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Mapping electoral fraud in Zimbabwe

As Zimbabwe faces a pivotal presidential election on March 29, expect a great deal of conversation about whether polls were free and fair. It may be very difficult to answer that question decisively, as the Zimbabwean government has been extremely restrictive in allowing election monitors into the country. AFP reports that the US and the EU have been denied access as observers; instead, the poll will be monitored by the African Union, SADC (the Southern Africa Development Community), China, Venezuela and Russia. Both SADC and the AU are heavily dominated by South Africa, which controversially pronounced the 2005 parliamentary elections as free and fair, despite widespread reports of human rights abuses.

There are lots of ways to rig an election, and it sure helps to be the incumbent if you’re planning on doing so. Morgan Tsvangarai, the candidate from the opposition MDC party, argues that the government has printed over 9 million ballots, which does seem like a lot for a nation of 5.9 million voters – he believes the excess ballots will be used to stuff ballot boxes. Other forms of rigging may be more subtle. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has recruited 90,000 polling officers, who will oversee voting at polling places. Polling officers are often asked to help illiterate voters cast their votes, which can lead to vote rigging. And the ZEC has primarily recruited schoolteachers – who are government employees – to serve as the polling officers.

The Zimbabwean government is evidently afraid that the US will attempt to monitor the election clandestinely. Government-controlled newspaper The Herald reports:

According to sources who work in the US embassy public affairs section, the embassy had decided to rope in the services of a number of NGOs, institutions and individuals to provide updates on the elections across the country.

Those recruited have also been mandated to provide “data” that will be used in the embassy’s final report on the elections and the briefing it will send back to Washington after the results have been announced for use in post-poll policy formulation. It is also understood that some of these NGOs and individuals volunteered their services when they heard that the US embassy was in the market for proxy observers.

That certainly makes sense. If I were a consular officer with the US state department, I’d be talking to anyone I could to try to get believable elections data. Unfortunately, this is likely to put additional pressure on reporters in Zimbabwe who are attempting to cover events. MISA – the Media Institute of Southern Africa, a leading free-press NGO in Zimbabwe – reports that they, along with several indepedent journalism organizations, are being accused of being “recruited” by the US Embassy. These accusations are based on the fact that MISA representatives attended a meeting in Pretoria on “the state of the media in Zimbabwe and the upcoming elections.” (Indeed, it’s this meeting that the Herald uses as “evidence” that journalists and NGO workers are now working for the US embassy.) These accusations raise the danger level for independent journalists in Zimbabwe, which was already extremely high.

All this is useful context in considering the project that activist organization Sokwanele announced today: a Google maps mashup of election-rigging incidents. Each icon on the map corresponds to a media report of an incident that controvenes SADC standards for a free and fair election. Clicking on an icon will take you to the issue of Sokwanele’s Zimbwbe Elections Watch newsletter, which summarizes media report on the elections, and to a database record, where each instance is coded as to which SADC rules it violates.

The Sokwanele site is very careful to note that these media reports represent a sample of violations of SADC standards. It’s very difficult for journalists to afford to travel to rural areas, so reports of possible rigging in those locations are less likely. And since Zimbabwe’s press climate is quite constrained, it’s likely that many incidents of election fraud will go unreported.

Sokwanele has employed some clever and careful tactics here. Because they’re not accepting reports of election fraud, they’re not reporters so much as aggregators. That may help them steer clear of Zimbabwe’s laws which require journalists to be licensed – were they to attempt a strategy like Ushahidi’s of allowing citizens to report incidents of violence, I suspect they’d be shut down immediately.

Will Sokwanele’s map show us whether the Zimbabwe election was rigged? It’s possible that it already has – the map is filled with incidents of “political cleansing”, violence where people who don’t hold membership cards in ZANU-PF have been chased out. If you can’t safely make it to a polling place, you can’t vote. There are countless reports of failures to register voters, of food being given to government supporters and not to the opposition, of violence from police and troops against citizens.

It’s hard to know what a map like this can do in a situation as volatile as the Zimbabwe elections. Very, very few Zimbabweans can afford to go online and look at the map before casting their votes. And Mugabe’s government is unlikely to be shamed by this thorough cataloging of offenses. But it’s possible that SADC might, and that international attention to the circumstances surrounding the election could make it harder for observers in countries that neighbor Zimbabwe to close their eyes to election rigging.