Monday, July 5, 2010

Wonkery, continued

To recap: the Afghan election system is both simple and screwy, with straightforward rules that can produce counter-intuitive (and possibly counter-the-public-will) outcomes. At least it makes voting easy, right?

Well...first, imagine a ballot several pages long. At least in Kabul (664 candidates) or Nangarhar (160 candidates), and probably also Kandahar (50 candidates), the list simply doesn't fit on a single page. Thankfully, the ballot order lottery takes place when the final candidate list is released, months before the election. Ballot order numbers appear on most campaign posters to simplify the process of finding the right name on election day.

(A ballot for last year's provincial council race in Kabul - courtesy of Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Next, imagine you have to find your candidate without being able to read. The most recent estimate in the CIA World Factbook gives Afghanistan a 28.1% literacy rate. As a result, the ballot paper includes not only a candidate's name but also a photograph and a small symbol, which also appears on campaign posters and other materials as a way of branding the candidate with the image.

For fairness's sake, the symbols are all provided by the Independent Election Commission and are distributed in a lottery system akin to the one that determines ballot order. They are relatively ordinary objects - apples, airplanes, butterflies and books all appear. It's an ingenious system for managing candidate identification in the face of high illiteracy, all in all.

vote for this lovely young woman - look for the desk

The symbols do have their flaws, though. The most obvious is that there aren't enough distinct objects, so a candidate symbolized by one cherry is running against a candidate symbolized by two cherries, and possibly another with three. This muddles their clarity somewhat and provides another necessary element for voters to remember (unless the candidate photographs then help make the final distinction).

What's more, candidates are assigned new symbols at each election. If you ran for a parliamentary seat as an ear of corn and lost, this time you might be running as a bicycle. Incumbents, too, have to re-brand themselves with the symbol of the cycle, which might be hard enough given the completely apolitical nature of most of these images, but which takes on new challenges when the symbol I use today belonged to a very different candidate in, say, last year's district council race. Because these images serve to identify candidates among an electorate who can't read, it's almost like running under a different name each elections, at least in some parts of the country.

this guy must be worth a vote - he's got three laptops!

Alrighty, if you've borne with me thus far, you've got a pretty good idea of the electoral mechanics in place. I'll try and move into political intrigue and current events as campaign season heats up. There have been some episodes of violence surrounding rallies already, and there's something of a legal debate underway as to whether or not it was correct to remove 32 candidates from the voter rolls after the final list was published or not (okay, so that story will also involve more electoral management office introductions). Anyway, for now I'm off to finish up work and head to a wedding, so my next post will almost assuredly be more colorful.


Gordon said...

Paper idea: independent of candidate identity, do some symbols perform better than others? Is it better to be a sleek laptop than two smelly fish?

Gordon said...

(Incidentally, are the identifying symbols something original to Afghanistan, or have they been used in other polities?)

kep said...

I have no idea if a study on candidate symbols has been done, and I'm really not sure how one would set up a reliable trial (a presidential election where each candidate has a different symbol in each province? sounds like a disaster to run...)

As for ID symbols, they're not unique, though candidate photos are a popular alternative. See for discussion among elections experts on their use, for example.

Gordon said...

Well, if different candidates in different localities had the same symbols, which it sounds like they do, then you would have all the data you need to look at the effects of the symbols by themselves...

Anonymous said...

I love your blog! Thanks for all the stories and photos about your discoveries and adventures.