Democracy Lab

The Great Ballot Box Caper

How do you conduct an election when contending political forces don't agree on the rules? An unlikely study in compromise from Northern Ireland in 2005.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

Violence throughout Northern Ireland abated significantly with the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agreement, in which Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists pledged to use peaceful means to seek compromise on Northern Ireland's status. Despite the agreement, sharp divisions left the city of Londonderry, called "Derry" by Nationalists, susceptible to violence. Site of the 1972 Bloody Sunday events, Derry had a long history of sectarian strife, particularly during elections.

The trigger for violence on election days was always the same: The presence of police at polling places. The British-controlled police service was a focal point of ire in the Nationalist community; Derry's Nationalists were particularly angry that police officers were stationed at polling places in their neighborhoods, but not in Unionist areas of the city. They had long resented the police because of a perceived campaign of harassment, including random car searches and raids on suspected paramilitary sympathizers. So the presence of the police at polling stations was seen as a heavy-handed move by the British to intimidate people from voting -- and thereby weaken the Nationalists' voting clout. For their part, British authorities claimed that police were needed to prevent Nationalist political parties from committing election fraud.

Previous election cycles in Derry followed a recurring story line: As poll closings neared, mobs of Nationalists, mostly young men, would gather outside six of Derry's 32 polling places, located in schools in Nationalist neighborhoods. Armed with stones and gasoline bombs, the rioters would take up positions leading to the school entrances. When the polls closed, police reinforcements would arrive to remove ballot boxes from the polling places. The vehicles would maneuver into position near the buildings' doors, and officers in full tactical gear would rush into the schools to collect the boxes and usher the electoral staff into the vehicles. The vehicles were attacked as they drove away. With only one route leading in and out of each polling place, the police were unable to disguise their arrival or alter their escape route.

Patricia Murphy, who was in charge of Derry's electoral office, recalled that the 2004 elections were the most violent in recent memory: On election night, rioters threw roughly 50 gasoline bombs. The police chief of Derry at the time was Ricky Russell, a 24-year veteran of the police service who became chief a few months before the 2004 elections. Witnessing the violence, he knew that something had to be done to change that pattern. Although as commander he had final responsibility to determine the police role at polling places, he recognized that fixing the problem required a joint effort by a broad spectrum of electoral officials, political party representatives, and community activists.

Two of these activists, Tony O'Doherty and Charlie O'Donnell, lived near a "hot spot" polling place, Holy Child Primary School. O'Doherty was a veteran community activist, while O'Donnell was the former principal of the school. Since the early 1990s, the two had mobilized groups of concerned neighbors to help monitor mob activity. Mothers, teachers, and members of the clergy joined the two men as they patrolled polling places and tried to discourage violent behavior. O'Doherty often searched the neighborhood for weapons; he once discovered 30 gasoline bombs stored behind a wall near the school.

With another vote scheduled for May 2005, appeals for a solution to Election Day violence gained urgency. Diverse constituencies recognized that they confronted an intertwined problem. The British government was eager to show that conditions in Derry had improved as Northern Ireland marked the seven-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Electoral officials felt added pressure because of the severity of the unrest in 2004 and the resulting media coverage.

Major political parties also had compelling reasons to work toward a solution. Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the police service and strongly opposed police involvement in electoral matters. But the violence deterred people from voting and thus threatened to cut into Sinn Fein's vote totals. Moreover, in accordance with the 1998 agreement, officials were keen to disassociate themselves from acts of violence.

As community activists, O'Doherty and O'Donnell both believed that the solution to the violence was home grown: "I kept pleading with the people in the elections office and the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland]: ‘Let us take care of the ballot boxes,'" recalled former school principal O'Donnell.

Previous police chiefs had balked at community leaders' contentions that the police were the issue and should be removed from polling places. Police chief Russell, however, did not see on-site police involvement as a precondition for an election; while the police were responsible for the safety of the electoral staff and voters, the law did not require a police presence at polling stations.

In the autumn of 2004, Derry's City Council, whose members included both Unionists and Nationalists, gathered to discuss Election Day violence. Murphy, head of Derry's electoral office, attended the meeting, along with her boss Dennis Stanley, the chief electoral officer of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, the British government's elections-administration arm. Community activists, political players, and some members of the clergy were also on hand, but no police were present. Because Sinn Fein refused to recognize the legitimacy of the police, the two sides never appeared together in public.

Stanley outlined a plan to relocate five of the six hot-spot polling places to less populated areas: "We were looking to find new places that would not attract the rioters," he explained. The idea received a cool reception from Nationalists, who worried about losing votes. A Sinn Fein representative, Barney O'Hagan, offered a counterproposal: "What I proposed on behalf of the party was that we could identify prominent community leaders ... that could escort the ballot boxes out of the polling stations, and there wouldn't be any need for a police presence." Stanley rejected O'Hagan's proposal, and told the council that he would move ahead with his plan to relocate the polling places.

Weeks later, O'Hagan and a delegation of Sinn Fein members traveled to the Electoral Office's headquarters in Belfast, where they met with Stanley and reiterated their proposal. But Stanley remained firm in his plan to relocate the polling places, concerned about the opportunities for ballot tampering. "Sinn Fein were saying that they would police the election, and that was totally unacceptable in any democracy," recalled Stanley.

O'Hagan lamented the apparent stalemate: "There was no compromise. [Stanley's] whole argument was ... the police have a right to be there, they're legitimate. He refused to accept the idea that you could entrust Nationalist communities to host an election without an armed police guard."

After failing to win his point at the Belfast meeting, O'Hagan considered other paths. He realized that he might be able to sidestep Stanley if police chief Russell agreed to the plan, since Russell had the final say on the extent of police involvement. If Stanley went ahead with his plan to relocate polling places, Russell could choose not to station forces at the new sites. O'Hagan knew from speaking with O'Donnell and O'Doherty that senior police officials confided to the community activists that officers did not want to be involved in elections.

Because he was a member of Sinn Fein, O'Hagan had to approach police chief Russell through intermediaries, using O'Doherty and other community leaders to make his case. O'Hagan's message was simple: "We were confident that we could rally the community to support the proposal, and that we could actually give an assurance ... that the safety of everyone concerned would be guaranteed."

O'Doherty talked with fellow community leaders in other hot-spot polling places, and together they approached Russell. "[W]hat the community leaders conveyed to us was that there was a lot that the community could do to reduce the violence," Russell said. He favored the bold initiative to solve a problem that had defied solution by the usual methods.

Following this meeting, Russell met privately with chief electoral officer Stanley to discuss removing the police from the polling places. Stanley opposed the idea on a number of grounds; his primary concern was that the elections might be declared invalid if the ballot boxes were tampered with or damaged during removal.

A few days later, however, the Electoral Office announced that the polling places would remain where they were, and that the police would no longer be present. Community leaders had assured Stanley that they would take steps to prevent rioting; the police, in turn, had indicated they would work with the Electoral Office to minimize the chance of disruption -- including maintaining their distance from the polling places.

In the final weeks before the election, police chief Russell and Murphy, head of Derry's electoral office, met with Alex Penney, the police operations and planning inspector, who had spent 23 years with the police, 17 of which in Derry. The trio worked out new security arrangements for the hot spots. Phones were installed in each school with a direct line to the central police station. A local courier company, using unmarked vans, would pick up the ballot boxes and transport them to a secure holding facility. Van drivers would have radios to communicate with the police station. Police units would be on stand-by near each of the polling stations, and a police helicopter would patrol the polling stations and send back live video to the command center, which would track the vans and detect gathering crowds. 

In the weeks preceding the election, community activists O'Doherty and O'Donnell encouraged community members to help patrol the streets on Election Day and maintain calm outside the polling places. Sinn Fein and the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party drew up lists of individuals who would help keep watch on the streets outside the polling places. 

Security preparations for Election Day 2005 began at 4:00 in the morning. Police swept all 32 polling places in Derry for weapons and bombs, and established vehicle checkpoints on the roads leading to the polling places. These procedures had been routine for decades, and the early start time minimized the risk of any backlash. The polling places opened at 7:00 AM. Police service members Russell and Penney were in the command center at the police station, where a screen beamed live images from the helicopter. Penney periodically called each polling place to ensure there were no disturbances. Both men were in frequent contact with Murphy, who spent much of the day driving among the polling places. Murphy also stayed in close contact by mobile phone with O'Doherty and the other community leaders.

By the evening, no polling station had reported a disturbance. Officers from the police's tactical unit took up positions about five minutes' driving distance from each of the hot spots. When the polls closed at 10:00 p.m., about 200 youths gathered outside Holy Child Primary School, and smaller crowds assembled at other hot spots. O'Doherty told the crowd at the school that the police would not show up. "They didn't believe it, and they hung about for an hour and a half, two hours," he recalled. "But eventually it got through to them."

One at a time, the vans traveled to each of the schools and retrieved the ballot boxes without incident. The helicopter tracked the vans to the holding center. O'Donnell, who only a year earlier had spent the day in the streets discouraging rioting, now assisted the electoral staff in moving the ballot boxes to the courier van. "As we were carrying the ballot boxes out, somebody started to clap and then everybody was applauding. It was just an extraordinary sensation."

Stakeholders hailed Election Day in 2005 as a turning point. By 2010, there had not been a single incident of rioting at polling places since the removal of the police. After successful elections in 2005 and 2007, electoral officials made two procedural changes for handling ballot transportation. First, ballot boxes could proceed directly to the counting center without first being diverted to a holding center. Second, instead of using a transport company, the senior presiding officers at most of the now-former hot-spot polling places drove the ballot boxes in their personal vehicles to the counting centers. (The helicopter patrol, however, remained in place.)

The strategy used in Derry may not necessarily be applicable to other cases; the success of the community-based initiative stemmed in large part from the political and ethnic unity of the Nationalist communities in specific areas of the city. Community activists, party representatives, and potential rioters all viewed the British as unwelcome occupiers of Northern Ireland. The strategies employed to police the elections -- mobilizing manpower in the form of respected community figures, and relying on persuasion by activists, mothers, and clergy -- worked because potential rioters could relate to the enforcers, and vice versa.

Police chief Russell removed his officers from hot-spot polling places because he was confident the idea would work in this particular situation. Had the community comprised both Unionists and Nationalists, any strategy that relied on shared enforcement may have faced significant problems. Former school principal O'Donnell credited the success of the effort largely to Russell's willingness to risk his own reputation, and to the organizational skills of O'Doherty and other community activists.

The success of the 2005 elections in Derry illustrates the power of a shared objective. The entities involved -- the police service, Nationalist party leaders and community organizers, and electoral officers -- were not traditional allies. However, these diverse groups recognized that peaceful elections were in their best interests. As a result, each group assumed risk in an effort to solve the problem of violence. Police chief Russell risked his job by trusting in the Nationalist communities to self-police the elections; Nationalist leaders risked their reputations both inside and outside of their communities by assuring crowd control; and electoral officials risked the integrity of their elections, should fraud be committed. These risks paid off thanks to the interwoven efforts of the stakeholders. As O'Donnell noted with satisfaction, "There were lots of players, but when spiders unite, they can tie up a tiger."

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Rebuilding the Police in Kosovo

In the wake of its war with the Serbs, Kosovo faced a yawning law enforcement gap. Here's how the international community helped an embyronic country rebuild its police.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

In June 1999, after 78 days of air strikes, NATO drove out Serbian-dominated Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. The Serb withdrawal included the police, creating a law enforcement vacuum. International organizations, led by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), held a mandate with two objectives: To establish law and order in the short term, and to develop an indigenous Kosovo police service that could maintain rule of law in the long term.

The agencies encountered a raw, unsettled security environment. Before the war, Belgrade's Ministry of the Interior had administered the police in Kosovo. The police were mostly ethnic Serbs. In 1989, Milosevic purged ethnic Albanians from the service when he revoked Kosovo's autonomy, replacing government and security officials with ethnic Serbs in order to quash Albanian nationalism. As a result, when Belgrade's forces retreated in 1999, Kosovo was left without a functioning police service. Incidents of ethnic violence, primarily by Albanians against Serbs, along with nonpolitical crime and looting, were frequent. Criminal gangs asserted control in lawless parts of the region. Some 33,000 NATO troops intervened to stem the bloodshed, but lacked the law-enforcement training necessary to restore law and order in a post-conflict setting. The UN reported that "[a] growing atmosphere of fear imperils efforts to create the rule of law in Kosovo."

Kosovo's war-induced demographic shifts posed another significant challenge to restoring calm. Before the conflict, Kosovo's population totaled 1.6 million people, with 90 percent ethnic Albanians and six percent Serbs. Attempts at "ethnic cleansing" created an estimated 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees in the neighboring countries of Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, and an additional 500,000 internally displaced citizens. Fearing retribution, an estimated 100,000 Kosovan Serbs, nearly half the Serb population in the region, fled north to Serbia.

UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 1999 established UNMIK, vesting it with all legislative and executive authority over Kosovo -- a unique and powerful executive mandate. Bernard Kouchner, the former French health minister who served as the special representative of the secretary general for the mission, made Sven Frederiksen, a Danish policeman with previous experience in the Balkans, UNMIK's first police commissioner.

UNMIK's top priority was to provide interim law-enforcement services and to create institutions in Kosovo that could support law and order -- specifically, an independent Kosovo Police Service. Doing so required recruiting, vetting, training, and deploying thousands of Kosovan police, creating effective monitoring and oversight institutions, and, gradually, transferring policing responsibilities from UNMIK to Kosovan police themselves, a process that would take years.

From the outset, UNMIK and OSCE had to manage a variety of potential obstacles. One issue was the former Kosovo Liberation Army troops. Excluded from the new police service, and without favorable economic prospects, these former troops were capable of causing significant unrest. To neutralize this threat, Kouchner assigned NATO the job of creating a Kosovo Protection Corps. It would consist of 5,000 active and reserve personnel recruited from among the demobilized military. Members of this corps would be unarmed and would serve in an emergency-response capacity, by assisting in reconstruction, land mine removal, and search-and-rescue operations.

Widespread concern about political meddling posed another challenge. Given the history of police abuse under the Yugoslav system, Kosovans did not view the police as competent problem solvers, so the new Kosovan police faced an uphill battle as it tried to earn public trust. Additionally, UNMIK feared that politicians in positions of authority for the first time would try to hinder the development of a professional, apolitical police service for personal gain. Infighting among members of the Kosovo Transitional Council did not help matters, making it difficult for planners to elicit input and advice from Kosovans. Moreover, police leaders were weary of the Belgrade government's potential interest in thwarting the development of functional institutions that might support a future Kosovan secession.

In early September 1999, only three months after the war ended, UNMIK selected 200 Kosovans (from 19,500 applicants) to form the first class of police cadets. UNMIK independently established a detailed recruitment and selection process that remained unchanged until 2011 (despite its transfer to Kosovan control in 2003). Robert Perito, who had previously provided policy guidance and management to U.S. police programs in Bosnia and East Timor, described it like this: "By the time we arrived in Kosovo, we had several three-inch-thick, looseleaf binders full of information on the recruiting plan. We had worked out a recruiting strategy. We had developed applications; we developed recruiting posters, ads for newspapers, ads for radio, broadcast, and posters to go up on walls in villages. We worked out a set of criteria for new applicants. We developed the plans and actually identified participants to be on review committees." UNMIK recruited cadets using multilingual public radio broadcasts and newspaper advertisements. Because of Kosovo's 65 percent unemployment rate, attracting well-qualified and educated applicants was relatively easy. Initial salaries were low, but exceeded those available to many doctors and lawyers in Kosovo at the time.

In selecting recruits, one aim was to maintain minority representation, especially from the ethnic Serbs. Extending a police presence to Serb-majority areas of Kosovo would be nearly impossible without including ethnic Serb officers. Another aim was to include a cadre of female officers, acknowledging the many benefits of a gender-balanced police service. UNMIK refrained from recruiting ethnic Albanians who served in the former Yugoslav police prior to 1989, due to concerns their Yugoslav training could conflict with the community-oriented ethos of the new Kosovo police. The policy was abandoned only in March 2000, when an initial UN police shortfall necessitated recruitment of experienced officers. Many adapted quickly to the training and development program precisely because they had experience working in a multiethnic police service in Yugoslavia.

The OSCE conducted basic training at the Kosovo Police Service School in Vushtrri, 30 kilometers northwest of Priština, a location selected for its relative quiet. Together with the assistance of the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program and the U.S. Department of Justice, the OSCE prepared training modules even before the NATO military campaign ended. According to Perito, this pre-planning was the key to the success of the recruiting process: "On the basis of that work, we were able to very quickly recruit the first incoming class and get the academy up and running within a matter of weeks after we arrived in Kosovo."

The school's first class graduated after six weeks of academy training, followed by six weeks of field training with UNMIK police officers. U.S. and European police officers initially led multilingual training classes with interpreters, and beginning in 2001 gradually ceded responsibility to Kosovan trainers. Cadets worked with UNMIK officers in the field and gradually assumed greater responsibilities. By 2006, the Kosovo police service stood at 7,335 officers, in addition to 1,600 civilian support staff and 600 security guards. Once an initial cadet service was established, the program extended training periods, and established procedural steps to handle promotions and executive level training. UNMIK groomed Kosovan police with leadership potential to take over positions of increasing authority.

UNMIK and OSCE also set up a network of institutions to monitor police conduct and meet international standards for ethics and accountability. In 1999, UNMIK set up an the Professional Standards Unit (PSU), and internal oversight body responsible for receiving complaints, investigating alleged misconduct, and reporting it to the UNMIK police commissioner. From 1999 to 2005, these investigations resulted in the dismissal of 317 officers. However, the PSU suffered from several shortcomings. First, the complaint-driven investigation process meant that accountability efforts were reactive rather than preventative. Second, the lack of institutional independence created concerns about its legitimacy and the possibility of meddling by other elements of the police service.

To complement the PSU, UNMIK established the Police Inspectorate of Kosovo in July 2006, to be an independent oversight body with a civilian staff, its own budget, and housed within the Ministry of Internal Affairs in order to maintain institutional independence. It served two primary functions: inspection and investigation. Making the inspectorate's reports available to the public provided transparency and established its legitimacy as an oversight body.

UNMIK also established the Ombudsperson Institution in June 2000, with the purpose of enhancing human rights protections in Kosovo. It was authorized to investigate complaints, conduct investigations, and make recommendations regarding compatibility of Kosovan laws with international standards. Organized into three departments -- general discrimination, gender discrimination, and discrimination against children -- the Ombudsperson Institution reported to UNMIK's special representative of the secretary general, until Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 made the agency accountable to Parliament.

Meanwhile, UNMIK, OSCE, and ICITAP funded innovative community policing programs, such as Community Safety Action Teams that aimed to strengthen ties between the police and the public at the local level. These teams of police and local leaders consulted with communities about the problems they faced and worked together to implement solutions. They dealt with diverse complaints about human trafficking, drug use, water and electricity shortages, illegal woodcutting, and environmental issues. Internal impact assessments showed the primary areas of improvements were in ethnic relations (with ethnic Serbs and Albanians working together), traffic safety, freedom of movement by minority groups, and closer relations between police and community members.

UNMIK's sustained presence allowed the transfer of authority to proceed gradually with the growing competence of the Kosovo police, mostly avoiding the rushed transfer of command that often subverted UN police reform efforts in the past. Beginning in 2001, UNMIK handed over patrol responsibilities. Kosovans then assumed command of tactical functions as first-line supervisors in police stations. Next, Kosovans assumed command of operational functions in middle-management positions in police headquarters in Priština, and finally went on to assume senior leadership positions. By 2006, Kosovans commanded all police stations, and by 2008, all but one regional headquarter.

The one exception was Mitrovica region, the only region with an ethnic Serb majority, where loyalties to Belgrade remained strong. Tensions flared up in February 2008 when the Assembly of Kosovo (the 109-member parliamentary body created by the UN, based in Priština) unanimously established the independent state of Kosovo.

Conflict erupted between ethnic Serbs and Albanians around a bridge connecting their respective halves of the Mitrovica municipality. The 709 ethnic Serb members of the Kosovo police refused to continue serving under pressure from Belgrade, and insisted on reporting only to UNMIK. After a protracted standoff, international pressure on Belgrade, coupled with the Kosovo police's flexibility and patience, resulted in almost all ethnic Serbs returning to work by the designated deadline.

In 2011, 12 years after the cessation of armed conflict, the Kosovo police service could be deemed a mixed success. Polling data in 2009 and 2010 found the Kosovo Police to be the most trusted Kosovan institution. It had a low level of corruption. The police met its training targets and achieved diversity in terms of ethnicity and gender, with 10 percent ethnic Serbs and 15 percent women officers. Certainly, obstacles remained. The dearth of judicial personnel meant that despite successful police investigations, many criminals escaped prosecution, conviction, and punishment. Ethnic tensions remained high in Mitrovica, and higher level policing areas, such as for criminal investigations and organized crime, still needed improvement. Despite imperfections, the institution of the Kosovo police is recognized as the "jewel in the crown of the efforts of the international community" in Kosovo.