Tales of Election Observation

By Julian Dierkes

As Mongolia votes today on June 29, I’m feeling a bit left out. I was an election observer in the last four national elections, but am unable to be in Mongolia this time around.

Role of Observers

I do think it bears remembering that election observers can play an important role. Mongolia continues to suffer from a lack of trust in election procedures that has unfortunately not been alleviated by the introduction of the electronic vote counting machineries. What’s worse, however, in my mind, is that many politicians and even many ordinary Mongolians often repeat allegations of electoral fraud without offering any evidence. I think that is corrosive and undermines democracy.

Party Observers

Election observers participate in the election in part to build trust and confidence in the results. That is true for party observers, by far the most numerous group in most polling stations, whose role is focused on assuring their party that nothing untoward was happening in the polling station. These party observers often spend the entire day glued to a rickety chair, carefully noting the number of voters and watching what happens to voters as they present their id, are handed ballots and deposit these ballots. Later they then compare their notes with officially reported totals for voters, etc. They are doing an important job and do it diligently. They deserve other Mongolians’ thanks for participating in the election machinery in this way.

Domestic Observers

Independent domestic observers are getting more numerous with each election. They are intended to report on the election and thus build general trust in the process or, in the unlikely event of observable fraud or irregularities, to report on these. They are often also very dedicated and spend long hours during the election day as well as in days leading up to this day. They also deserve some thanks.

International Observers

International election observers offer yet another layer of independence that is meant to reassure Mongolians about procedures, but also have a secondary mission to report on the election to the rest of the world. They probably also deserve some thanks.

Some international observations have the advantage of being highly organized and also having a developed methodology at their disposal. That is certainly true of the OSCE Election Observation Mission deployed to Mongolia.

So, hug an election observer today, or at least thank them and take note of the contribution to democracy that they’re trying to make.

Joys of Observers

Of course, the role of an observer is also very attractive and rewarding, particularly to a researcher like myself. Observing the election is also an opportunity to observe voters and to learn about how they feel about the process. Asking voters about any infractions against election laws or irregularities in the procedures adds a nice, somewhat random element of observation, but also is a chance to hear about voters’ concerns and hopes.

I have been an observer in Ulaanbaatar three times and once in Uliastay. When I’ve been in Ulaanbaatar I have tried to get around to different districts and often out into Tov Aimag as well. In fact, my sense of Ulaanbaatar as a city largely stems from these drives around the outer districts to visit polling stations.

My Funniest Encounter

There are also very funny moments in election observation.

In 2012 I was observing with then-MAAPPS student Brandon Miliate. We ended up heading out into Tov Aimag past Nalaikh somewhere.We ended up in a Soum centre that had a very nice cultural hall/theatre at its centre where the polling was taking place.

We walked in, I think it was a little after lunch. Often times, in rural polling stations, there isn’t the constant stream of voters that is more typical of the urban ridings, so everyone in the polling station tends to look up when someone walks in. We dutifully displayed our election observers IDs.

Typically, party observers are sitting along a back wall of the polling station at desks. Often times, they would scoot over on their benches or kindly offer us a chair when we come to observe for some period.

In this case, we sat down next to a very old-looking, but definitely elegant lady in a fancy deel with a couple of medals pinned to her chest. Her ID identified her as an MPRP observer.

After a while she asked Brandon where we were from. He answered, “Canada.” To which she replied, “Oh, so your from the Canadian party!”


That was an interesting thought that we passed on to the Canadian ambassador, Greg Goldhawk, to encourage him to investigate the potential for forming a Canadian party.


About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots @jdierkes@sciences.social and tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Civil Society, Countryside, Curios, Elections, Ikh Khural 2016, Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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