UPDATED at 9:30 A.M. EST on 2017-05-17
More than 300,000 Cambodians may not be able to vote in next month’s commune elections because they do not possess identification cards required for casting a ballot under a new legal procedure put in place by the country’s election committee, election observers and analysts said on Thursday.
A new and complicated procedure of the National Election Committee (NEC), the agency that supervises the country’s national elections, are causing difficulties for voters who must scramble to obtain forms confirming their identities, and jeopardizing their right to vote granted by the country’s constitution, they said.
The legal procedure, adopted by the NEC on March 10 and publicly disseminated in April, requires citizens whose names appear on voter lists, but who do not have an official identification card, to apply for a certificate confirming their identity to vote in commune elections on June 4.
To get a certificate, they must prove their identities, submit three photos of themselves, and have two witnesses appear before officials at commune/sangkat (administrative subdivision) election commission offices between May 4 and June 2.
Observers said some Cambodians who already have registered their names on voter lists believe that they have sufficient documents in order to cast ballots. Others have applied for official IDs but have not yet received them from the Ministry of Interior. They also said Cambodian migrant workers in neighboring countries are the most at risk of losing their right to vote.
The new legal procedure could disenfranchise more than 300,000 people, or roughly 4 percent of the nearly 7.9 million Cambodians who have registered their names to vote, analysts said.
Independent analyst Lao Mong Hay noted that many other democratic countries have far less complicated procedures in place so their citizens can vote for their leaders.
Cambodia, however, is not among them because the country has some legal procedures, such as the new NEC requirement, that prevent its citizens from exercising their right to vote, he said.
“The state is obliged to ensure that citizens can vote easily with minimal expense,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
NEC deputy secretary-general Som Sorida has called on the media to help spread the news about the new procedure to those without ID cards so they can go to administrative offices and complete the paperwork for their certificates.
“If they don’t possess documents confirming their identities for voting, even though they have their names registered on the voter list, they still cannot cast their votes,” he said. “All people must clearly understand this point."
“There are two kinds of documents that people can use to be able to cast their votes—either a Khmer national identification card or a certificate confirming a person's identity for voting,” he said.
Too much, too late
Lao Mong Hay, however, questioned why the NEC did not announce the new procedure when citizens first registered their names to vote.
He pointed to the new voting registration system that requires people to have their thumbprints scanned and possess documents that confirm their identity for voter registration in accordance with the election law.
Because such people already have been issued official confirmations that they are eligible to vote, Lao Mong Hay said the NEC’s further legal procedure requiring prospective voters to apply for a certificate confirming their identity should not be necessary.
“Such legal procedures should have been done as part of a package by the time people went to register their names to vote,” he said. “And the NEC should have let the people know in advance and told the authorities responsible for issuing the identification cards to be well prepared.”
Cambodians in some provinces such as Poipet, Banteay Meanchey, and Kratie have complained about difficulties with applying for certificates confirming their identities.
They said commune authorities are putting up obstacles to the issuance of the certificates and expressed concern that they will lose their right to vote in the June 4 elections even though they have already registered.
Election observers said the NEC should remove the new legal procedure so that citizens who have their names on the voter lists and have received official voter name registration receipts can cast ballots.
Korn Savan, an investigation coordinator for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said few people are aware of the requirement for a certificate confirming their identities in order to vote because of the limited dissemination of information and bad timing as election day approaches.
Nheb Bunchin, spokesman for the royalist political party Funcinpec, agreed that the NEC’s new legal procedure has caused problems for voters, even though the agency, political parties, and other election stakeholders have all urged people to cast ballots.
“The NEC’s legal procedures and formalities are too burdensome,” he told RFA. “People may not go to cast their votes after seeing the procedure, so we are evaluating whether we can create any shortcuts in the procedure and will submit a request to the NEC.”
“We are not sure that they will listen to us,” he said. “Nevertheless, we have to reduce the procedures.”
CNRP weighs in
Cambodia’s main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) also raised concerns over the issue that citizens whose names already appear on voter lists may face disenfranchisement.
It has requested that the NEC simplify the new requirement to ensure all citizens can vote.
“They [voters] are facing difficulties,” said Meng Sopheary, the CNRP’s head of the Election Affairs and Legislation Department. “First, the legal procedure is a bit complicated. Second, they have to spend time [getting the necessary documents]. Third, they have to spend money on transportation [to get to local election commission offices] because some of them work far away, or have migrated to neighboring countries to work, and they have to return.”
“Such expenses, including their time, are reasons they cannot get certificates confirming their identities for voting,” she said. “This will affect the elections because they will not be able to cast their votes.”
In response to the CNRP’s request, the NEC said it only can request that all microfinance institutions return IDs to citizens who have put up the cards as collateral for loans, so that they can use them to vote in the upcoming elections.
Reported by Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.