As Election Nears, There’s Little Help for Voters Left Off List

Yim Vivatey has cast his ballot at the same polling station in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district since 2003. He has never moved and has been assigned to the same polling station number each time—351.

But when the wiry 35-year-old tried looking up his name on a loose leaf copy of the voters list clipped to a billboard outside the Veal Vong commune office two days ago, it was nowhere to be found.

“I’m worried I won’t be able to vote,” he said after half an hour of checking and rechecking. “When I told them [commune officials], they just told me to look again. But I’ve checked it over and over and I still can’t find it.”

Mr. Vivatey is not alone.

According to an independent audit of the government’s list for Sunday’s poll, 10.8 percent of eligible citizens who think they are registered are not, 7.8 percent of those who voted in the 2008 national election are no longer registered and 9.4 percent of those deleted from this year’s list were removed incorrectly. It said about 1 in 10 names also belonged to people who might not even exist, raising fears of a small army of “ghost voters.”

Another independent audit concluded that as many as 1.25 million Cambodians could lose their right to vote come Sunday and warned that these could be the country’s least fair elections in 20 years.

The National Election Committee (NEC) has dismissed the audits, even though its own audit came up with much the same results. But around Phnom Penh this week, some hopeful voters giving the list a last minute check at their local communes were still coming up short.

“This will affect the results of the election because it means that votes will be missing,” Mr. Vivatey said before finally giving up.

On the opposite side of the same billboard, Srey Phanna was doing no better.

“I waited this long to check the list because I’ve never had any problems before. I’ve always voted at polling station 368 since 1998,” she said.

After checking and rechecking the commune’s entire list, she too walked off without finding her name.

Inside the tiny, dim office, commune clerk Chum Yeoun claimed that no one had yet been unable to find his or her name.

“We haven’t had anyone who couldn’t find their name,” he said. “If they haven’t moved out, we can always find their names. If they can’t find it, we help them.”

For anyone who did have trouble, he suggested they come back with all their identification records—and a son or a daughter to scan the list for them.

At Phnom Penh Thmei primary school in Sen Sok district, one of the city’s newest, Chea Phat had no trouble finding his name on pages clipped to the shutters of an empty classroom.

“I found my name, but my brother-in-law’s name is missing. He’s voted here for a long time,” he said. “If I can’t find it, he can’t vote.”

Depending on the commune, officials either helped voters find their names, told them to call the NEC or said it was simply too late to do anything about it.

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), which has been warning of the 1.25 million disenfranchised eligible voters, said the NEC has tried to prevent eligible voters from being wrongly taken off the roll.

“But I’m still concerned many people will face this problem,” he said, especially in urban areas, where the opposition happens to have to have its base.

Of the 460 cases of eligible voters not being able to find their names on voter lists recorded by Comfrel observers on election day in 2008, half were in Phnom Penh alone.

A sample of missing registered voters on this year’s list, which Comfrel sent the NEC a few weeks ago, has gone unanswered.

But Mr. Panha said relatively few voters seemed to be bothering to check the list for their names, either in person or online.

“Even in Phnom Penh not so many people are able to check their names online, only the young people,” he said.

Even so, Comfrel and a few youth groups sent the NEC a joint statement urging it to cancel its plans to take the list offline the day before the election “in order to help people, particularly the youth, who are still looking for their names, their families’ names and other eligible voters.”

NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha defended the decision.

“We will shut down the website because we don’t want anyone to use it for propaganda during the two days because it is contrary to NEC regulations,” he said.

Mr. Nytha did not elaborate on what those regulations were, or how the list might be used for propaganda.

But he stood by the list and insisted that the only names that had been taken off belonged to voters who had moved permanently or been away from home for several years.

He also advised anyone who still had trouble finding their names on election day to call one of five hotlines the NEC would be running.

But Comfrel’s Mr. Panha said the hotlines were too little, too late and at this point could do little more than keep a running tally on how many people called to complain.

“But to have a solution, maybe not,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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