RADIO NETHERLANDS: World watches as Dutch vote with pencil

June 7, 2010
Radio Netherlands

This Wednesday, Dutch voters will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. Each voter will enter the voting booth, unfold a large piece of paper, and use a red pencil to check a box next to their preferred candidate. Not one voting machine will be used. The Dutch returned to voting with pencils because computers can't guarantee the privacy of voters. The return to voting with a pencil has attracted interest from democracies around the world. The Netherlands is the first country to go back to voting with paper ballots, after making the transition to computers. Other countries are wondering if they should follow the Dutch example.

Not used to counting ballots

Jonathan Stonestreet is the head of the OSCE's election assessment mission.

"What we're interested in is why the decision was taken and what consequences that has in terms of administering the elections. Many people have only voted with machines and now they're going back to paper voting, and many of the people who are administering the elections aren't used to counting the ballots."

Mr Stonestreet's twelve-person election observer mission is part of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. All OSCE countries have agreed to allow such missions. This is the second time OSCE observers have been to the Netherlands. (The first time was for parliamentary elections in 2006 - read their conclusions on their website.)

The mission members come from various OSCE countries, including one member from Georgia and one from Armenia. They have been meeting with various government authorities, political parties and members of the media.

Mr Stonestreet is at pains to emphasize that his mission is routine, a result of the Copenhagen Document, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary on Thursday. In the document, OSCE countries agreed to observe one another's elections.


So Mr Stonestreet stresses that it's a coincidence that the observation mission is here in the Netherlands just months after problems at Rotterdam voting places during recent municipal elections.

"We're not here because of what happened in Rotterdam. That's something we are interested in looking at, the steps that the electoral committee would take in response to perceived problems. But it's not our focus."

It may not be their focus. But The Netherlands is accustomed to sending observers, not to being observed.

Jens Eschenbaecher is the spokesperson of the OSCE's election observation office in Warsaw. He is used to reassuring people sceptical about the observation missions.

"We have to explain in such cases that this is not something that means there is mistrust in the democracy of a country but this is something that has been agreed that has to be followed."

More faith

In fact, the return to paper ballots has only increased Dutch voters' faith in the system. No one expects to find any ballot stuffing, or other such shenanigans. So the observers will not have much to do on election day itself. They will be out and about, but Head of Mission Jonathan Stonestreet says Dutch people will hardly notice them. After all, there are 12 election observers, and 10,000 voting stations.