A (Text) Message for Democracy

Why rely solely on official observers to monitor thousands of polling stations when we can empower the entire citizenry to do so?

This weekend Kosovars head to the polls to elect a new parliament. But voting isn’t the only thing they’ll be doing. The “Vote & Watch” campaign, organized by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society, empowers every citizen—via a free-to-use text messaging platform—to serve as an independent watchdog over their own electoral process.

The last time Kosovo held general elections was in 2010. Christopher Dell, the U.S. ambassador at the time, characterized the experience as an exercise in industrious vote stealing. Sadly, he was right. Over 40 percent of the ballot boxes were tampered with, leaving behind an embittered population.

This year’s national elections are particularly important. It’s the first time in our young country’s history that all citizens—minority Serbs included—are expected to participate in significant numbers. A landmark political agreement between Kosovo and Serbia in 2013 made this possible, and a transparent and uncontested outcome will reinforce both the principles of that agreement as well as stability across the Balkan region. Moreover, the election serves as a referendum on the current government’s eight years in power, which have increasingly been plagued by scandal and corruption.

As always, a handful of international and domestic election observers will fan out to the country’s polling stations. But, we thought, why rely solely on hundreds of official observers to monitor thousands of polling stations when we could arm the entire citizenry—those with the most at stake in the outcome—with the tools to monitor the integrity of their own elections? Just as blogs, iReporting, Wikipedia, and the like have democratized and decentralized news reporting and information dissemination, we set out to democratize election monitoring. But first we needed some help.

Luckily, much of Kosovo’s corporate sector was interested in turning our idea into reality. Telecom, media, broadcasting, PR, and advertising companies all chipped in—underscoring how for them democratic stability is good for business. With their contributions we constructed the text messaging platform (citizens can send free messages across all mobile networks to anonymously report problems) and designed and aired print, radio, and television advertisements to inform the entire electorate of the service.

When we piloted Vote & Watch during last year’s local elections the result was profound—nearly 13,000 citizen reports, documenting a range of infractions, flooded in. Our collection headquarters became a hub of national interest, and several newspapers covered the story on their front pages. That was the warm-up for this weekend’s main event.

In relaunching Vote & Watch, we’re simultaneously seeking to deter bad behavior, document fraud, instill a heightened sense of democratic ownership among the populace, and collect data to feed into long-overdue electoral reforms.

Similar citizen watchdog efforts are beginning to catch on. Kenya’s 43 million citizens (close to 22 times the population of Kosovo) dispatched some 5,000 monitoring messages on its last election day. More often than not, however, similar platforms have been established for the sole use of official election monitors—not ordinary citizens. They have also tended to be funded by bilateral donor agencies at enormous costs to taxpayers.

Kosovo’s Vote & Watch model, which empowers the entire electorate and is financed largely through in-kind, private sector contributions, may be useful in other countries as well. While certainly no panacea, logic dictates that when millions of watchful eyes are empowered to report fraud, the propensity to commit fraud should decrease. Kosovars are about to find out how their oversight pans out. 

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Vote & Watch sounds like a major step in the direction of strengthening democracy. Reminds me of Secretary of State (former) Hilary Clinton's goal of engaging more citizens in the democratic process. This also closes the power distance btwn governing bodies and those governed. My work is in jazz and this type of active engagement and empowering of individuals is at the heart of the music/culture.

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