BANGKOK — Can people trust that the Aug. 7 referendum charter draft will be transparent, impartial and credible?
Given the junta’s wielding of absolute power and its big stakes in a “successful” outcome of the Aug. 7 referendum on the constitution it wants passed by the public, there are many questions about the process.
Why does the ballot require a fingerprint? How reliable is the privately developed app used to report returns? Why will only 95 percent of the votes be counted for the day-one results? Will the presence of soldiers interfere with the outcome?
To understand how it is all supposed to go down Sunday, we asked two people who should know best, Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn and Wanchai Jakikusol, who runs the commission department responsible for the voting logistics.
Despite recent rumors circulating on social media that ballots would be counted in secret, the commission said ballots will be counted at polling locations Sunday. That is except under certain circumstances, such as if it’s too dark to see due to lack of electricity. There are 95,000-plus polling stations around the kingdom and virtually all should be counted openly once the polls close at 4pm on Sunday.
Both Somchai and Wanchai said they believe the process will take more time than a typical, single-question referendum because there is a second question on the ballot.
The first asks whether one endorses or rejects the junta-sponsored draft charter.
The second asks whether one approves of allowing for five years the unelected, junta-appointed senate to take part in selecting the prime minister along with elected MPs, essentially creating the chance of having a prime minister not elected directly by the public.
Not all counting may finished as some polling stations may have no electricity and it may turned dark before the counting is done. As the EC has limited budget, said Wanchai, there’s a possibilities that some counting may have to continue elsewhere after dark but transportations of ballot boxes will be done independent of the military junta.
Both men urged the public to be the commission’s eyes and ears during vote counting, despite the fact that no Thais have been accredited as election observers under a technicality interpreted from the junta’s Referendum Act passed by its interim legislature.
To make a formal complaint of misconduct or irregularity, one must physically visit a provincial office of the Election Commission, or EC, or via an EC smartphone app available for iPhone and Android.
On Monday, an unofficial network of organizations created an unofficial monitoring group and urged the public to report irregularities Sunday on social media using hashtag #ส่องประชามติ (#monitoringreferendum).
The Election Commission only has 2,000 staff, so virtually all polling station workers will be a mix of paid and appointed volunteers, mostly drawn from local administrators under the Interior Ministry and teachers from the Education Ministry.
There will be two security guards at each polling station and at least one of the two will be a police officer, Wanchai said.
One may be a military officer if necessary. The two insist the military under the command of the junta will not be allowed inside the polling stations.
“They have nothing to do with it. They have no duties inside, and they will be outside the stations,” commissioner Somchai added.
Somchai shrugged off the possibility of the junta sending soldiers inside polling stations and hypothetically compromising the vote counting or creating a climate of intimidation during the vote.
“That’s too imaginative,” he said, adding that the counting method will be no different from other elections organized by the EC in the past.
Wanchai was more forthcoming about the possibility of a “military intervention” at the polling stations and beyond, however.
“[The junta] has no right. They won’t be let inside. But I don’t know if [junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha] will use Article 44 or not?” he said, referring to the absolute power Prayuth granted to himself, ex officio, after seizing power in 2014.
“Well, they have taken over the country and they can do whatever they like… but we won’t let them stand inside,” Wanchai said.
Somchai swears the junta cannot tell him what to do and he will try to make sure the counting will be fair and transparent. “I don’t know if they can point a finger and tell someone to do this and that or not. But they can’t point a finger to me and tell me what to do,” said Somchai.
Seeking to demonstrate the durability of ballot boxes, Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn achieves the opposite Tuesday.
For possibly the first time, voters will be required to affix a fingerprint to the top of their ballot, above their vote.
This is not to intimidate voters by linking their identity to their vote, Wanchai said, but was intended as a marketing maneuver. The commission hopes people will take selfies with their inked fingers, he said, and share them on social media, thus encouraging others to come out and vote.
Meanwhile, Somchai boasted five step security measures on the ballots and his colleague agreed they could not be forged.
“The printing house we chose is a secure printing house dealing with important papers such as checks, stamps and other documents,” Somchai said. “Staff are body-checked before they enter or leave the premises and there are EC staff guarding the place, even at night, plus the five-step anti forgery measures.”
Despite the fact the millions of ballots have already been printed at a secret printing house, Somchai maintains that somehow he’s the only person who knows what color they are.
“I alone knows what color it is,” he said of the ballots. “So there’s no need to investigate others if there are forged papers.”
Among the five measures introduced include micro letters hidden in the voting papers and the use of special ink only visible under ultraviolet light.
Only three EC staff have knowledge of the details, Somchai said, and measures four and five are kept secret as they employ sophisticated technologies the commissioner would not reveal.
Credible Counting and Reporting?
Tallying up the results will be done in parallel through two systems. This will be the first time an app will be used by the EC to quickly tally results.
Somchai said only two hundred thousand baht was spent on the Rapid Report app.
The app has not been publicly tested and its source code is unknown but the commissioner said a drill will take place twice, once tomorrow (Wednesday) and on Aug. 6, a day before the vote. Somchai would not name the private firm who developed the app.
That said, the app’s main utility, he said, is to satisfy public curiosity and the results reported through the app will not be regarded as official.
The responsible staff at each polling station will be given a username and password for filing results from each of the 95,000-plus voting locations around Thailand. Results will start coming in after polls close at 4pm and will be tallied until 9pm on Sunday. They will feed into the EC’s headquarters at the Chaeng Wattana Government Complex in Bangkok, where they will be displayed by regional, provincial, and national levels on two large screens set up in public view.
There’s a catch, however. Only 95 percent of the total vote will be reported through the app.
Both Somchai and Wanchai said this is in order to avoid possible discrepancies with the official result process running in tandem, the results of which will be made public by Wednesday at the latest.
Both Somchai and Wanchai said this could mean that if the results from Rapid Report system are very close, say 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent, then the final official result could end up tipping the outcome the opposite way.
“That’s a possibility,” Somchai said.
Somchai in fact expects a possibility that only 80 percent of the votes will be sent in through the app by 9pm on Sunday as he reckoned that about 5 per cent of the voting stations have no phone connectivity.