Refugees Voting – setting up an International Palestinian Electoral Commission

By Hugo van Randwyck

Is it time for Palestinian refugees and diaspora to take a pro-active initiative in organising their voting rights? I believe so. Currently only Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza have the vote, and have elected representatives. The majority of Palestinians live outside Palestine, and they also have more freedom to move and do things than Palestinians inside the Holy Land. There is a simple process that can give the majority of Palestinians, who are refugees, voter registration and voting in around 10 to 12 weeks, with a well trained team.

What sort of steps could be organised?

Firstly, list out all the organisations, processes, people and resources needed for such an initiative.

Organisation–Commissioners, Chief Electoral Officer and Electoral Offices

It is important to have an independent International Palestinian Electoral Commission, who can co-ordinate the voter registration and voting. Such an organisation could be modelled on the Palestine Central Elections Commission, which has a board of Commissioners, comprising a Chairman, Secretary General and seven other members.

The Commissioners appoint a Chief Electoral Officer, whose role is to oversee the administrative and executive bodies of the Electoral Commission. The Chief Electoral Officer runs the International Electoral Office.

The overall areas of responsibility for the Electoral office include:

  • Developing strategies for each phase of the election processes and action plans for their execution
  • Recruiting and training electoral employees.
  • Preparing the preliminary and final Voters List.
  • Coordinating with all organisations concerned with the electoral process
  • Accrediting electoral lists, their candidates, independent candidates and their agents
  • Raising voters’ awareness of the importance of elections and how to participate in them.
  • Archiving all documents and files relating to the elections.
  • Acting as a communications link between the International Electoral Commission and other bodies concerned with the elections, such as political parties, media, observers and candidates.
  • Accrediting local and international observation bodies and media representatives

Electoral Commission Offices

To implement the work a number of main departments are needed to carry out the work:

The Field Operations Department: which is in charge of drawing up, conducting and administering plans elated to voter registration and polling and coordinating between the electoral districts and the headquarters. With sections for: planning and support, logistics, field coordination.

The Electoral Procedures Department: responsible for preparing all electoral procedures in terms of challenge and exhibition, nomination, observation, parties affairs, voting and counting. In addition, the department is responsible for preparing civic education and awareness programs. With sections for: procedures and training, political parties and candidates, voters education, graphic design.

Administration and Financial Department: overseas the administrative and financial aspects of the Commission in accordance with the laws and regulations instituted. With sections for: personnel, administrative services, accounting, procurement, financial audit.

The IT Department: works on providing technical resources, setting up and organising communication techniques and developing the software necessary for the Commission in a timely and secure manner. With sections for: management information systems (MIS), system/networking and Technical support.

A number of offices would need to be set up:

A Headquarters: which would have the offices of the Chairman and the Commissioners. The office of the Chief Electoral Officer and the various departments of the Electoral Office would also be there. London may be a good place, or Beirut as another option.

Regional Offices: they would likely be located in capital cities round the world. Since many of the refugees live near the Holy Land, offices in Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Damascus would be essential, and also in London, Washington, Toronto or Ottawa, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Sydney or Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Bogota and other cities. These offices supervise the execution of the various electoral processes, such as voter registration, polling, and the counting of votes, within the boundaries of each district, each of these offices report to Headquarters. It may be possible to use mobile laptops for the voter registration, so no need to have offices set up in each major city in each country, and only have an office in each capital city.

Registration and Polling Centres: these are the centres at which members of the public register to vote and cast their ballots on polling day. These would need to be in schools, village halls, churches/mosques and used for the duration of the registering and voting, for example 6am in the morning to 10pm at night.

Some Qs & As

So who would be eligible to vote?

There would be three types of people with various proof of identity:

UNWRA records – which show who the people are and where they came from in 1948, which is clear enough

Birth Certificates – people who could leave and bring with them proof of identity, e.g. a birth certificate before 1948

No proof of identity – a possible option here is, for those people to have 2 people who have full identification papers, to vouch for them, and also be open for any challenge as to their identity.

Does everybody need to be registered before voting can take place? No. 80% of something is better than 100% of nothing. Or even 95% is better. There may be some logistical problems for some people, or lack of proof of identity, or other questions – it is better to not let this delay the elections by months, any delay would not help the Palestinians. Since 70% of Palestinian refugees live around Palestine, voter registration would be easy.

What if some governments won’t allow voter registration? Like a stream, start where it is easiest to move forward and go from there. Starting in European countries, would give momentum and make it difficult for countries to be against a pro-democracy approach. Countries in the Middle East have seen what happens when they are not in tune with their populations.

Where could all the data be stored safely? A possible option could be at friendly embassies with a good democracy record.

How could the voter registration and voting be funded? Typically voter registration costs around $2 per person, and there are a possible 2 million or more voters. So a fundraising effort could be launched. There are likely to be a number of people around the world who would be happy to also support a pro-democracy solution. A ‘ballots not bullets’ process, such as this, would be supported by a number of people.

What would be on the Voter Registration Card? The name of the Palestinian, their town of origin, district of origin and their current address, as a minimum.

Who would be eligible to register? Anyone who can trace their family to 1948 as a Palestinian, this could include children and grandchildren of families who left in 1948.

How could this be made public? Simplify by daily updates on the news, e.g. 300,000 voters for Jaffa, 250,000 for Haifa,, 275,000 for Acre, 100,000 for Nazareth, 70,000 for Tiberius, etc

Who would people be voting for? A representative for the town/district of origin, e.g. Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, etc, and also a Palestinian President.

Who could be the candidates for election? Anyone who has proved they are Palestinian. They can live anywhere in the world.

Could these elections be coordinated with other Palestinian elections? Yes, there could be Unity Elections, where the Refugees, Diaspora, West Bank and Gaza all vote on the same day.

How long between each election? Currently there are 4 years, however to overcome any problems of one party stronger than another for a period of time, perhaps a shorter period could be better. Initially the time between elections could be 1 year, then maybe 2 years, and see how it goes.

What would these newly elected representatives do? They would be able to coordinate with all other Palestinian representatives, and work on a number of things: visiting overseas Parliaments and explaining better what has been happening since 1948, help improve the lives of refugees and diaspora, look at referendum questions that refugees and diaspora may want to vote in, and other things that come up.

Where would the representatives meet? There are a number of options. The first option would be in Palestine itself, Jerusalem or Ramallah, however Israelis have a habit of arresting and detaining democratically elected Palestinian representatives. Another option would be to meet in another country e.g. Beirut or London. Beirut makes sense because it is close to teh region where most of the refugees live. London has benefits in that it is a western democracy and would be convenient for other western politicians to meet and visit and also for Palestinian representatives to travel to other western countries. Meetings with politicians in the West bank and Gaza, would need to be done for via video conferencing – not ideal, but better than now where over 50% of Palestinians have no elected voice.

What form could the structure be? It could be the Palestine National Council. Or the existing PA process of 66 seats directly elected for towns, with another 66 for party choice. While voter registration is happening, people could discuss this, and also after the first elections, a referendum could be organised, asking Palestinians which one they would prefer.

How long would it take to organise? The first Palestinian elections in 1996 took 10 weeks for 1 million Palestinians to be registered and vote and count the votes, including hiring and training new people. With a good team and resources, a timeframe in this area could be achievable. Some countries could be quicker than others.

Where could the people/Palestinians be found to run this process? There are many able and highly skilled Palestinians in refugee camps and around the world.

How could Palestinians around the world support such a process? By adding support onto their websites, by offering to help with any logistics, location ideas, people for helping with the process, fundraising activities, speaking at conferences in support, writing articles, also on English language, websites/media, etc

Are there resources that could assist? Yes, many are freely available on the internet, searches could be for: elections.ps , ifes.org, aceproject.org the Electoral Knowledge Network, voter registration manual, are some example. Friendly governments could also help. There are ideas for equipemtn, training etc. There are simple options of using laptops that can be taken from refugee camp to refugee camp and also city to city in a small briefcase, to register people easily.

Why not ask Palestinians to vote for representatives for their camps and countries they are in? There are a number of benefits of voting for town/district of origin in Palestine. Firstly, by voting for e.g. Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, the Palestinians are not seen to be getting involved in the internal politics of their host countries, e.g. Lebanon, and Jordan – so making it easier to get local support for the process. Also, since 70% of refugees live near Palestine, it is likely that people elected already live in the camps, so would be able to represent the camps and continue looking to improve conditions – after the first election, representatives would be allocated camps and countries to represent. By voting by town/district, it is possible to have ballot boxes with Jaffa, Haifa, Acre names in English and Arabic, on them, so the news media can show people casting votes into these boxes, making it easier for people to understand what has been happening all these years, also to see that in 1948 and 1967, Palestinian voters were expelled. This will help people around the world ‘see and hear’ the refugees.

Media

It would be possible to show the voter registration and also voting results on the news media with graphic illustration, with numbers for: Acre, Safed, Tiberius, Nazareth, Haifa, Jaffa, Beisan, Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus, Ramallah, Ramleh, Jerusalem, Gaza, Hebron, Beersheba. Also the media could be invited to the voter registration and voting stations to show the world.

Palestine Central Elections Commission

The Palestine Central Elections Commission website has a lot of useful information, for helping organise Palestinian refugee/diaspora voter registration and voting. They organised the first 1996 elections, from nothing, within 10 weeks, 1 million voters were registered and had voted and votes counted.

International Recognition

A key benefit would be international recognition, so using Out of Country Voting (OCV) would be useful, since it has been used by other refugees/diaspora and have been recognised and supported also be western democracies, including America. So having international election observers and overseas media broadcasting the events would help in many ways.

Summary

The sooner Palestinians set up an International Palestinian Electoral Commission, along the lines of: a Chairman, Secretary General, seven other members and they choose a Chief Electoral Officer, who can oversee the administration of elections, the sooner refugees and diaspora can register and vote. The sooner departments for: Field Operations, Electoral Procedures, Administration and Financial and also IT, can be set up and working.

There are 2 phases, firstly voter registration and them voting. Each phase helps Palestinians in many ways. Giving a voting voice to the refugees and diaspora, would have many benefits, as well as allowing Palestinians a positive approach that includes all of them. Unity of all Palestinians being registered to vote and then all voting on the same day helps with unity.

Maybe it is the turn of the refugees and diaspora to have their own ‘voting intifada’ and ‘voting voice’ and translate that into a pro-democracy voting initiative. This would also be easy for politicians around the world to support

The opportunity for refugees and diaspora to express themselves in elections could help in many ways and assist the international efforts in peace and justice. The refugees and diaspora would like to see something positive that helps them, and a way for them also to help – this is such an initiative.

By Hugo van Randwyck.  He can be reached at hugo.vanrandwyck@gmail.com.

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