Voting monitors expressed concern Tuesday that October’s complex election registration process confused a significant portion of the electorate, which may be one reason why voter turnout at Sunday’s commune elections was unusually low.
The National Election Committee said that approximately 5 million voters cast ballots Sunday. This represents about 65 percent of the 7.8 million names registered on the voting list, a percentage significantly lower than any other poll since the Untac elections of 1993.
“2.5 million [registered voters] failed to vote,” Thun Saray, first representative of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections and president of local rights group Adhoc, told a Phnom Penh press conference.
Monitors from Comfrel, the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, and an observer from the People’s Forum on Cambodia in Japan, told the press conference that they were also concerned about problems with the voter list, which must be checked for errors ahead of the 2008 national elections.
Comfrel believes that the current voting list may be inflated by double registrations and ghost voters, another possible reason why the percentage of voters who cast ballots Sunday appears low.
There were also mistakes in personal information on the voter list that kept some people from voting, monitors said, but it is too early to conclude how many voters who wanted to vote were unable to do so, they added.
Comfrel commended the NEC for its efforts during the electoral process. But new elements in the registration and voting process—chiefly, the dissemination of voter information notices prior to the poll and requirement that voters have official photo identification, created confusion among voters and some local officials, monitors said.
“People misunderstood [and believed] that when they did not get information notices they could not go to vote,” Thun Saray said.
The NEC distributed notices to voters in August and again in February so that they could verify their information on the voter list from home. The NEC said in March that after the second distribution, 81 percent of registered voters had been reached.
Monitors said local officials and voters became confused by the notices, and believed that individuals would not be able to vote if they had not received them.
“We believe that many of the people who didn’t get voter information notices did not come to vote…but we are still investigating,” Thun Saray said.
Neang Savath, Comfrel’s coordinator in Kompong Cham province, said some voters showed up at the polls with information notices, but no identity documents, which they needed to vote.
When he asked them why they did not have identification, Neang Savath said voters told him they had been instructed by authorities to bring only their voter notices. The task of disseminating voter notices prior to the election was delegated to village chiefs.
Neang Savath said turnout was so low in Kompong Cham—an estimated 60 to 63 percent—that by 2 pm Sunday polling agents began allowing people to vote without identification documents, showing only their information notices.
“The voter information notice caused difficulties for voters,” said Kek Galabru, chair of the board of Nicfec and founder of local rights group Licadho.
In Koh Kong province, where Kek Galabru was observing the polls, turnout was only 50 to 53 percent, she added.
Tasaka Koa, co-representative of the People’s Forum on Cambodia, Japan, said that in general the election was orderly and proceeded peacefully. But some areas need improvement, he added.
“Improvement in the registration system [and] the voters’ list is very crucial to prevent any social injustice,” he added.
Jerome Cheung, resident country director for the US-based National Democratic Institute, said by telephone that he also had concerns about the quality of the voter list.
The list is “one of the most important elements for an election, so ensuring its high quality should be a priority,” he said, adding that steps need to be taken to improve the monitoring of the whole electoral process.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said the low turnout was likely related to voter apathy rather than confusion.
“I don’t believe they misunderstood. They did not pay attention [to the election],” he said of those who did not vote.