Monday, May 6, 2019

270 poll workers dead: The high cost of Indonesia’s manual vote counting

Counting votes by hand has always been backbreaking work. But for some poll workers in Indonesia, it proved to be deadly as well. Some 270 election workers have passed away from exhaustion, under pressure to finish the counting two weeks after the country’s general elections. 

Arief Priyo Susanto, spokesman of Indonesia’s General Elections Commission (KPU), said that most deaths were due to fatigue-related illnesses caused by long hours of work counting of ballot papers by hand. In addition to the fatalities, some 1,878 other staff had fallen ill.

Although the polls were generally peaceful, the counting is far from over. Authorities do not expect to conclude vote counting and officially announce winners until May 22.

The tragedy underscores the even uglier side of manual elections and should jolt election managers everywhere to rethink their counting systems. What makes this even more tragic is that modern voting technology already exists that could spare poll workers from this ordeal. 

The poll workers were up against something daunting --- for the first time in Indonesia’s history, authorities combined presidential, parliamentary and regional elections in one day. This meant that the 6 million poll workers had to prepare 810,000 polling stations to receive 193 million eligible voters. Roughly 245,000 candidates were vying for more than 20,000 national and local legislative seats. 

In addition to the sheer size of the election, the geography further complicated logistics. Indonesia is an archipelago comprising some 18,000 islands across an area of 1.9 million square kilometers. 
According to the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank, these were "one of the most complicated single-day elections in global history."

As two other Asian countries have shown, technology has the power to improve election administration. in Indonesia. 

India, which has been automating vote counting since 2004, is now using some 1.2 million electronic voting machines to make their elections better. For this year’s Lok Sabha election, 10 million election officials are conducting the largest democratic elections in the world. 840 eligible voters are scheduled to participate in a voting exercise that will span throughout five weeks. Once voting is done, votes will be electronically counted, consolidated and announced. Though there is still room for improvement, India has managed to make voting more accessible and transparent relying on technology. 

The Philippines will head to the polls on May 13 to hold midterm elections. This archipelago, which is a neighbor of Indonesia, has automated vote counting since 2010 with impressive results. Some 90,000 optical scanners are used to digitize and count the votes of some 63 million voters. Since the Philippines began automating vote counting, poll workers have benefited from simplified processes and reduced hours of operation. Also, by minimizing the role poll workers play on election day, they have become less vulnerable to bribing and coercion. 

The tragedy has thrown Indonesia’s General Elections Commission in the spotlight. It must take decisive measures to prevent another tragedy of this magnitude from ever happening again. Better processes, better organization, and better technology have become urgent imperatives.
India and the Philippines show this can be done.