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Webcams and Polling Stations: Evidence from Azerbaijan

- March 7, 2012

[Photo by Erik Herron]

Couldn’t get enough of Super Tuesday? Well, imagine you could not only watch news reports roll in, but could also observe voters (and poll workers) around the country voting through live webcams in all polling stations. As I noted earlier this week, this was indeed the case in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday, where the government installed webcams in almost all of the polling stations throughout the country, and according to the Moscow Times, more than 2.5 million people registered with the website that was set up to allow citizens to view these feeds.

In turns out that this was *not* the first time a government had installed webcams in polling stations during an election. Apparently Georgia was the first country to install webcams closed circuit cameras in polling stations, but Azerbaijan (according to the Azeri Central Election Commissioner) was the first in Europe to both install web cams and make the feed publicly available in 2008. University of Kansas professor Erik Herron was in Azerbaijan at the time, and has published an article in Electoral Studies on the use of webcams in this election. He was kind enough to provide the following guest post; Herron also blogs about post-Soviet electiosn at http://vse-na-vybory.blogspot.com/ and is on Twitter @erikherron.

Webcams installed in over 90,000 polling stations all across Russia provided a glimpse of activities – some mundane and some illicit – that occurred over the weekend as voters cast ballots in the presidential election. Russia is not the first post-Soviet state to experiment with this form of monitoring, however. In 2005 and 2008, Georgia placed closed-circuit cameras in polling stations, but the video feed was not made public.

In October 2008, I attended the press conference of Azerbaijan’s Central Electoral Commission where the CEC director proudly announced that Azerbaijan would be the first country “in Europe” to broadcast live streaming video footage from polling stations online. Five-hundred polling stations (out of 5400 or so – numbers vary from election to election) were equipped with fixed cameras that showed a general view of polling station activities without audio. On election day, I visited a precinct in Baku streaming video and colleagues also checked video feeds to ensure that they were indeed live (in contrast to the allegedly fraudulent footage in Magadan on Sunday). Based on that experience and data from Azerbaijan’s CEC, I investigated the effects of monitoring by webcams and published the results in Electoral Studies (gated).

Although none of Azerbaijan’s elections have been assessed as meeting international standards by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, officials in 2008 were talking about transparency and fair play. In the previous election in 2005, many polling station officials were punished for alleged misdeeds. In the article, I suggested that polling station officials monitored in 2008 faced incentives to deliver the vote for the pro-regime outcome (as always), but also had to be mindful of the possibility that they would be punished for evidence of egregious fraud. These countervailing incentives would encourage officials to satisfy demands to produce pro-regime outcomes, but perhaps moderate the reported results.

Fixed webcams allowed observers anywhere in the world to watch the proceedings while officials remained unaware of who was watching. Since cameras were not mobile, however, perpetrators of fraud could simply act out of view. Some activities, such as extensively padding turnout data, would be difficult to accomplish unnoticed as cameras captured the comings and goings of Azerbaijani voters. Indeed, the main issue for political elites in both elections was turnout, as the outcomes were pre-determined.  The regime hoped to have strong turnout to illustrate support for President Ilham Aliyev in the presidential election in 2008 and for the constitutional reforms on the ballot in 2009. The data analysis revealed that the presence of webcams was associated with lower reported turnout and less so with lower reported regime support, consistent with the incentives facing local officials and limitations of the cameras.

Russia’s experiment with webcams differed from Azerbaijan’s. As I blogged in late January when Russia’s plans for webcams were clear, the decision to cover the entire country rendered a similar analysis impossible as all polling stations would receive the treatment. But, Russia’s decision provided the public with ample opportunities to point out oddities, including ballot boxes containing voting papers before the start of elections, a Kalashnikov in Chechnya, along with videos that seemed to show other violations. More countries plan to follow the lead of Azerbaijan and Russia: one Ukrainian region is already planning to install webcams in its polling stations for the October 2012 parliamentary elections.