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Disturbances at the polling station

6 September 2006 – At last March’s local elections, members of polling committees in Bos en Lommer dozens of times had to interfere physically to prevent ethnic minority voters being assisted by their partner or children. The ombudsman calls the proceedings ‘inappropriate’ and calls for a discussion on changing the electoral law.

Members of polling committees frequently entered in discussions with people to explain that it is not allowed to vote for other people or to accompany them to the voting machine. “If that did not help, the chairman or the vice-chairman would stand between both persons, in order to prevent interference by putting up a physical barrier”.

One chairman of a polling committee estimates that it was necessary to interfere physically about twenty times. At other polling stations as well, it was necessary to “interfere in all kinds of ways”, says ombudsman Ulco van de Pol. The general impression is that the situation at polling stations was ‘very turbulent’.

Voters wanted to be assisted because they were illiterate, had language problems, or had difficulties with the new voting machines. However, allowing them to be assisted brings along the risk that their voting behaviour will be influenced.

Some voters did not really know what the elections were about. For example, one person arrived with a note saying ‘I must vote Wouter Bos’. Bos is the national party leader of the social-democrat party and he was not a candidate at the local elections.

The voting committees improvised to deal with the problems, for example by allowing persons to authorize someone else to vote on their behalf, even though this is bending the law. The municipality will provide instructions for the polling committees for the 22 November elections. It is hoped that this will ensure more uniformity in how committees deal with problems.

Also, polling stations will be designed in such a way as to facilitate surveillance of the voting machine.

The ombudsman calls for a national discussion about the electoral law. The law does provide for assistance to people with physical handicaps, but is very strict when it regards other kinds of barriers. If high turnout is valued, changing the electoral law should at least be considered, Van de Pol argues.

The ombudsman’s investigation was initiated at the request of the Bos en Lommer district. Conservative council member Bas van ’t Wout will tomorrow ask for an investigation into voting incidents in the other districts. The ombudsman expects that the same problems will have occurred in all districts with large shares of ethnic minorities, he does not think that a new investigation is needed to find that out.

Also, the recommendations refer to the entire city, not just Bos en Lommer. Furthermore, the ombudsman has finished the present investigation fast to make sure that the findings can be used in the preparations for the 22 November elections. A follow-up investigation might be too late to be of any use.

Van ’t Wout: “As a council member and a resident of this city, I would still very much like to know the extent of the problem. After all, this is serious, it concerns the proper functioning of democracy”. He also points out that six votes can sometimes make the difference in district elections.

Should the extent of the problem be very large, then the procedures regarding the election outcome may have to be changed, making it easier to declare the outcome void, the council member says. Further, he does not rule out that more opportunities must be provided to practice voting on a voting machine, that is, if follow-up research would show this to be the problem.

Van ’t Wout says that he is concerned about the public image of the capital, because of the ‘clumsy’ way in which the elections are organised. He is not only referring to the problems in Bos en Lommer, but also to the fact that Amsterdam was one of the last municipalities to introduce the voting machine, and that there subsequently were power failures at a number of polling stations.

See also: Elections


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