Bradenton businessmen help monitor foreign elections

jsalman@bradenton.comSeptember 16, 2012 

BRADENTON -- On a brisk October evening, a man from a rural village in the Republic of Georgia will walk into a local precinct to vote.

For the small country in Eastern Europe -- on the losing end of wars throughout the decade -- it's a privilege the people greatly cherish.

This year, two business partners from Bradenton will be on hand, watching to ensure everyone plays by the rules.

Or, at least, one of their many trained volunteers will be.

Verifying voter documents. Observing ballot counters. Speaking to poll workers.

Tom Nolan and David Wilcox are so invested in the democratic process, the Bradenton duo has formed a nonprofit organization to help less politically gifted nations run a clean election.

"It's interesting to see the things that go on," Wilcox said from the nonprofit's Old Main Street office, where a woven floor rug made 100 years ago in the former Soviet nation is a reminder of past trips.

"This is not the U.S. We're not in Kansas anymore or the Georgia up the road. It's a different place. It's a blossoming democracy, but they're not there yet."

By day, Wilcox is a Bradenton attorney; Nolan a political consultant. The two teamed with Jacksonville consultant Brace Barcelo to form the Committee for Open Democracy in 2010.

The nonprofit specializes in international election monitoring, with a focus on former Soviet republics.

They go where they're called, usually by a competing political party concerned with bullying from an incumbent regime.

But the independent committee has no dog in the fight.

"Our job is not to take on a winner or loser," Nolan said. "Our job is to make sure the process is free and fair."

The committee first deploys what it calls long-term observers into a country, a pool of employees who scout the initial problems there.

The observers travel from major metropolitan areas to the smallest villages to discuss the electoral process with voters.

They monitor the political parties, current government and even the media.

Are the voter files accurate? Does the local press have proper access? Are the peaceful rallies shut down?

If anything goes awry, the committee will notify journalists and even embassies that can safely relay that message to the masses.

About 20 long-term observers are now in Georgia preparing for the Oct. 1 parliamentary election. Another 17 support staff are there as translators, drivers and office clerks.

More volunteers, who also serve as observers on voting day, will make their way to Georgia as the date draws nearer.

The group will bring 100 observers to the Ukraine for the Oct. 28 vote. Monitoring teams also will be in Montenegro and Slovenia this year.

"You can't just walk into a country and see this stuff," Wilcox said. "It takes some time to get a feel for what's going on."

The Committee for Open Democracy worked in the Ukraine during the 2010 election cycle. Troubling activity was spotted.

The agency knew at 2 a.m. the morning following the election that fraud had seeped into the process.

The group found 45 ballots assigned to voters registered as living in an apartment complex that was vacant. Another 500 came out of a mental hospital that had just 75 patients.

Voter files had been tampered with. Xeroxed ballots had been counted as official.

The biggest problem, though, were carousels.

The voter fraud scheme starts with just one blank ballot. A person on the street then solicits voters with bribes to play along.

The voter takes the ballot penned by the fraudster and sticks it in his coat. After entering the precinct, he signs the roll, gets a new blank ballot, pulls back the curtain in the polling booth and files the predetermined vote.

As he walks out, he gives the fraudster back the fresh, new ballot. And it starts all over again.

People on the streets will offer voters $30 to $50 to participate, a sizeable bonus for a country where the average worker nets $500 a month.

Committee observers routinely spotted carousels at voting locations.

One volunteer even saw a pick-up truck drive away carrying boxes of new ballots from the printing mill at 9 p.m. on election night. The votes were supposed to be in four hours earlier.

"They want to have a free process, but there's still a lot of problems that occur in these countries," Wilcox said. "This is all new to them. It's not the way it used to be. This is not their father's country."

If committee observers find carousels, they don't try to stop them. They report the problem.

And no one has been seriously injured or attacked.

Because of the manpower involved, travel expenses and support staff, each election costs the committee more than $250,000 to monitor.

The funds are raised by the nonprofit solely through private donations.

With dysfunction still part of the election process, the committee knows it has plenty of work ahead. But those who support the democratic process praise the efforts to protect it.

"We're at a time where there's a lot of new democracies, but they have no experience," said Rosalie Shaffer, president of the League of Women Voters of Manatee County. "Unless you have the proper procedures, it won't work the way you want."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.

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