ISC's Matthew DeGroot, in Georgia to launch our new project, writes about the dramatic events that took place the day after he arrived.more
In November 2007, working with our partner, the International Foundation for Election Systems, ISC launched a program in Georgia to strengthen election systems and ensure the robust participation of civil society in elections scheduled for the fall of 2008. Immediately afterwards, however, a government crackdown on opposition protesters in Tbilisi precipitated a dramatic shift in the political landscape. The popular but embattled President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, saw a sudden erosion of his support, and called snap presidential elections to be held on January 4th. Suddenly a project that was to have lasted more than a year was compressed to less than two months.
In less than four weeks, ISC helped IFES establish an office, recruit and hire experienced staff, and compete and award a series of grants designed to spur voter education and support media independence in the pre-election period. Our goal—to ensure that all citizens, regardless of background, were ready and able to exercise their voting rights on election day by focusing on traditionally underrepresented groups—national minority populations, women, youth and first-time voters, and people with disabilities, among others.
Up next? We will continue to work with our grantees to support voter education and mobilization running up to the Parliamentary elections that will likely be scheduled for May 2008 to ensure that the election focuses on critical issues and candidates' positions on those issues, as opposed to personality alone.
- Collectively, our grantees produced and distributed over 500,000 printed materials—1 for every 6 registered voters in Georgia—containing technical election information and information on the candidates in 5 languages. These materials covered voting procedures, voter list issues, election law, candidates and their platforms, and how to identify and report violations and fraud. In many cases, these materials were distributed door-to-door by hundreds of volunteers.
- On the media side, we helped over a hundred local and regional journalists receive expert training in covering election issues effectively. Dozens of radio and television PSAs, news reports, and special programs were produced and broadcast in every region of Georgia. Live, televised debates were conducted at 20 regional television stations—in the majority of cases, this programming represented the only locally produced and broadcast election-related television content during the entire campaign period.
- Partly as a result of these efforts, there was record or significantly increased voter turnout among traditionally underrepresented groups. Participation in the Kvemo Kartli and Samstkhe Javakheti regions—areas with large Azerbaijani and Armenian populations, respectively—exceeded that of any previous election. Several community leaders and service providers also reported double the usual turnout among refugee populations. Numerous project participants and beneficiaries reported significantly increased ability on the part of the electorate to vote correctly, and identify and document when violations occurred.