Covington Mayor Visits Albania to Serve as Elections Observer
News accounts in the weeks and days leading up to Election Day detailed the turmoil: Widespread protests ... Molotov cocktails ... destroyed ballots ... arson ... a purge of local officials ... an opposition-party boycott ... and censure of the country's president by its Parliament for his attempt to cancel the voting.
With a political career spanning four decades in state and local government, Covington Mayor Joe Meyer is accustomed to contentious campaigns. And as an international elections observer with 12 trips to 10 different countries since 2004, he's witnessed political turmoil firsthand on a global level.
But the strife in the Republic of Albania - a small country in the Balkan peninsula of fewer than 3 million people - ahead of its June 30 municipal elections was a particularly fascinating political science lesson that played out in real time and real life.
"It was an extraordinary experience," said Meyer, who spent nine days overseas before returning to Covington on July 3. "The transition to a democratic form of government after 2000-plus years of control by outside powers is very challenging, and you can't find directions in a textbook."
With the ferocity of the polarization in Albania, it was no wonder that the parent organization of the observers - a human rights body known as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) - began its statement of preliminary conclusions with a succinct and frank pronouncement: "The 30 June local elections (in Albania) were held with little regard for the interests of the electorate."
Noting that the opposition's boycott resulted in 31 of 61 mayoral candidates running unopposed and citing "credible allegations" of citizens being pressured, political confrontation and legal uncertainty, the statement continued, "voters did not have a meaningful choice between political options."
However, on the ground at the polling stations, ODIHR pointed out, "voting was conducted in a generally peaceful and orderly manner and counting was assessed positively overall, although several procedures were not always followed correctly."
The Covington's Mayor's observations 5,000 miles from his City Hall office at 20 W. Pike St. helped ODIHR reach its assessment.
The process in Albania
Meyer's June 25 to July 3 stint in Albania was his second assignment there. In the sub-region of Shkodër, he was part of a four-member team that included an official from Ireland, an interpreter, and a driver, who was needed to navigate roads which generally didn't have signs.
- The "observation" of an election begins months in advance, with ODIHR monitoring everything from logistical setup to government involvement to media coverage. Shortly before the election, local-level observers receive training and briefing in the capital, and they then are divided into teams.
- Meyer's team scouted the 53 voting locations in their sub-region ahead of time to investigate the setups.
- The day of the election, the Mayor and his team stopped at eight to 10 precincts during the 7 a.m.-7 p.m. election, watching as voters' IDs were checked, their thumbnails were marked with purple ink, and their paper ballots folded and stuffed into boxes. Observers looked for evidence of active campaigning, proxy voting, voter intimidation or pressure, procedural problems, ballot stuffing, turmoil, and a host of other occurrences, marking each on their master checklist.
- Meyer and his team then watched until 10:30 p.m. as ballot boxes were collected and delivered under heavily armed police presence, and then watched as individual ballots were examined and separated into stacks, each one shown on a video screen before the watching crowds for purposes of transparency.
- The observers left the counting about 3 a.m. to grab a couple of hours of sleep and then returned for the finish at 10 a.m. the next morning.
Meyer has served as an international observer almost every year since 2004, with trips to Bosnia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia, and FYROM (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) among the places he's worked.
He was recruited for the opportunity by an official from Frankfort he knew during his years as a member of the Kentucky House and Senate.
Ask the Mayor about his experiences, and he immediately begins a narrative explanation of each country's origins, history, culture, and governing structure. A history buff long fascinated with Central Asia and surrounding regions, he says that historical context is critical to understanding both why the observers are invited in as witnesses and what they then witness.
For example, the countries known as "the 'Stans" - created after the breakup of the Soviet Union - were assigned artificial boundaries, he said. Because their national borders do not align with tribal boundaries, the challenges for any governing party are huge and inherent.
Albania, meanwhile, has had democratic elections only since the early 1990s, he said, having been conquered by or under the influence of the Romans, the Ottomans, a monarchy, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union.
"We're trying to help countries with zero experience with democracy transition to government by the consent of the governed, and each has its unique challenges," Meyer said. "That's a major change."
Consequently, Meyer's experiences as an elections observer have been unique and sometimes unsettling.
- In Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the situation was so volatile leading up to the election (with civil unrest, ethnic clashes, fights with police, a national state of emergency, the ousting of the president, and 200 to 2,000 people reportedly killed) that observers for the November election were accompanied by heavy security with a plan to jump to neighboring Kazakhstan "if things got too hot."
- In Tajikistan in 2006, Meyer and other observers slept on a floor in an apartment above City Hall. Roads were mostly unpaved, and there weren't any formal gas stations: Drivers looked for the presence of 2-liter bottles sitting atop 50-gallon roadside drums, which signaled gas for sale. But the drivers had to constantly adjust their carburetors because most of that gas was "doctored."
- In many countries, land mines are a problem, so observers like Meyer are told repeatedly to stay on paved surfaces and to mimic the actions of local residents. "If they suddenly cross the road for no apparent reason, just do what they do," he remembers being instructed.
- Over the years, Meyer said he's witnessed everything from ballot stuffing to voters voting for each other to voters filling out more than one ballot. In Georgia, he watched soldiers on a military base vote - with a commanding officer standing behind them and watching who they selected. But the role of observers is to watch and take notes, not interfere.
But for all the irregularities and inconsistencies he's seen in countries new to democratic voting, Meyer said he's also seen many practices that he wished the United States would adopt.
For example, several countries had "dead periods" where campaigning was forbidden in the day or two leading up to the election, giving voters a chance to digest material. Albania had Sunday voting, instead of during the work week like in the United States. And in Albania, every resident was automatically eligible to vote.
"The whole experience just gives you context for our form of government here, the things we have in the United States," Meyer said.
His City Hall office is filled with pictures of ornately decorated buildings and exquisite sights from his trips, including the Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia (c. 301 AD) and the Miljacka River in Sarajevo (near where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated).
The Mayor said he's looking forward to his next assignment.
"Not only is this a fascinating experience, but it makes me honored and proud to represent the United States of America around the world," he said.
From the City of Covington