Should there be an international Code of Conduct for Exit Polls and Parallel Vote Tabulations?

[As the year winds down and things crank up in Kenya’s 2022 presidential campaign and BBI referendum I am going through some of my old unpublished drafts – this is an idea that could matter that the parties involved do not have an incentive to bring forward.]

To me, the answer to the headline question is clearly “yes”.

Very specifically to my experience as in Kenya in 2007 as International Republican Institute Resident East Africa Director, I was able to explain to the USAID Kenya Mission that we at IRI were bound as a party to a published International Code of Conduct in conducting an International Election Observation that required us to maintain independence from the Ambassador.

(Readers may recall that then-Ambassador Ranneberger had pushed for a USAID-funded IRI Election Observation Mission for Kenya’s 2007 election which USAID had decided not to conduct in their ordinary planning process for the election and that IRI did not seek to undertake.)

We on the IRI staff were able to push back on Ambassador Ranneberger’s desire to select Election Observation Mission delegates, although we ended up informally going along with Ranneberger’s choice of Connie Newman and Chester Crocker as lead delegates (Crocker was not available to travel on the dates required).

The rest of the delegates were our choices rather than the Ambassador’s and we resisted Ranneberger’s expressed desire to remove his predecessor Amb. Mark Bellamy from the Observation until Ranneberger “went to the mat” as he put it.

Likewise, we invited against Ranneberger’s wishes Bellamy’s predecessor as Ambassador to Kenya, Johnnie Carson, who was then the Africa lead at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and later Assistant Secretary of State under Obama (Carson was not cleared to participate–I was privately relieved for two reasons: it got me off the hook on a potential conflict with Ranneberger and while Carson seemed like a real asset for the Observation I thought the optics of having a high ranking Executive Branch employee and particularly one directly in an Intelligence Community job would not be great from an independence standpoint. In hindsight it might have done some real good to have him there.).

Unfortunately, on the now perhaps infamous Exit Poll, I was more or less naked in dealing with USAID and the Ambassador. The polling program was under a separate Cooperative Agreement between the CEPPS (IRI, NDI and IFES) and USAID which had started with the Exit Poll for the 2005 Constitutional Referendum. (The defeat of the proposed “Wako Draft” Constitution gave rise to the Orange Democratic Party which led Kenya’s opposition in the 2007, 2013 and 2017 elections, culminating in the March 2018 “handshake” and the present “Building Bridges Initiative” referendum campaign).

The 2005-07 polling program was scheduled to end with a public opinion survey in September 2007, well ahead of the general election, the date of which was not set until weeks later. USAID amended the Agreement to add the general election Exit Poll at the end. It was only after I initially reported a few days before the election that we were going to have to cancel the Exit Poll due to the objection of Electoral Commission of Kenya Chairman Samuel Kivuitu that I was told by USAID that the Exit Poll as a higher priority for the Ambassador than the Election Observation itself. Kivuitu’s acquiescence was achieved.

On the late afternoon of Election Day as I was dragging my feet on releasing preliminary numbers before the polls closed I was told that “the whole reason” for doing the Exit Poll was for “early intelligence” for the Ambassador and USAID went to our subcontracted polling firm to get the figures. [Remember that I covered all this in complaints to the Inspectors General at USAID and State.]

The reason IRI was essentially naked in protecting itself from interference on the Exit Poll was because unlike on the Election Observation Mission there was no published Code or Agreement that I could use to push back to preserve our independence.

We had agreed internally at IRI that we should not report any Exit Poll numbers externally including to USAID or the Embassy until the polls closed, and it was quite clear that we had no contractual obligation to make a pre-closing report. But given that USAID was willing to go underneath us to the pollster it was out of our hands literally and there were no clear standards beyond that.

The US Government ultimately had rights to our data as a matter of government contracts law and USAID had arguably and ambiguously constrained our ability to release the Exit Poll results to the public in the Amendment to the Cooperative Agreement funding the Exit Poll by providing for “consultation” with the Embassy on “diplomatic or other” considerations. The Cooperative Agreement for the Program was neither classified nor available publicly until I had it released under the Freedom of Information Act years later. The Exit Poll from the 2005 Referendum had been released.

Fortunately we have not seen another disaster quite like Kenya 2007-08, but the questions about transparency and release and reporting of information from election verification and anti-fraud tools are still there. For instance in the most recent elections in the DRC and Malawi, as well as the controversy in Kenya in 2013. This could be addressed by pre-established standards or codes if donors, host governments and democracy assistance organizations or implementers are willing to give up some of their case-by-case flexibility and frankly some of the power of controlling information.

What do you think?

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