In recent weeks, DRI has released two policy papers on the role that Open Data and Voting Megacentres can play in exposing electoral fraud and the challenges of adapting these vital tools in Lebanon’s mainstream politics. The analysis drew on exclusive electoral data from the May 2022 General Election. To speak more about the two papers, we sat down with Ibrahim Jouhari, author of the papers and a data-driven researcher who for five years has collected and analysed public data on the topic. Our two reports on Open Data Elections, and Voting Megacenters, can be read in full, in the attachment section below.
On “Every Ballot Counts”:
DRI: What was the initial idea behind conducting research for Every Ballot Counts, and how did it develop into concrete findings?
Ibrahim: I have been mulling over the idea for a long time, but the inability to access, manipulate, and analyse data rapidly after the May 2022 elections to uncover any statistical anomalies made it a long-term process.
The Constitutional Council has an electoral complaint window of two months, yet the data was unavailable in a machine-readable format such as Excel. Two months after the elections, I discovered indications that something was not quite right. When I pitched the idea to DRI, we found two undeniable examples that can be called fraud or at least blatant mistakes.
DRI: You’re referring here to the cases of Akkar and Jbeil; what were your findings in the Akkar case?
Ibrahim: In the May 2022 elections, the overall turnout in Lebanon was similar to previous elections. When we looked closer into the domestic participation rates, we discovered they were lower than usual, yet the expat voting rate was higher, which equalised the overall turnout rate.
All 15 districts and 26 sub-districts witnessed a lower local voting rate. Akkar was the only district where local turnout was higher than in 2018. As a statistician, you immediately notice something wrong when you see it.
We isolated the data from 15 specific polling centres in a cluster around Tripoli, where there was an uptick in voting behaviour, leading to an additional 2,500–3,000 votes for particular lists.
DRI: What difference would taking action on these data findings have made?
Ibrahim: I can't say if it's a fraud case, but I could have made that analysis within two months had the open data been available three days after the elections. This would have constituted a plausible claim for the Constitutional Council to investigate the votes and check for ballot stuffing.
DRI: Regarding the case of voided ballots in Jbeil, what data framework caught your attention, and how did you develop it?
Ibrahim: Voided ballots are a critical statistic when researching an election. Lebanon’s voided ballots average was 2.7%, and the average of out-of-country voided ballots was 2% across all districts except for Mount Lebanon, which was 6%.
We looked into this anomaly in Jbeil, where a specific commission had a 24% rejection rate of out-of-country ballots. We’re talking about 300 votes from overseas constituencies, like France, the USA, and the Gulf countries that usually vote for change.
DRI: What is the importance of implementing such research to combat electoral fraud in the future?
Ibrahim: If we can obtain electoral data in a machine-readable format within the first two months after elections, we can analyse statistical anomalies that point to possible fraud cases early enough to bring it to the Constitutional Council’s attention. Without open data, electoral fraud will remain unpunished.
On “Voting Megacentres”:
DRI: What was the initial idea behind conducting research for “Voting Megacentres,” and how did it develop into concrete findings?
Ibrahim: There wasn’t a lot of research about it in Lebanon besides an executive summary by the Ministry of Interior exploring the legal, logistical, and funding considerations of its implementation.
When we looked at international peer-reviewed journals about the benefit of larger polling centres, we found solid evidence that neutral centres (i.e., not a mosque or church) increase turnout. Accessible voting centres with ample lighting and a clear entrance/exit equally impact voter turnout.
DRI: What is the significance of these findings?
In Lebanon, people don’t vote where they live but where their ancestors come from. 30% to 40% of Lebanese living in big cities like Beirut, Saida, or Tripoli have to travel several hours to vote in their village of origin, where they are subjected to pressure from traditional parties and family members.
Megacentres are well-organised polling centres allowing people to vote without being coerced by political parties or peers in the presence of police agents and electoral observers. If well-equipped, these centres would also enable people with disabilities to vote easily.