A former official with the Rutherford County Election Commission recently returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where he shared his experience with the electoral process.
Hooper Penuel, who served as the administrator of elections here for 10 years, made his second trip to a former Soviet-bloc country to insure free and fair elections through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Penuel's first trip as a short-term election observer was in 2010 to Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea.
"As I traveled across the Ukraine in Eastern Europe preparing to help observe the country’s Parliamentary Election on Oct. 28, I was reminded of the days and hours of training and preparation needed to conduct a free and fair election back home," Penuel said.
"I was also reminded of the fact that – when I passed a giant statue of (Vladimir) Lenin before Ukraine gained independence in 1991 – voting did exist, but only one candidate was on the ballot," he continued. "During the actual voting process in the Ukraine, I also noticed many similarities to voting in Tennessee."
For the observation, Penuel was partnered with, Yolanda Bernotaite from Lithuania, and the pair of elections observers were sent to Starokostiantyniv, Ukraine. The small village sits southwest of Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, and has a population of around 35,000.
They traveled with an interpreter and driver, observing operations at nine different precincts, which included opening the polls, voting procedures, closing the polls, handling of complaints, monitoring of other party observers, and counting ballots and transporting results to the District Election Commission.
Penuel said the most surprising aspect to him was the ease at how Ukrainians cast their ballots.
"Surprisingly with the latest twist here in the U.S. requiring voters to produce picture identification, it could be easier to vote in the Ukraine than in Florida, Ohio or even Tennessee," he said.
Penuel also explained Ukrainian election laws are very similar to those in Tennessee, but the process is slowed by a lack of proper training and technology, coupled with the use of paper ballots.
That lack of technology put finding out the final results past midnight.
"The Ukrainian commission staff had to count the paper ballots, every single ballot, by hand, a somewhat time consuming task, finishing the tabulation about 2 a.m., which was just about the same time Rutherford County finished with their counting in the recent Presidential Election," Penuel said. "The Rutherford County Election Commission experienced the same agonizingly slow task but only after modern technology failed."
The culture also slows down the process, he said. This cultural difference was in evidence after all the ballots had been counted and the poll workers took a meal break before delivering the results.
"After tabulations were complete at our last precinct, we were invited to share a meal, including local sausage, bread, cheese, fruit and even vodka," Penuel said. "We passed on the vodka, but the cheese, sausage and bread hit the spot at 2 a.m."
Penuel said there was a big difference in U.S. and Ukrainian elections, which was seen 550 elections observers during the Parliamentary Election.
"Preliminary findings and conclusions by the OSCE and ODIHR determined that the election was characterized by a 'lack of a level playing field, caused primarily by abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing and a lack of balanced media coverage,'" he said.
The OSCE's findings also concluded that the voters “had a choice between distinct parties, with Election Day being calm and peaceful overall.” With more than 36.5 million registered voters some 58 percent of those eligible to vote actually voted, which is only slightly less than the 63.9 percent of registered voters who turned out in Rutherford County for the Presidential Election.
Other findings noted voting and counting of ballots were assessed mostly positive with “tabulation being assessed negatively with a lack of transparency,” Penuel said.
Regardless of the painstaking process of hand counting ballots, a lack of transparency and vodka breaks, "democracy is alive and well in the Ukraine with elections being the stepping stone to furthering human rights," Penuel said. "The Ukrainians are on the right track and will become a better promoter of democracy and human rights through their efforts with elections with the continued OSCE guidance."