Experience: The Armenian Parliamentary Elections Through the Eyes of a High-Schooler

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Special for the Armenian Weekly

My name is Ardavasd Ardhaldjian and I am a high school junior.  I moved to Armenia from Massachusetts when I was nine years old.  My passions include outdoor individual sports like hiking and running, as well as playing video games and hanging out with friends.  My passions definitely do not include politics and sitting in a classroom for 19 hours watching citizens fulfill their civic duty. On April 2, however, I was an election observer in the 2017 Armenian Parliamentary Elections.

Ardhaldjian was an election observer in the 2017 Armenian Parliamentary Elections. (Photo: Ardavasd Ardhaldjian)

Experience is considered by many to be the most reliable tool one can have.  I believe in this and that is why about a month before the elections, I decided to become an election observer.  Not knowing anything about politics or much about the political parties running for Parliament, I was a little nervous and was unsure of what I was getting myself into. However, after participating in two training sessions with the Transparency International (the organization I was observing with) and watching some YouTube videos, I felt ready to observe and report.

My long and tiring day began at 6 a.m.  I had breakfast, packed my food for the entire day  (I had to pack for the entire day because we were reminded that we would get hungry and that were not supposed to leave our polling stations for long periods of time), put on my observer identification badge, grabbed my passport, and walked up the street (about 500 meters) to my assigned polling station. My polling station was inside an elementary school coincidently named after my friend’s great grandfather!

I arrived at 6:50 a.m. My partner for the day, Judith Saryan, walked in a few minutes later. I had never met her before, but apparently, she knew many people I knew, including my mom (that’s Armenia for you…).

The first stage of the Election Day takes place from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.  The polls are not open yet, but this is when all those working at the poll station search the room to make sure that the setup of the poll station met the voter’s privacy standards. Other than the fact that the security camera wasn’t streaming live, which meant that I couldn’t check to see if the painting covered in glass behind one of the voting booths was reflecting everything happening inside one of the booths, everything was fine.  Later on in the day, when the live stream was finally up, I made sure it was running fine.

The second stage of the elections, which is the voting phase, began at 8 a.m. and lasted until 8 p.m. As soon as my phone marked 8 a.m., voters started pouring in. For the first 15 seconds everything went smoothly.

After that, it was all out chaos for the next hour or so.

Unsure of how the process worked, elderly men and women were walking out of the polling booths holding their ballots in their hands rather than putting them in the voting envelopes, even though there were posters in the voting station that advised what to do.  There were also unauthorized individuals were helping voters inside the booths and way too many people in the polling station at any given time.

On one occasion, a woman told the committee she was missing one of the ballots, however, she didn’t specify which one. In my experience, you only realize you are missing something when you need it, which likely meant that she was missing the ballot for the political party she was going to vote for.  What was even more interesting was the response of the president of the election committee. He personally walked into the voting booth and yelled out to the rest of that committee and everyone in the room that the woman was missing the “number 6” ballot.  After this clear violation of the voter’s right to privacy, the proxy from the Yelk coalition was furious. The proxy and the president of the election commission got into an argument and tension started to rise between the committee members, the proxies, and observers.

‘Unsure of how the process worked, elderly men and women were walking out of the polling booths holding their ballots in their hands rather than putting them in the voting envelopes, even though there were posters in the voting station that advised what to do.’ (Photo: Ardavasd Ardhaldjian)

At around 10 a.m., the morning voting peak was over and it was rather calm. This opportunity was used to resolve some of the issues that that erupted in the morning. Someone recommended that the number of voters allowed into the polling station at any one time be limited.   The committee agreed.  Another problem was that there were too many people (proxies and observers) crowding the voting booths during voting.   This too was resolved by adding a buffer between the booths and proxies and observers.

The next peak hit our station around noon and lasted until 4:30 p.m. This was the most challenging period to observe, especially since there were hundreds of voters at the station.  With several violations occurring simultaneously, my task was to identify the most important ones and deal with them one at a time.  One of my responsibilities was to report clear violations to Transparency International’s call center.

One of the proxies was constantly receiving phone calls, going in and out of the polling station, and talking with voters.  This seemed a bit inappropriate and somewhat suspicious, so I assumed that something must be wrong.  At the end of the night he said, “it wasn’t supposed to end like this,” but I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that.

At around 6 p.m., things started to slow down. However, we still had a lot of work to do and the long hours began to affect both Judy and I. We had been observing for 11 hours straight with only a couple of five-minute breaks to get some fresh air and a quick snack.  I decided to take a 30-minute recess to freshen up. I signed out of the polling station, put my headphones on, and walked up and down Baghramyan Street with nothing but lyrics on my mind.

After my short walk, I drank an energy drink and was back on track.

When I walked back in, the clearly intoxicated committee member greeted me with a huge smile on his face.  He striked a conversation, mainly asking questions about whether I was satisfied with how well he was doing his job.  Although I had, I told him that I hadn’t reported anything. I had actually called Transparency International to ask how I should procced if a committee member was drunk. Interestingly, I received a call back from Transparency’s lawyers telling me that there is no specific law against a committee member being intoxicated, but that I should keep an eye on him in case he made a scene or did anything inappropriate.

Right before 8 p.m., a few new proxies and observers arrived to bare witness to the counting phase.  As 8 p.m. arrived, the building doors were closed and locked.  A policeman stood guard to make sure no one walked in during the counting phase.  There is a law that more or less states that once the vote countng begins, it must continue without any breaks.

The room was rearanged so that everyone could see the ballot box clearly.  The president of the committee, who had been running around for the past 13 hours, was about to start the counting.  He pulled up a chair and swung off his jacket. He then rolled up his sleeves while unbuttoning the top two buttons of his shirt. And as he sat down and wiped the sweat of his face, the counting had officially begun.

First, he took out all of the ballots from the envelopes and seperated them by party, examining each envelope and ballot.  Then, with the help of a few committee members, he counted each political party’s votes, after which he counted each candidate’s votes.

Everyone was tired but still working hard to make sure everything finished smoothly.  Every now and then, someone would crack a cheesy joke that would lift everyone’s spirits.  This process lasted until 2 a.m. The votes were recorded and we all went home.

My first time being an active member of the community had come to an end. It was a long day and I was a little sad.  I had spent 20 hours with people whom I had just met—people who were also performing their civic duty.   I had never met any of them before and I might never see them again.

Nevertheless, I learned a few things that day.

Sometimes just being present makes a difference.  One interesting and disappointing fact was the overall apathy in regards to the elections.  There did not seem to be much passion in the voters’ eyes when they were walking into the station, especially in the 969 voters at my polling station. Maybe it was different at other polling stations and the people there were passionate, but from my short experience, the people of Armenia seemed to be done fighting for what they believed in—they had been stomped over too many times to fall for that trap again.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: Experience: The Armenian Parliamentary Elections Through the Eyes of a High-Schooler