural groups; and
(c) requesting endorsements from highly respected citizens, who help in the recruitment effort.
Once a person decides to volunteer, she or he becomes a natural recruiter of family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Approached in this way, the network often grows rapidly.
National and regional leaders should attend as many of these meetings as possible; special guests can increase turnout, and leaders can use the opportunity to check on the progress of local recruiters and on the quality of volunteers being brought into the organization.
National leaders must guide local recruiters regarding the number of volunteers they need to recruit. The sample size will be the driving factor determining local target numbers. However, some groups that have an objective to involve as many people as possible in the electoral process may mount an open-ended recruiting campaign and plan to involve new volunteers in other projects. Time and financial constraints, of course, may limit the possibility of an entirely open-ended campaign.
Volunteers needed at the municipal levels include:
- observers to be inside polling stations (often in two-person teams to ensure accountability, share work and reduce potential intimidation);
- runners to collect forms and report information if observers are not permitted to leave and re-enter polling stations;
- office support staff;
- substitutes for observers who are fatigued, sick or absent;
- mobile observers to check outside polling stations and in the surrounding areas for vote-buying, intimidation, blocking entrance or movement of prospective voters, etc., to add to the qualitative analysis of the process;
- observers to cover and report on activities in regional and municipal election offices; and
- telephone operators, as necessary.
Volunteers for Central Operations
Once recruiting for quick count observers is well underway, the volunteer coordinator turns to centrally-based operations. National staff, such as the executive director, logistics specialists, trainers, media specialist and the accountant can all benefit from volunteer support. Demand for support in national headquarters increases as elections near. Potential jobs for volunteers include:
- welcoming visitors and answering telephones;
- assembling packets of materials going out to the field;
- assembling and distributing press packets;
- assisting the accountant with record-keeping; and
- providing back-up for busy drivers.
Perhaps the most important and time-consuming work is identifying people to fill various roles in the data collection process.6 For recruiting purposes, the primary roles to be filled around election day include:
- answering telephones and processing reports in the central data collection center;
- staffing a backup network of data collection centers in the capital city;7 and
- collecting forms from the backup data collection centers in the capital city, usually on motorcycles or in cars.
This work is done in coordination with the technical team. The number of people needed depends on the type of system designed, the quantity of data collected and the speed with which the data are to be processed. In general, the more sophisticated the system, the larger the number of volunteers needed to staff election-day operations.
Convincing and Screening Recruits
Recruiters at national and local levels must address a wide variety of audiences in their efforts to locate motivated volunteers. Regardless of whether the audience comprises civic or religious leaders, professional organizations, social clubs or combinations of these and members of the general public, recruiters should master a short, meaningful and substantive presentation. The presentation should include:
- a succinct message about why this effort is important to the country at this time;
- an overview of the group’s election-related activities (if applicable);
- why the group is undertaking a quick count;
- an explanation of the importance of competence and independence in quick count operations;
- a brief plan;
- who is needed for what duties; and
- an enthusiastic invitation to join.
The recruiting message and broader presentation points should be disseminated through the media as much as possible. This will raise awareness of the project, and project recognition is helpful to national, regional and local recruiters. It also will help enhance the group’s credibility with the election commission, the public, political players and other key audiences.
At each recruiting event, leaders provide a more detailed explanation of what a quick count is and why it is important given the national political context. They explain the overall timeline for organizing in preparation for elections. Finally, they review specific requirements for the jobs that need to be filled. Possible requirements and desirable traits include:
- credibility as an impartial agent and commitment to political neutrality throughout the process;
- ability to donate time;
- skills such as reading, writing, driving and using equipment such as telephones, faxes, computers;
- physical requirements such as good vision and hearing, the ability to walk long distances or stand on their feet all day; and
- expertise (for special projects) in areas such as the law, journalism, computer programming, database management, teaching and accounting.
Even at this early stage, it is a good idea to present a code of conduct that describes the rights and responsibilities governing observers. The code of conduct is based on the organization’s mission and goals, requirements contained in national electoral law and regulations, and international standards.8
At the end of each recruiting meeting, leaders extend an invitation to interested participants to fill out an application to join the organization. The application contains essential biographical and contact information, to be included in a central database. A pledge of impartiality should accompany the application. In the pledge, volunteers agree to the terms set forth in the code of conduct, attest to not being an activist or candidate for any political party and promise to refrain from participating in partisan activities through the election. It is advisable to maintain the pledge forms in a secure place to be able to demonstrate that all observers made the pledge, should questions be raised about any of them. Many recruiters end the meeting with a group reading and signing of the pledge.9
Volunteer training is generally delivered in three phases, reflecting the recruiting priorities described above. First, regional and municipal committee members are trained. Second, workshops are held for the actual observers, those who will work inside polling stations and phone in reports. Closer to the election, trainers work with computer specialists to train all of those who will work on data collection.
Training Regional and Municipal Committees
The first quick count training programs delivered are for regional committees. The design of these programs is complex because committee members are expected to do a wide variety of jobs, ranging from recruiting and training volunteers to forging good relations with local election officials. Some national trainers elect to gather committee members once for several days, while others offer a series of workshops to cover everything. Topics include:
- what a quick count is;
- why a quick count is important;
- how a quick count is implemented;
- electoral law and regulation, particularly sections directly pertaining to the voting and counting processes, and rights and responsibilities of election observers;
- the duties of regional committees;
- the duties of municipal committees;
- the duties of a quick count observers;
- how to set up regional and municipal offices;
- a timeline of activities up to the elections; and
- how the national office will support regional leaders (e.g., whether there will be financial remuneration or compensation for expenses).
Once regional leaders are trained, they are asked to establish and train municipal committees within their areas. The agenda is very similar to the one described above. Whenever possible, representatives from headquarters should assist regional leaders as they train municipal leaders.
Training Local Volunteers
Once all regional and municipal committees are trained, the organization focuses on volunteers who will be inside polling stations on election day. Time and resources are the principal factors that dictate the strategy used to reach thousands of people quickly. There are three basic options:
- A pyramid, or cascade, system—lead trainer(s) prepare regional leaders to train municipal leaders who, in turn, train quick count observers. This approach is quick, decentralized and economical.
- Mobile teams—teams are formed and prepared at the central level, individual teams divide and cover sections of the country until training has taken place everywhere. This system may better preserve uniformity and quality. It is also economical but requires more time.
- National training day—enough trainers are prepared and deployed to cover the entire country in one day. For example, a team is sent to train observers in each electoral constituency. This method is fast, and serves as a high-profile national event. However, it requires intensive preparation.
Most organizations implement some combination of the above options. Whatever the techniques employed, the priority must be placed on uniformity. In general, decentralization should be kept to a minimum in quick counts, because it is vital to minimize mistakes in content and unevenness in quality. Good quality forms and training manuals promote consistency, but it is still a good idea to have a delegate from headquarters present at as many training programs as possible.
Some organizations preparing for quick counts establish parallel training operations for large urban areas, such as capital cities. It is important to ensure that adequate staff time and resources are dedicated to these cities, since they will contain a high concentration of polling stations and, therefore, sample points. In Nicaragua in 2001, for example, roughly one-third of the sample points were located in the capital city of Managua. The civic group Ethics and Transparency assigned a full-time paid coordinator to recruit and train Managua observers, and the result was nearly 100 percent election day coverage.
Training Volunteers for Central Operations
The volunteer coordination team must also train volunteers to help in the national office. All headquarters volunteers, whether assisting the executive director, trainers, logistics officers, information specialists or accountants, should also be trained and accredited as observers. This provides them with an intimate understanding of the work being conducted and the responsibilities of those they are assisting. It also prepares them to substitute for observers in the capital city, if needed.
Three specialized groups of volunteers are responsible for data collection and should receive separate training. As described above, they:
- answer telephones and process reports in the central data collection center;
- answer telephones and process reports in backup data collection centers; and
- use motorcycles or cars to collect forms from the network of private homes or offices in the capital city.
The volunteer coordination team must work closely with the technical team on these training programs; they should be co-designed and delivered by the head trainer and the computer specialist. These jobs require mutual knowledge of the volunteer network and the data collection and analysis system.
A thorough discussion of adult education methodology is beyond the scope of this handbook and likely unnecessary, because groups should have at least one seasoned trainer on staff. The head trainer should have significant experience designing materials and training programs for adults, and particular expertise working with volunteers. Nonetheless, quick counts are unique projects that call for special training methods. They are time and politically sensitive. Trainers must both motivate volunteers and teach them to do specific jobs. Described below are a few techniques and activities that have proven effective:
- Start with the big picture: Inspire volunteers by explaining why a quick count is considered crucial given the actual political context. Then go into the organization’s overall plan. Educate participants on relevant pieces of the electoral process, and end with training on specific jobs.
- Provide the historical and political context: Explain the history of quick counts and how they have been used successfully in the region and around the world. It is useful to involve international guests at training sessions, such as advisors or donors, or prominent local figures who have been involved in quick counts in other countries. This is particularly helpful when training national staff and regional committee leaders.
- Convey the reason behind the plan: While detailing the organization’s plans, explain why certain decisions were made. For example, observers are often asked to make the same report in three different phone calls. Trainers should explain that, in Paraguay and Peru, the electricity was shut off in the central data collection center on election day and, thus, the calls to backup telephones in private homes were essential. Volunteers are more likely to complete tasks if they understand their importance.
- Refer to the manuals: Well-designed manuals systematize training programs. Be sure all instructions and messages are uniform to avoid confusion about roles or jobs. Encourage volunteers to study them outside the training program.
- Use experiential techniques: Since many quick count observers will only have one formal training session, set up training to take them through the experience of observing. Have volunteers simulate the voting and counting process. Use role plays or dramas to illustrate problems that may occur. Perhaps most importantly, use debates, friendly quizzes or game show formats to test whether participants have really learned their jobs well.10, 11
- Always save time for small planning sessions: Dedicate time for trainers to meet one-on-one with committees or individual participants to set up realistic work plans and to resolve issues particular to a local area. Use sessions to take care of important details, such as how to reach a remote polling station or to resolve sensitive issues such as finances.
- Talk about quick count “politics”: Quick count sponsors and organizers often face opposition from political parties and/or electoral authorities. Participants should be told that this is normal and to be expected. They should be encouraged to discuss their concerns and brainstorm responses should accusations be leveled at the group in public or in the press. Remember to teach and reinforce the organization’s message on these points, so that the local response is consistent with the national message.
- Include a discussion on security measures: Depending on whether there is a history of violence and the likelihood elections will be hotly contested, security could become important. The sample is kept secret, and observers often do not know which polling station they will cover until very close to the election. Observers may be assigned codes for identifying themselves when reporting. In some cases where safety is a concern, local committees have had to send observers in expanded teams and provide vehicles. This kind of issue should also be addressed during the planning meeting suggested above.
Many groups publicize training activities to demonstrate to electoral authorities, political parties and the public that they are well organized and growing. Well-designed training programs highlight a group’s commitment to professionalism, fairness and independence. In addition, disseminating training materials and observer checklists bolsters the deterrent function of a quick count.
Motivating volunteers is a frequently glossed-over but fundamental part of the volunteer coordination team’s job. Showing appreciation for volunteers’ dedication is not just the right thing to do, it is essential to the success of the effort. Many are entrusted with crucial information and asked to fill indispensable roles. Those who are dissatisfied are less likely to do a thorough job.
An effective recruiting message motivates volunteers from the start. In fact, experience across the world demonstrates that, once volunteers understand how a quick count works and why it is important, they express appreciation at being given an opportunity to do something concrete to promote or strengthen democracy in their countries. Their enthusiasm as they read and sign impartiality pledges is palpable, and their motivation is inspiring.
During the run-up to elections, the volunteer coordination team should continuously assess volunteer satisfaction, particularly in the busy regional and municipal committees. The national coordinator should periodically contact them, either by visiting or making phone calls. Any problems or misunderstandings should be addressed and resolved before they become larger obstacles to the quick count’s success. A side-benefit to these conversations is realized when regional and municipal coordinators provide volunteers with substantive information on pre-election activities or the political environment.
A successful volunteer coordination team will identify, recruit, train and deploy hundreds or thousands of volunteers. The logistics required to support and supply this cadre with needed materials and resources are considerable and daunting. Unfortunately, the costs and time needed to complete these tasks are often underestimated. It is not unusual for quick count sponsors to be forced to scale back their estimates (and their sample sizes) when the enormity and complexity of these tasks become apparent.
The work of a logistics officer is generally divided into two areas: 1) making travel arrangements for staff and volunteers; and 2) procuring and distributing materials and supplies. During the recruiting and training phases of the quick count project, there is a great deal of work to be done arranging travel for staff, including transportation, meals and lodging. As the election draws near, however, the logistics officer can be overwhelmed with the task of supplying the network with its various material needs, including:
- basic office supplies and equipment;
- training materials;
- money or reimbursement to cover national, regional and local organizing and training costs;
- election day per diem;
- election day forms, checklists;
- communications equipment such as telephones, radios, facsimiles; and
- data processing equipment such as computers and printers.
While the volunteer coordinator will often be the primary contact person for regional and local leaders and volunteers, she or he must count on the logistics officer to take care of local and logistical support.
In order to function well, the logistics officer has to coordinate her or his activities with the other members of the staff, such as the executive director, volunteer coordinator and accountant, to build systems and put in place policies for delivering and receiving materials. A few recommendations for the logistics officer are listed below.
- Seek advice from the network; understand that each region will have unique logistical quirks. Request information on best methods for distributing information or materials. Keep this information in a database.
- Have back-up systems for every region. Know about ground transportation if flights are cancelled. Know where a radio communications network exists in the event that telephone lines are down.
- Pick a primitive over a modern method. As a rule, basic systems pose less risk of breakdown. Plan to use the most basic transportation and communications systems possible and move to more sophisticated systems only when the basic systems are too slow.
- Time the process. Perhaps most importantly, estimate when the “last message” can be sent to reach the entire volunteer network. If this process takes five days, there is little point in worrying about a change in instructions three days before the election!
Dedicating Sufficient Time and Staff
Building and supporting a volunteer network is, by far, the most time consuming aspect of quick count preparations. It is important to stress that this work continues after election day. In many countries, the counting process continues for days, even weeks. Observers are often asked to investigate complaints or watch the resolution of challenges at local or regional election offices. Additionally, the national office should be prepared to receive calls from the field, as committee leaders and observers have questions and expect to be kept abreast of post-election developments. Finally, it takes a significant period of time to collect all forms. All of this should be considered and factored into planning for the post-election period.
1 See Chapter Five, Statistical Principles and Quick Counts, for more information on this process.
2 See Chapter Six, The Qualitative Component of the Quick Count, for a step-by-step guide to designing forms.
3 See Appendix 5 for a sample recruiting letter addressed to coordinators used by Civic Eye in Slovakia.
4 See Appendix 6 for a diagram of regional offices in Serbia.
5 This practice originally was instituted as a way of guaranteeing that observers would be able to vote. In many countries, citizens are assigned to vote in specific polling stations near their legal residence, and it is important to not disenfranchise observers.
6 See Chapter Seven, Collecting and Analyzing Quick Count Data, for more information.
7 See Chapter Seven, Collecting and Analyzing Quick Count Data, for a description of these backup data collection centers.
8 See Appendices 3 and 4 for more information on provisions that guarantee citizens the right to observe elections. See Appendices 3D-E for sample codes of conduct from Sierra Leone and Bangladesh.
9 See Appendices 7A-C for sample neutrality pledges from the Ukraine, Guyana and Kazakhstan.
10 See NDI’s Pocket Guide to Training, (1998); J. Pretty and I. Guijt, A Trainer’s Guide for Participatory Learning and Action, (1999) pp. 1- 12, 1999; J. Eitington, The Winning Trainer, (1996) pp. 174- 179, 1996.
11 See Appendix 8 for an example of an experiential training exercise developed for quick counts.