​Security Written in Invisible Ink | Phnom Penh Post

Security Written in Invisible Ink


Publication date
21 May 1993 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Kevin Barrington

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While some United Nations' personnel are relying on the skills of squads of heavily

armed soldiers to protect the polling process, Frank Vassala (check), of the electoral

component, is relying on the rather less lethal expertise of a group of fingerprint

and handwriting specialists.

And where flak jackets and sand bags are seen by many as vital, Vassala sees his

'protection assets' more in the line of invisible ink.

He quickly acknowledges, however, that the security concerns looming over the polls

bear little concern for his area of operations.

"I'm primarily concerned with the technical procedures, the counting process

and the counting centers," he said, adding, "We have to continue in the

normal manner for the counting of the ballot papers. So our plans are continuing

on schedule."

The invisible ink, he said, was crucial since there were no measures to stop people

from registering in several places and getting a number of registration cards.

The ink, however, will ensure that any of these over enthusiastic voters will only

be of benefit to the party of their choice on one occasion.

When a person comes to the polling booth, they will have their finger stamped with

indelible ink.

"The ink is designed to penetrate the cuticle. And while it may be rubbed off

skin, it will remain visible around the cuticle under ultra-violet light for up to

seven days. The voting in most areas only lasts for three days, with another three

for mobile polls, so the durability of the ink will outlast the polling period,"

he said.

The fingerprint and handwriting analysts come into play when the voter has no card

at all, it they claim it was lost or stolen.

Once the polling officers give the okay on the cuticle test, the cardless voter will

be given a tendered ballot.

"The tendered ballot is placed in a plain envelope which in turn is placed in

another envelope with all the voter's details on it. It is then sent to Phnom Penh

where there is a check against the computer records and then there's a signature

and thumbprint check," Vassala said.

In his May 3 progress report, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali complained

that response to the request for 50 fingerprint and 5 handwriting specialists to

assist with the polls had been slow.

Vassala, however, was unaware of the dearth of specialists .

"To my knowledge we have what we need. But I haven't been involved in the recruitment

of these people. I'm on the technical side. So I can only presume we have sufficient,"

he said.

Guesstimates on the number of tendered ballots run at around 10 percent.

"We're not magicians, we can't predict the actual number. But need a figure

to determine the number of staff required to do the job and that's the figure we

based it on," the electoral officer said.

Although admitting verification would be laborious, Vassala reckoned the process

could be finished in ten days.

"Well fifty fingerprint experts can get through quite a few in one day,"

he said.

The intricate counting process actually starts in the polling booth once the voting

starts, he said. The presiding officer will count the votes that have been spoiled

and handed back for replacement as well as the odd ones that may be found discarded

on the floor.

Subtracting these from the total number or ballot papers, he then knows how many

ballot papers are in the box.

After the three days of 'static' polling, the ballot boxes are transported by U.N.

military to the provincial counting centers.

While the mobile polling is still underway, the provincial centers will start the

preliminary checking of all unused and spoiled ballot papers from each of the polling

stations to confirm the original counts made by the stations. Then they will start

to count the ballot papers in the boxes.

"It is traditional to count the ballot papers but not count the actual votes

until after the polling has ended," he said.

So the actual counting of votes will begin May 29 when the boxes have come in from

the mobile stations and all voting is over.

"On the morning of the 29th a minimum of three ballot boxes from three different

stations will be mixed together and counted.

This is part of the process to protect the secrecy of the vote. It will guarantee

that the figures as they become public will not show how a particular district or

area voted and will therefore protect the voters from any retribution," he said.

Vassala said the count for some of the smaller provinces should be completed on that

first day. The large provinces such as Phnom Penh and Kompong Cham could take two

to three days.

"By May 31, I think I can confidently say that all ordinary ballot papers will

have been counted. "

The final figure, however, can't be tallied until the tendered ballots have all been


"We are looking at, possibly, the weekend of the June 5 for the overall count

to be completed," he said.

Presuming the tendered ballot follow the same pattern as the normal one, and presuming

there's not a close tie, the population should have a fair idea who its new government

is by May 31.

"The proclamation of the final results and the allocation of seats won by parties

will be made by UNTAC electoral head Professor Reginald Austin," he said. This

should take place by the end of the first week in June. "I would assume so,.

But again I am only assuming," he added.

Prime Minister Hun Sen recently told the Post that the thought party agents should

be allowed to be present when the ballot boxes are being guarded overnight by UNTAC

military and when they are in transit

Hun Sen wanted to ensure that nobody could contest the result by claiming the boxes

had been tampered with.

According to Vassalo's account of the tamper proof measures for the ballot boxes-measures

which would make a Kafkaesque paranoid proud-further steps would be superfluous.

Commencing 'day one' the ballot boxes will have sealed padlocks which are individually

numbered. In addition, there is an official form outlining these details which the

presiding officer will endorse and all party agents will be asked to sign.

"That padlock and seal will remain for the entire process right up until the

boxes are eventually delivered to the counting centers," Vassalo said.

In addition, a plastic seal, which locks the slot, will be placed on the ballot box

each evening and then they will be left under U.N. military will overnight.

"Once again these seals are uniquely numbered and party agents can make a note

of the seal number. There is also a form that we provide and we ask them to endorse

it. Then each morning they are asked to witness the removal of the seal and to certify

that it is the same numbered seal.

"At the end of day three, another plastic seal is placed on the box and the

same verification procedure occurs. When it is transmitted to the counting center

it will have the original padlock and seal still intact plus the final plastic seal.

"Agents at the counting center can check the seal numbers with their counterparts

in the provinces. And they will have ample time to inspect the padlock to ensure

it's the original one," he said, adding, " is only when we do the count

that the seals will be removed and that will be in the presence of the party agents,"

he said.

So it seems there is no shortage of lengthy security measures to ensure there are

no abuses committed at the ballot box.

Vassalo went to some length to clarify a frequent misconception that the voting system

designed by UNTAC is one of proportional representation.

He said that there had been proportional allocation of seats to provinces. This involved

dividing the voter population of each province by the number of seats in the national

assembly and thereby working out the provincial seat allocation.

This system was not rigidly applied, however, as Mondulkiri, with its sparse population

of 21,000 people, did not qualify for a single seat in the national assembly. It

was therefore given one, leaving the equation of 119 seats to be divided amongst

the remaining 19 provinces.

The voting system, Vassalo, emphasized was what is commonly referred to as 'first

past the post'. Unlike the proportional representation (PR) system-the system a number

of observers thought was being used here-where, with twenty parties, you would tick

your preferences one to twenty, the Khmer voters will just tick one party. They will

just make their mark beside the party of their choice.

Some observers had commented, presumably under the presumption it was a PR system,

that the process favored smaller parties and was therefore potentially divisive when

the country needed strong leadership. They pointed to a situation similar to the

Israeli Khnesset where the two major parties have to vie for the support of the smaller

parties to the point where they find themselves almost held to ransom by the smaller


Vassalo, however, reiterated that it was a 'first past the post' system. But, similar

to the Mondulkiri exception, there were certain factors in favor of smaller parties.

If, for example, Vassalo said, a province had ten seats and the State of Cambodia

won 40 percent and got four seats, FUNCINPEC with 30 got three seats. If the remainder

was divided between the BLDP with 25 percent and the LDP with 5, the BLDP would get

two seats and the LDP would get one.

"In a case like, yes, I suppose that it is a deliberate decision to boost the

chances to the smaller parties. But I think you will find the odds of two political

parties ending up with the exact number of unallocated votes being pretty slim,"

Vassalo said.

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