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S2E20 – HTWM Global Edition: Domestic Observation with Promo-LEX’s Mariana Novac and Nicolae Panfil

In June, hosts Brianna Lennon and Eric Fey, along with Managing Editor Rebecca Smith, traveled to Central and Eastern Europe to learn more about election administration in democracies overseas.

In this episode, our hosts are back in Moldova – a small country nestled between Romania and Ukraine that was a part of the former Soviet Union. They spoke with Mariana Novac and Nicolae Panfil with Promo-LEX, an association that organizes domestic observations of elections at all levels, shares with governmental organizations and citizens about how elections have gone, and shares ways they believe processes could be improved – to restore and build trust in the Moldovan democratic process.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay
Associate Producers: Katie Quinn, Abigail Ruhman

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

Nicolae Panfil: In elections, when needed, we actually can put together a team of more than 2,000 people to work on Election Day, which is absolutely fabulous how these people dedicate not only time, but sometimes they also, for some of them, may get some sort of threats or some sort of pressure and so on, but still they want to do this job.

Eric Fey: Hello, it's Eric Fey and you're listening to High Turnout Wide Margins –

Brianna Lennon: – a podcast that explores local election administration.

Eric Fey: Last June, Brianna and I traveled to Central and Eastern Europe to learn more about election administration and democracies overseas. And we spent a good deal of time in Moldova, a small country nestled between Romania and Ukraine that was part of the former Soviet Union.

Brianna Lennon: We spoke to people involved at all levels of government, from poll workers to district level workers to the people running the Central Election Commission that manages all of the elections in the country. But we also spoke to Promo-LEX, a group that oversees domestic election observation.

Eric Fey: This is an interesting topic as it's become front of mind throughout the United States, as political parties and candidates put a greater emphasis on domestic election observation.

Brianna Lennon: Election observation is a really critical part of the elections administration process because it provides good perspective into how elections are structured, how they are run, provides really good feedback that kind of provide a better context to how democracy functions all across the world.

Eric Fey: In this episode, we're speaking with Mariana Novac and Nicolae Panfil, with Promo-LEX.

Brianna Lennon: Mariana is the program coordinator and Nicolae is the program director of their Monitoring Democratic Processes program.

Nicolae Panfil: Welcome to Moldova. Welcome to Kishinev. Well, I'm a program director at Promo-LEX Association since last year, since April last year, but actually I'm working with this organization since 2013, If I'm not wrong, yeah.

I did psychology in university. I was interested much in political psychology, social psychology. And I was looking for some place where I could use my studies, and I was kind of getting to this type of job because of this interest in doing something that would be both useful for the society, but also interesting for myself.

I was proposed to join Promo-LEX in a capacity of a program coordinator at that moment, and since then – working in this organization.

Eric Fey: Please, if you don't mind, tell us a little bit about you.

Mariana Novac: Hi, again, my name is Mariana Novac. I'm Program Coordinator at Promo-LEX. Well, I started here five years ago as program assistant not really knowing quite specific, what is – what is going to be my journey here.

But I joined the team following [in] my father steps, he was a member of the Precinct Election Commission. So, since, I don't know – I was 15, maybe? Every single Sunday, when it was election day, I was just going to the precinct to observe how it's going, and how is the process. I actually got the chance back when Promo-LEX was not observing the elections to even check the voters list, to see the ballots, and to follow all the process. So, it was quite interesting for me, and I don't know – I always felt close to home, it always felt close to home to me.

I studied law, and we were in my second year visiting Central Election Commission, and it was interesting, and I said, "Maybe I want to work here." It did not happen. Five more years of university, and, I don't know, I just landed here, but I'm really glad because I felt that the values that are promoted at Promo-Lex to be political – political neutrality, to be eager to follow the democratic spirit of the law, it was close to me.

So, I decided to help the team. It was a big team, and we are trying to grow it even more. I am now as I said, program coordinator, and I help find money and all the necessary logistics that we need. And we all try to promote democracy and to maybe make people understand that you have to be conscious, and you have to be involved into building a country that is strong.

Nicolae Panfil: Basically, what Promo-LEX is, is a human rights organization built in 2002. So, this year, we are going to celebrate 20 years anniversary. [We are a] human rights organization, and also striving to promote democratic processes here in Moldova. We are – we have started our organization as an organization focused on helping our citizens from the Transnistrian region to defend their rights, to protect their rights.

But then in 2009, when there was a need in the society to conduct a nationwide election observation, you know, you probably heard about 2009, what is what does it mean for Moldova — the so called “Twitter Revolution” here in Moldova, when the Communist Party was dismissed from power.

Then, there was another organization, part of the coalition that was doing civic observation of elections. After those elections in 2009, that organization disappeared, and there was an urgent need for some organization to take lead and to do this job of observing the elections.

That is how Promo-LEX started election observation. First mission, I remember, it was focused only on the polling stations created for citizens – for Moldova citizens from the Transnistrian region. There was only a few of them. And then in July, we managed to organize very rapidly with the support of National Democratic Institute, NDI, some larger mission.

And since then, we actually observed by now 23 elections here in Moldova, including early local elections, that happens, usually, twice a year. But there was at least 11 nationwide elections that took place during this period of time. So, you can imagine it was quite a tumultuous period for Moldova during this 13 years or so, which impacted our society, and we are actually happy to be part of this effort of the civil society, to contribute to the democratization of our country.

Eric Fey: If I may, in the United States, we really don't have any structure or culture of domestic nonpartisan election observation. Could you maybe explain, both of you, for an American audience, the purpose of this domestic nonpartisan observation? And you've talked a little bit about what, you know, you've worked with CEC or maybe advocated for certain reforms, what are you trying to achieve basically, by this observation?

Nicolae Panfil: Actually, this is also something that we are telling our observers during our trainings. And that is something that we try also to see how the people react to during the training, and to feel whether that person is actually here because he or she is interested in doing something for his or her own country or is just for some other kind of interest.

Because it's not a secret that during the history of our work, we had also many cases when observers already trained by Promo-LEX later on joining some political parties who just pay them some money to do the same job in the polling station, but for a political party. And we are actually glad that they are, at least in this way, also interested in our work, because they also get some very well-prepared observers, even though they work for a party.

But getting back to that question, let [me] put it as simple as possible, and maybe Mariana will add here as well. First of all, we want to increase, or to contribute to the increase of the trust in electoral processes. Democratic process here in Moldova, unfortunately, often struggled from low or rather low trust. Elections, also often seen as a process that is very easy to manipulate.

So our purpose, our presence in the polling stations is meant, first of all, to prevent any potential frauds or any potential irregularities in the polling station. And by that, actually to make sure that people do get clear information about how the process went, whether there were irregularities or not, and to avoid this type of speculations or rumors or disinformation that was happening in the past.

And that was not always true. I mean, you can easily put in the news, for instance, that in some polling station or somewhere, to play some kind of phenomena, and to extrapolate it and to raise huge issue all over the country. Although we, as observers, could for instance see that this took place only on that specific ward in various polling station, or in limited area. So this is one of the- one of the goals.

Second, is to inform the society about the process.

Third, is not less important – to contribute by our observation through the recommendations formulated in the end to the improvement of the practices or electoral practices, but also the electoral legal framework. Should it be like normative acts or the electoral code itself.

So, these three are the main tasks that we have during an election observation mission, and we actually do not only E[lection] Day observation, but we do monitor the entire pre-electoral period and the entire election campaign, so that we can tell for sure how the process went not only by judging the election day, but actually the entire process.

[Mid-episode Break]

Mariana Novac: Well, you were very specific. I will just emphasize that during the training, we are telling our observers that we're not the police. We’re there to observe the process to come up with the findings and conclusions.

And then later on, as Nicolae said, to be back with some recommendations that would improve not only the legal framework and the processes, but the trust of the people that are going to come again and again to elect. And as said, we are following the entire election process – so, our long-term observers are also there to ensure and to be present at all stages. So, that people would know that we're following and then that that is a credible process that that was conducted.

Nicolae Panfil: We are doing this also to ensure credibility, but also sometimes to prevent [sic] politicians or political parties’ candidates to abuse the system. Just to give you an example, in, if I'm not wrong, in 2014 or so, there was a case when Constitutional Court of Moldova was validating the results of, I think they were parliamentary elections. And it was a rather common practice in the past that if some political parties were unhappy with the results of elections – should they be like the third or fifth of the results – they will just complain and they will get this automatically granted, or almost automatically granted, the right to do recounting of the votes.

And I remember why – why do I think this is also an interesting example. It was the first time the Constitutional Court referred to our reports, because we always send out reports to the Constitutional Court, as well. So, they refer to our report and said "Look, Promo-LEX counted the votes in parallel. They didn't find anything wrong with that. So, your demand for recounting is dismissed, grounded on that results of Promo-LEX.”

So, that is how actually, I can say that we are – sort to say proud of – back in 2014, we saved about 20 million leu, which is about $1 million, approximately, of the state budget for a simple recounting of votes – because someone felt that it was not correct, or it was some fault during the elections. Although, we didn't witness any situations like that.

And also afterwards, we continued that practice of sending the reports to the Constitutional Court, and it was often referred to our reports, and even, in some cases, the Constitutional Court sent some notes or requests to the Parliament to address some of the problems to adopt some specific laws for addressing those issues, and so on.

So, yeah, we can say that maybe, it's not always understood or it's not common for the citizens to understand the full impact that we have on the electoral processes, but by doing this in all its aspects, and working, collaborating with different institutions, we can indeed have an impact on how the elections looks like in Moldova and how the democracy, in general, looks like.

Brianna Lennon: And I think that's really fascinating, because, I think, in the United States, a lot of the expectation of observers is to find fraud and find terrible things that are happening, and then be able to bolster the misinformation that's happening. And a lot of what you're saying, and a lot of what has happened is that it's actually helped the election administration field to be able to have Promo-LEX say, "No, we saw that everything went well. We saw that things happen like they were supposed to, and that the election was successful, and that you shouldn't be concerned about fraud, because it didn't happen."

And I think that's one of the things that we're looking for in the United States is a way to do that and not having, I think, probably some of the pushback – especially from election administration – is that they're afraid that anybody domestically that's going to observe is going to try to turn it into this politicized thing.

But Promo-LEX, I think speaks to how that's not the case. It actually will help in all aspects of trying to do that. I'm wondering, can you explain a little bit about how the election administration law works right now and what the appetite is for changing it?

Because I'm sure, you know, we talk all the time about how the infrastructure of how an election operates has a huge impact on who gets to vote and how they vote and opening it up making it more accessible. What, what does that look like, right now? Does it look like Parliament wants to make any of those changes?

Nicolae Panfil: I will start answering that question by actually referring to some former chairperson of the Central Election Commission who used to say, in the past, that these guys at Promo-LEX are the best friends and the best enemies of Central Election Commission.


And the best friends is because of this kind of balanced and neutral attitude, and the best enemies for being the biggest critics, or largest critics, of the activity of the election commission, or of the process in general, when it was the case.

And it was – believe me, it was often the case. It's not that we, of course, we presented to you some examples of like good collaboration, and so we can talk about that. But it was not without struggling during this path. Because every single victory, if I may say like that, was based on a very, very large effort of observation, then formulating a recommendation, then pushing and pushing and pushing either the Parliament or the Central Election Commission for improving their own activity or legislation in this field.

So now, this Election Commission, as you may know, has been formed in 2021. After the elections, it happened that the mandate – there was a coincidence that the mandate had to be renewed after the elections and the new Parliament had this opportunity to come with new people in place.

According to the law, eight persons are, at present, nominated by the Parliament and one by the President. The Parliament – both the opposition and the parties in power – should nominate candidates proportionally. But after they become members of the CEC, after they are voted by the Parliament, they all give the oath to act in a neutral way, to be impartial, to respect the values of nonpartisanship and, and even if they were members who are in support of a party, they should suspend or leave the party and so on.

Of course, this is still a challenge. I can tell from the past experience of the CEC, which is very visible or still visible during the election campaigns, this kind of influence of the bodies that formed the CEC, and that is why, for instance, one of the solutions that we have proposed several years ago, and that is now being discussed in the context of a new electoral code is to change the way the CEC is being formed.

For instance, to have not only the Parliament involved, and the Presidency involved in this mechanism, but also to have other powers that are present in the state. There is now discussions about reducing the number of members of the CEC from nine to seven, or even to five members. That's why I'm saying it should be like two or one from the Supreme Council of Magistracy. They should be also a candidate or two nominated by the government. And there should be still one nominated by the President and two candidates nominated by the Parliament, if I'm not wrong.

The idea is to ensure better balance between different institutions, yeah, present in the society, and also to enforce the capacities of the institution of the CEC by having judges – who are more lawyers, or more specialized personnel – in the components of the commission. There will be specific criteria for this. For instance, like at least 10 years of experience in a similar position in the past.

Then, this reduction of the number of the members – so, just let me rephrase this in a different way. Nowadays, the Central Election Commission, although it has nine members, it's only three of them, that works permanently. So, the rest of them are just asked to join just for the sessions. So, this is a quite a problem because there is a lot of issues to be worked on, and the commission should have its own staff permanently engaged. So on one hand, there will be the reduction of this number of members. But on the other hand, it is proposed that these seven members will work, all of them, like fully only for the commission.

I can say that this is a very good idea, probably – because also in the past, it was often and it is the case that some of the members of the commission, for instance, have to do something else for living, and some of them come from some public institutions, from some other positions being named there, for instance, bounded by some political will, yeah?

Eric Fey: It sounds like the reform you're mentioning would lead to some more independence of the Election Commission. Am I understanding it correctly? Is that one of the motivations for this possible reform?

Mariana Novac: Looking back on ten plus years of Promo-LEX observing elections, and multiple recommendations to the legal framework – legal election framework, we considered last year that it needed to have a discussion and we have to advocate for a new electoral code that would address these kind of issues or problems that may be improved.

So, we came up with the idea to have a project that would support and advocate for a new electoral code, and with the change and the new composition of the Central Election Commission that they actually came with the idea, as well – that they wanted to be the main promoters of this idea.

So, we have changed our plans a bit – not being the ones that are going ahead with the idea. We were just trying to support the initiative to have new electoral code. So indeed, the Central Election Commission during autumn said that they are going to come up with a proposal for a new electoral code. We tried to help and found the election experts that could offer the support that is needed.

In February, they came with the first appearance to the public with the proposals of the new provisions. So, the Central Election Commission and Promo-LEX organized, at the end of May, a public event where the Central Election Commission presented the proposals that you said just a few minutes ago. So, they addressed all recommendations, and they were using also the recommendations of several institutions that had the opportunity to see the proposal to improve the legal framework. So indeed, we can discuss about the today's proposals for Election Day.

And we also came up with a lot more of recommendations. Hopefully, when the proposals or the new electoral code will reach the Parliament, this document will be comprehensive and addressing the main issues and that we were talking about for ten plus years. We – at the event, we also have invited representatives of the Supreme Court, of the Constitutional Court, of the Parliament, the Ministry of Justice. We try to bring all these important people to understand the importance of this process and to understand that change is needed. They said openly that they are interested to make things better, so hopefully when the document will reach the Parliament and public discussions will be made on this platform, the Central Election Commission will have the support they need to have this document approved.

And why it is important at this moment to have this discussion? Because, in the law, we have a provision that says that changes have to be made at least one year ahead of next election. So in 2023, we have general local elections. So, if we want to change something – now is the proper time to have it.

Brianna Lennon: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Brianna Lennon, alongside Eric Fey.

Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay, and our Associate Producers are Abigail Ruhman and Katie Quinn. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. Thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.