Dr. Rob Pfaff to Serve As Ukraine Election Observer

May 12, 2014

Chair of Chemistry and Director of the Office of Institutional Research Dr. Robert Pfaff, along with his wife, Dr. Kathy Parkison, Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Professor of Economics at Indiana University Kokomo and a Fulbright Scholar to the country of Georgia in 2005, will be traveling to Ukraine to serve as monitors in that nation's historic election on May 25. 

This observation is through the US State Department as part of our treaty obligations to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR). The treaty calls for all 57 member states to be subject to election observation and to provide observers for elections in other member states. 

Prior to an election, ODIHR sets up a “mission” in the country holding the election to perform political analysis and to assess campaign practices, as well as provide ongoing security analyses and organize the volunteer observers being deployed for the election.

Pfaff has been featured in the Rensselaer Republican. Parkison has been featured in Inside Indiana Business. 

The following is a first-person account by Pfaff about his trip to the Ukraine; the account will be updated. Also read Pfaff's account of a previous mission, one in May 2010 to the country of Georgia. 

Post-Election Musings

Dr. Rob Pfaff 

 "The Ukrainian people expressed to me their desire to move forward, to have peace and good relations with both Russia and Europe, and to have a government without corruption."


The Early Ukrainian Presidential Election of 2014 is now history. My wife, Kathy Parkison, Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Indiana University Kokomo, and I have returned home from an interesting, but exhausting experience.

I must note that I can write only about my own experiences. All official reports on the election monitoring mission must come from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR). The ODIHR preliminary report can be found at: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/ukraine/119078.

We arrived in Kiev on Tuesday, 20 May, after traveling for 21 hours. We had the rest of the day to acclimate and then had a day and a half of briefings starting Wednesday. The core team, which had been in Kiev since mid-March, detailed everything from the logistics of deploying 900 short-term observers (STOs) in addition to the 100 long-term observers (LTOs), who supervise the STOs in the field, to the OSCE/ODIHR code of conduct, to the current political and security environments in Ukraine. As we discovered, no Americans were deployed to the contested regions in the eastern part of the country, other than a few very experienced observers, due to perceived unacceptable security threats concerning Americans there.

Kathy and I were both deployed in the western part of the country, she to Khmelnytsky oblast and I to Ivano-Frankivsk oblast.

map of Ukraine

Our oblasts are highlighted in orange in the above map (©aboutromania.com).

My team of 20 STOs flew from Kiev to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where we received local briefings from our LTOs. Then, some of the team left for the southern part of the oblast to be nearer their assigned areas. I stayed in Ivano-Frankivsk city and was given an area that ran northwest-to-southeast across the entire width of the oblast. My area surrounded the city, but did not include it. In fact, my area of observation was very much like the Midwest. The economy is primarily based on farming and the fields ranged from practically flat, like around Rensselaer, to rolling hills with stands of trees on top, like northeastern Iowa or northern Illinois. STOs work in pairs. My partner was a Polish woman named Beata Kubel, who works at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was her first election. Saturday, 24 May, the day before the election, we traveled the area with our driver and interpreter to map a course for election day. 

We were to visit ten to twelve precincts throughout election day, and so we timed our travel on Saturday to ensure we had a good plan. We were also to observe a precinct going through its opening preparations and to observe another precinct as it closed and counted and reported its ballots.

Election day started early enough to make it to our opening precinct, which was located in a village multi-purpose building (photo below). The twelve members of the Precinct Election Commission (PEC) were all present. Ukraine uses paper ballots and so the members on the right were checking IDs and having voters sign the voter lists, voting booths were at the right-hand edge of the photo, using cloth in the blue and yellow Ukrainian colors to provide privacy, and the ballot boxes are at the end of the room, in front of the Ukrainian Orthodox shrine. The ballot boxes are clear plastic and in open view of all; the commission puts tamper-proof seals on the lids to ensure no one can stuff ballots in them unnoticed. The two small ballot boxes upside down on the floor are for mobile voting. Ukrainian law provides for sick and invalid voters to be able to vote at home and so a group of commissioners will take the little ballot boxes to voters’ homes later in the day.

Precinct opening

Precincts came in all shapes and sizes, including what has to be my favorite, below. This precinct is located in a new village; they brought an administration building in by truck, put it on stone and concrete supports, and chose it for their polling place. The whole building cannot be more than 12’ x 25’. The PEC chairperson met Beata and me at the door and ushered us in to where the other eleven PEC members sat. The voting booth is in the back left corner; the ballot box is in the back right corner. 

We had stopped at this precinct the day before, so they were not surprised to see us. They even offered us candy! But there are two interesting things here.

First, the PEC chair is very young. We saw a lot of involvement of young adults in running the precincts; this woman was not the only young one serving as PEC chair and women in our area seemed to be the majority on election commissions. Also, by law when the ballots are distributed to the precincts, they must be sealed in a safe and all the PEC members sign a paper seal which is taped over the door, so any access to the safe would be obvious; as a group, the commissioners open the safe on election morning. As part of the security for the ballots, a police officer is assigned to each precinct; in most cases, that means the officer lives in the precinct in the days before the election and the safe is often in their bedroom.

Precinct small

Two young Ukrainians PEC chair

Pictured here are the PEC chair (right) and my partner, Beata (left). I could not get the entire commission in a single photo because the room was so narrow.

As election day went on, we visited precincts the length of our area. Some were small, though the one above was by far the smallest, while others were rather large and were housed in the foyers of public auditoriums, and everywhere in between. Most PECs were happy to see us; some insisted on taking pictures, first with their cameras and then with ours. This is typical, being taken at a precinct in the town of Gorodenka. The precinct chair is on the left and the vice chair is on the right.

Pfaff and Ukrainians

As the day wound down, we went to a school to observe the closing and vote counting. In this precinct, all the PEC members chose to wear traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts and the chair is the small, young woman who very much is in charge. At the close of voting, the commission locks the doors and starts counting, starting with the number of voters who signed the lists, the number of unused ballots, and the number of spoiled ballots.To ensure those ballots stay unused, the lower right corner is cut off of each. These photos seem a little grainy because the entire gym, as small as it was, was only lit by two fluorescent bulbs. In this photo, the chair is addressing the other commissioners on the process to be followed. The seal on a ballot box can be seen on the left.

Ukraine Ballot Box

Once the counts of non-used ballots and materials is completed, the ballot boxes are opened, one at a time, and the ballots dumped on the table. A commissioner then holds each ballot up for scrutiny, announces the candidate that was voted for, and then the ballots are stacked by candidate. In this election, there were 18 candidates, so the ballot was long. In the photo below a candidate’s observer (called a proxy) is watching the ballots being read. We, too, could approach as closely as we wanted to observe.

UKrainian proxy watching ballots

Finally, after over four hours of counting, tabulating, and filling in the official precinct report (protocol), the commissioners sang the Ukrainian national anthem before packing three commissioners, the police officer, and the balloting materials into a small car for the trip to the district election commission (DEC) to turn in their results. We followed behind in our car.

Ukraine pledge of allegiance

The process at the DEC was odd. All 169 PECs came to the DEC with four people and their ballot materials and waited their turn in a council chamber that held less than 200 people. Beata and I were relieved by another of our teams and went back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before returning to the DEC before 8:00 the next morning. So, we got less than four hours of sleep. The DEC was still processing precincts, checking protocols for errors and sending the results by a secure website to the central commission in Kiev. Only when the DEC and the IT people agreed that the precinct numbers were correct could the PEC members finally go home. With a few PECs being sent back to retabulate, the DEC did not finish until midday on Tuesday. PEC members got so tired waiting that, at one point, they started singing songs about flowers and love.

It did not help that there was a cyberattack on the Central Election Commission during the night Sunday that halted submission of results for several hours. It seemed the attack was broader than the commission, though, because I had trouble emailing images of report forms to ODIHR during the night, too.

When all was said and done, there was a majority winner, so there is not going to be a runoff election. In all, ODIHR believes that the election went well, with only sporadic incidents reported. My experience matches that; everything I saw went smoothly and transparently. The Ukrainian people expressed to me their desire to move forward, to have peace and good relations with both Russia and Europe, and to have a government without corruption. I think they took a good first step.

Ukraine Musings, Part 2

Since it is Friday and Kathy and I are due to depart for Ukraine about 9:00 am Monday (Rensselaer time), it now seems sure that the mission is on. Only two US observers have backed out and have been replaced on the roster. Obviously, more observers applied to go to this election than they had authorized slots. 

The State Department’s contractor for recruiting observers, PAE, has stepped up their security awareness, asking for cell phone numbers and email addresses that we will be able to access while in Ukraine. 

OSCE/ODIHR has also stepped up their security. Instead of the normal two security experts in country, they have increased that to three senior security experts. They have also decided to provide every observer with a cell phone, instead of the usual cell phone for each observation pair. 

We have received our travel advances. Interestingly, the former Soviet states do take dollars and Euros for transactions, but insist that the bills be free of spurious marks, such as when a teller counts cash and then draws a stripe or writes a dollar amount on the top bill. The bills don’t need to be new, just in good repair and without marks. We have arranged with our bank to get bills that meet the criteria, which was necessary due to the total amount of cash we both must carry to pay our drivers, translators, and accommodations while there. 

We have seen where the long-term observers (LTOs) have been deployed, meaning we short-term observers (STOs) will also be going to those places. They include, as of now, the contested regions of Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, and even the Crimea). We won’t be told our regional destinations until Thursday, at the end of the general briefings. As a side note, countries in this part of the world have an administrative subunit called an oblast. They can generally be considered similar to states or provinces.

I will try to report back once we know our destinations.

Rob and Kathy


To Ukraine, May 2014

Consider this a first installment of musings. This activity doesn’t speak to my professional training, but rather to a Core (literally and figuratively) concept of participating in the world and trying to help people better themselves.  In this case, the focus is on helping emerging democracies by evaluating their progress in holding free, open, and fair elections.

These musings involve two people:

Dr. Rob Pfaff, Director of the Office of Institutional Research and Chair of the Department of Chemistry at Saint Joseph’s College

Dr. Kathy Parkison, my wife, Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Professor of Economics at Indiana University Kokomo and a Fulbright Scholar to the country of Georgia in 2005

Organizational Background

The United States is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  OSCE is one of the regional security organizations authorized under the United Nations, following the belief that regional issues should be resolved regionally, rather than necessarily being taken up by the U.N.  OSCE activities are quite varied, including antiterrorism, conflict resolution, economic cooperation, education, gender and ethnic equality, and democratization.  All member states of OSCE are subject to election observation by delegations from the other member states through OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR).  OSCE currently has 57 member states (www.osce.org) from North America, Europe, and Central Asia.  There are also a number of Partner States in North Africa and East Asia that work with OSCE on issues of common concern, such as human trafficking.  OSCE literally encircles the northern hemisphere.

In terms of election observation, ODIHR sets up a mission in the country holding the election and negotiates the size of the observation force with that country.  Long-term observers (LTOs) are chosen to come into the country well in advance of the election to make logistical arrangements in the regions where elections will be monitored.  Then, short-term observers (STOs) come in several days before the election and, supervised by the LTOs, deploy across the country in time to become familiar with the area and plan for election day. Observers are seconded (diplomatic language for nominated) by their home Ministries of Foreign Affairs or Departments of State to participate in a given election.  On election day, STOs visit as many precincts as they can, noting voter turnout, general attitude of election workers and voters, and evidence of whether the election seems to be free and open or seems to be tainted.  Observers can ask questions, but not interfere with the election.  The goal in all elections is that they are held in compliance with the host country’s election laws, not that they are held in compliance with our own election laws.

An interesting twist often seen in newer eastern European and Asian democracies is that, due to a multi-party system, second round elections (runoff elections) are quite possible and, if one is needed, the observation force will return for the second round, as well.

My Background

I started being involved in elections here in Jasper County as a precinct election judge and have served in that capacity in all but one election over the past eight years.  And, as it turns out, that experience is one of the things that qualified me to serve on international election missions.

But in all honesty, my motivation for observing international elections came from my wife, Kathy Parkison.  During her Fulbright in Tbilisi, Georgia, she was invited by a team of USAID workers to join them on an election observation mission to Azerbaijan, which borders Georgia to the east.  She loved it and signed up with the State Department shortly after returning home.  I envied her adventures and signed up myself in 2009.  My first deployment was to observe parliamentary elections in Georgia in 2010 and, since I was familiar with the country and its people, it was a perfect place to get my feet wet.  I was deployed to a small town, Senaki, and its rural surroundings.  Senaki is in the lowlands of western Georgia, not far from the Black Sea, but the foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains begin rising just to the north.  Many of the precincts that my partner, a Danish woman, and I were responsible for visiting were in the hills and I still have a vivid picture in my head of there being gates around bus stops to keep the cattle out…and we did have to deal with hogs sleeping in the road.  But the Georgians were excited to show us how far they had come in holding free elections, especially after being attacked by Russia in 2008.  Showing off electoral progress to outside observers is the norm for these emerging democracies.


I will be the first to admit to being a bit nervous about traveling into such a politically volatile place as Ukraine.  But I am pleased that Kathy is also coming.  I also know that OSCE makes observer safety their first priority.  Although rare, they have been known to cancel an observation mission at the last minute, as they did in Kyrgyzstan in 2010.  But with less than three weeks until departure, it appears certain we will go.

Kathy and I may end up together in the field regionally.  However, OSCE/ODIHR policy calls for observation teams to be pairs, one male and one female, but from different countries.  So we could end up in the same area, but we would not do the observations together.  Nevertheless, it will be fun going with her.  This will be my first time in Ukraine, but between election missions and conducting programming for the Council for Economic Education, she has been there several times before.

Kathy and I will not know where in Ukraine we have been assigned until we arrive in Kyiv (the local spelling of Kiev and pronounced Keev) on Tuesday, 20 May.  After briefings, we head to our assigned areas on Thursday the 22nd or, if we’re assigned near Kyiv, we will leave Friday.  The teams then spend time getting familiar with the area and the locations of the polling places in preparation for election Day on Sunday, 25 May.  We not only observe precinct voting, but also then pick a precinct to observe their vote counting and follow the ballots to the central election commission office and the recount there.  (They use paper and pencil ballots there.)  If the counting carries over into Monday or possibly Tuesday, some members of our team will be present throughout.  We have a regional debriefing and then we go back to Kyiv Tuesday or Wednesday, the 27th or 28th, and get briefed on the preliminary findings.  Finally, we leave to come home on Thursday, 29 May.

If there is not a clear winner in the election, a second round will be held and we would do it all over again June 9-19th.

For now, our airline tickets have been purchased, we have submitted all our documents, and we’re ready.  They will send us some money in advance for incidental expenses and paying a driver and translator in the field.  We do not end up making much money on this.  The per diem is fairly generous for a developing country, but it wouldn’t go very far in Western Europe.  Still, we can keep whatever of our per diem we don’t spend, but that is the only payment for doing this.

 As I said at the beginning, becoming involved in democratization of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, noting that these are predominantly former Soviet states, is a logical continuation of the thinking of Core.  I think it’s also relevant that I am a chemist getting involved in this, not a historian or a political scientist.  This is way outside my professional box.  But it’s important to support these countries as they fight against their histories of elections only having Party-approved candidates on the ballot and official corruption not just being widespread, but expected.

Rob Pfaff

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