This was the jubilant, simultaneous cry from dozens of activists in the data collection room as they put up their hands in celebration. The data analyst for the Civil Society Platform for the Observation of Elections in Côte d'Ivoire (POECI - Pronounced “Poh-eh-see”) had just told them that 100 percent of the 1,444 election observers had submitted reports – a total of 38,000 text messages. It was the end of the day on December 18, and millions of Ivoirians had just gone to the polls in the first legislative elections in decades in which any opposition parties participated.
POECI had worked tirelessly to recruit and train observers in 56 nearly simultaneous sessions in every region of the country and to ensure that men and women were represented equally in its observer group. In total, 47 percent of observers were women, an incredible accomplishment in a context where women are often relegated to the background.
Providing Credible Election Information
The celebratory “boom” marked the completion of POECI’s (and Côte d’Ivoire’s) second ever parallel vote tabulation (PVT). With USAID funding and assistance from NDI, POECI deployed observers to a statistical sample of polling stations to verify turnout figures and provide statistically valid data on the national voting process. The 100 percent response rate was critical to ensure that the group’s data analysis was based on accurate information and that POECI had full confidence in its findings.While it was unable to verify the results in each of the 255 races, as it had for the 2015 presidential election, POECI’s data confirmed the independent electoral commission’s (CEI) turnout figure of 34 percent. This was a significant accomplishment – some political parties had called for a boycott in the hopes that extremely low turnout figures would delegitimize the elections. Without POECI’s verification, claims of a much lower turnout would likely have been rampant, causing widespread doubts in the election results. The verification helped candidates and political party members accept the results and advise their supporters to remain peaceful.
POECI reported that the process of voting went smoothly as well – nearly all polling stations had the right supplies and staff and followed the correct procedures. They noted some scattered incidents, including intimidation or violence towards election officers, but no nationwide trends that would put in question the overall credibility of the elections.
Without POECI to report that the elections were free, fair, and credible, acceptance of the election process and results would have been at risk. Côte d’Ivoire has a recent history of post-election violence, with over 3,000 killed when the former president refused to concede defeat in 2010. Many Ivoirians and international analysts had predicted a more heated battle over the outcome of the legislative elections.
Verifying High Risk Races
The legislative elections are basically 255 small elections rolled into one day; to confirm the results for all of these polls with statistical accuracy, POECI would have needed to deploy to nearly all polling stations in the country. While it did not have the resources to do that, POECI sampled races for four legislative seats to provide accurate data on the results in constituencies that were expected to be more contentious than average: one each in the cities of Koumassi and Man, and two in Bongouanou. These “small-scale” PVTs contributed to the peacefulness and credibility of elections in those constituencies.
In Bongouanou, home to the leader of the main opposition party, one of the candidates vehemently opposed the idea that observers would be present in every polling station. The candidate claimed that the observation constituted harassment and lobbied fiercely, but unsuccessfully, to get the observers moved to another district. Observers there ultimately did not see any major problems.
Past elections in Koumassi, a suburb of Abidjan, had to be rerun multiple times because of significant irregularities, and a history of tensions and violence foreshadowed a repeat in these elections. POECI met with all of the commune’s candidates and political party leaders to explain its observation plans and reassure them that the poll would be transparent because of its observation. After POECI verified the CEI’s results for the Koumassi election, there was no violence and no contestation of results.
Ahead of the election in Man, in which elections had to be rerun because of irregularities in the previous legislative elections, observers reported that the population was extremely divided among several candidates, and the risk of violence was high. The presence of observers in every polling station reassured voters and helped maintain the peace.
Praise from Ivoirians
Historically, the political elite and the public alike have mistrusted civil society organizations in Côte d’Ivoire, as many groups have shown preferences for one political party or another. POECI has escaped this stigma; it is a coalition of 10 diverse civic groups that balance each other to present a neutral, nonpartisan front. Its reputation reinforced the credibility of its election findings, and its findings have further improved its reputation among Ivoirians across the country from all political leanings.
The leader of the main opposition party, Pascal Affi N’Guessan of the Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI), found POECI’s efforts critical in his district in Bongouanou, where POECI organized a small-scale PVT: “We are very pleased with the work done by POECI during the legislative elections. [Their] presence on the ground through PVT observers will certainly help maintain the peaceful environment that is currently prevailing in the pre-electoral period.”
Two days after the election, CEI Chairman Youssouf Bakayoko thanked POECI enthusiastically for its work. He praised the close collaboration between the CEI & POECI, pleased that the commission had trusted POECI to collect results and that POECI had waited to release them until after the CEI had made the official announcement.
Throughout the pre-election period and immediately after the elections the national media widely covered POECI’s statements. A deputy editor of Le Patriote newspaper was impressed with POECI’s rigorous methodology: “It’s only now that I understand – I thought that the PVT selected its polling stations from those with higher election stakes or more voters. I didn’t know that it was a purely statistical exercise that takes into account all voters, that all of them are represented in the sample. It’s really a scientific and careful work.”
POECI is looking forward to expanding its work to include not only observation of upcoming Senate and local government elections, but also new initiatives to put its nationwide network of volunteers to work between elections, especially through projects to promote government accountability.