For months before Kenya’s ill-fated 2007 election, the State Department cables from the Embassy in Nairobi to Washington described an exit polling by the International Republican Institute funded by USAID as a democracy assistance vote count verification tool for the election.
From a 2017 release in response to my 2009 Freedom of Information Act request on the Exit Poll showing an Opposition win in Kenya’s 2008 Presidential election:
R 170924Z APR 07
FM AMEMBASSY NAIROBI
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 9024
FOR AF/E AND INR/AA
SUBJECT: ACHIEVING USG GOALS IN KENYA’S ELECTION
12. (U) Ongoing Assistance: USAID/Kenya has ongoing support
in the areas of electoral administration, public opinion
polling and political party strengthening. Program
activities include the following:
. . .
–– Public Opinion Polling: The International Republican
Institute began implementing a public opinion program in
2005. The program seeks to achieve two results: increasing
the availability of objective and reliable polling data; and
providing an independent source of verification of electoral
outcomes via exit polls. These results make an important
contribution to elections and political processes. First,
genuine free and fair elections require that citizens make
informed choices. The polling data adds to the objective data
available to citizens on key electoral issues. Second, the
exit polls provide an independent assessment of the accuracy
of the official electoral results, thereby supporting the
assessment of the credibility of Kenyan electoral processes.
This program also enhances democratic political parties by
enhancing the likelihood that candidates base their platforms
on the key issues and concerns of their constituents,
evidenced in the polling data, rather than the traditional
focus on ethnicity and personalized political wrangling. (emphasis added)
Yet, after the election, the State Department developed “talking points to deal with press questions if they came” that told a factually contradictory story, that the exit poll was a “training exercise” rather than an “independent verification of outcomes” and “assessment of credibility of the Kenyan electoral process”:
Q — Why isn’t the Embassy pressuring to release its exit poll conducted in conjunction with the December general elections?
A — As explained on their website, IRI did not conduct the Opinion poll themselves and have real concerns over its validity. Moreover, the poll was conducted as a capacity building or training exercise. We should not Pressure’ firms to bring a product to market that they don’t believe in, whether it is a defective automobile, or a defective opinion poll.
Q — Strategic Public Relations ind Research Limited (SPRR), the firm IRI contracted to Conduct the poll, stands by their results and refutes IRI’s statement.
They said they were “shocked and disappointed” at IRI’s decision. What is your reaction to that?
A —This is a highly technical dispute between private parties over raw data that no one
else has even seen. We understand that IRI is examining the disputed data to see if any of it is usable, which sound’s reasonable under the circumstances.
Q — In his recent testimony before Congress and in an editorial that he co-wrote, Maina Kiai, Chairperson of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights,
urged Congress to pressure IRI to release the exit poll. In the op-ed, he said it was important to release the exit poll because there are “Suspicions that the institute has
suppressed its results not because they were flawed but because they showed that Mr. Odinga won.” These suspicions, he said, have fueled mistrust. What is your
A — Again, we should not pressure IRI to release information gathered in a training
exercise, especially when they lack confidence in its validity.
Additional “AF (Africa Bureau) Press Guidance” with the same misrepresentations were issued on July 9, 2008 after the Exit Poll was finally released in Washington by the University of California, San Diego researchers and it was covered in the McClatchy newspapers.
Mr. Flottman, East Africa director for the International Republican Institute, the pro-democracy group that administered the poll, said he had believed that the results would promptly be made public, as a check against election fraud by either side. But then his supervisors said the poll numbers would be kept secret.
. . . .
An examination by The New York Times found that the official explanation for withholding the poll that it was technically flawed had been disputed by at least four people involved in the institute’s Kenya operations. The examination, including interviews and a review of e-mail messages and internal memorandums, raises questions about the intentions and priorities of American observers as Kenyans desperately sought credible information about the vote.
None of those interviewed professed to know why the institute withheld the results. But the decision was consistent with other American actions that seemed focused on preserving stability in Kenya, rather than determining the actual winner.
When Mr. Kibaki claimed victory on Dec. 30, 2007, the State Department quickly congratulated him and called on Kenyans to accept the outcome, even though international observers had reported instances of serious ballot-counting fraud. American officials backed away from their endorsement the next day and ultimately pushed the deal that made Mr. Odinga prime minister.
Under its contract, the institute was expected to consult with the Agency for International Development and the embassy before releasing the exit poll results, taking into account the poll’s technical quality and “other key diplomatic interests.”
Quality was not expected to be a concern. In addition to retaining a local polling firm it had used since 2000, the institute contracted with Clark C. Gibson, chairman of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego, to oversee the design of the questions, the surveying of voters and the collection of data.
When the voting ended and ballot-counting began, Mr. Gibson and others involved in the exit poll said they expected its results to be announced soon.
. . . .
For further discussion, see “Should there by an international Code of Conduct for Exit Polls and Parallel Vote Tabulations?“:
. . . .
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.