Dr. Rob Pfaff (Chair of Chemistry and Director of the Office of Institutional Research) and his wife, Dr. Kathy Parkison (Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Indiana University Kokomo), are active in international election observation.
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.
Dr. Pfaff’s first election deployment was in May 2010 to the country of Georgia, a former part of the Soviet Union that lies along the east coast of the Black Sea and shares borders with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia.
The typical deployment requires the observers to arrive in the country’s capital four days or so before the election and leave the country about four days after the election.
During that time, observers receive briefings from the mission leadership, travel to their specific area of coverage, and familiarize themselves with the local area.
Election day can get long, as observers fan out to as many precincts as they can reach and then watch the vote counting at one of their precincts and again at the Central Election Commission office.
Some members of the team stay with the ballots until the results are communicated to the national election office…and that could be well into the next day.
After the observers return to the capital, they are debriefed, informed of the mission’s overall report on the election, and then leave for home.
The 2010 Georgian elections were for members of parliament and so local politics were emphasized as much as national politics. Dr. Pfaff’s area was in and around the city of Senaki, which lies about 30 miles east of the Black Sea port city of Poti.
But Senaki is also at the foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains; the high peaks of the mountains represent the border with Russia. As such, the area did see action in the 2008 invasion of Georgia by Russia.
It is also important to note that many of the former Soviet states are primarily agrarian. So, Dr. Pfaff’s precincts ranged from the city to the rural foothills to the north. It was, in all, an enjoyable experience and it was satisfying to observe a developing democracy improve in its electoral processes.
In fact, Dr. Pfaff found it so rewarding that he, this time accompanied by his wife, applied for and was accepted to the OSCE/ODIHR election mission in May 2014 for the presidential election in Ukraine.
To gain a sense of the former Soviet states, Dr. Pfaff provided a few of his photos from the Georgian mission.
1. Upon arrival in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, he was given a day to acclimate to the time change. As might be considered normal in regional politics, though, the Georgian president chose to hold a military parade that day. This photo, taken from his hotel room, shows Georgian troops exiting Tbilisi’s Central Square, still marching in formation. The building on the right is Tbilisi City Hall and the monument in the square features the country’s namesake, Saint George.
2. Once in the precincts on election day, Dr. Pfaff encountered a number of surprises. In this photo, taken in the hill country north of Senaki, a cow seems to be wanting to enter this bus stop, perhaps for the shade it provides. But rural bus stops in the region generally are gated to keep the livestock out.
3. In another precinct in Senaki itself, Dr. Pfaff and his partner were called into the office of the precinct election director, who also was the medical director of the public clinic housing the precinct. There, we were offered chocolates and vodka, and a series of toasts to international friendship. The woman on the left was our translator, while the others were members of the precinct election commission. Dr. Pfaff’s observation partner took the photo.
4. Schools were common polling locations, much as they are in the United States. But their schools make ours look like palaces. There are often holes in the floors, broken windows, no heat, and on some days there may not even be electricity. However, the people are proud of what they do have and instruction is excellent. Election day is also a social event in these countries. Here, a group of men visit outside the precinct, while the women gather separately.
5. Finally, this photo shows how close to Russia they actually were when traveling to their rural precincts. The Russian border follows the ridgeline of the snowcapped peaks in the distance, a distance of no more than 25 miles away. One of their other precincts, nearer to Senaki, was on an army base. It was the only time in his life that Dr. Pfaff has had a weapon pointed at him, and the base’s director of security was with them. However, given the 2008 Russian invasion, the high security of the base was reasonable and the people in the polling place, including Georgian army officers, were perfectly welcoming.
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