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First-hand look at Ukrainian election inspiring for ND native

Sandy Fiechtner1 / 2
Voting takes place in the town of Lviv, Ukraine. Submitted photo2 / 2

EDTIOR’S NOTE: During the May 25 presidential election in Ukraine, Wishek, N.D., native Sandy Fiechtner was one of 225 election observers for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, a group of self-funded individuals who wanted to play a role in perhaps the most important election since Ukrainian independence in 1991. Overall, there were 3,000 election observers deployed by nongovernmental organizations. Fiechtner wrote this essay the night of the election after observing in Lviv, a city of more than 700,000 people in western Ukraine.

LVIV, Ukraine – For decades, my Grampa Otto sat on the election board in Wishek, N.D. Rumor has it he was one of 12 Democrats in town.

His parents and grandparents farmed north of the Ukrainian city of Odessa for more or less 100 years.

I smile as I weave that thread straight back to my role as part of the international election observer community on Ukrainian soil with a mission to ensure a fair and transparent election to the world.

We kicked off at 7 a.m., with an election committee of 18 at one of Lviv’s 500 polling sites. There was a last minute protocol briefing, a bit of nervous chaos with a line forming outside for the 8 a.m. opening and then a prayer. Forget that church and state separation deal.

As observers, we have two days of training under our belts on the local election protocol, and we are ready for most anything.

Even Molotov cocktails and terrorism were contemplated and contingencies laid out.

My assigned town, Lviv, is the most pro-West and pro-Europe of the major cities and a plum assignment. During the day, we heard of the shooting of an Italian journalist in the south, of the violence and closing of the polls in Mykolaiv. So at times we were uneasy in the Lviv sunshine. Young cadets from fire and police schools were assigned to each precinct to bolster the regular squads. Seemed like a good plan.

‘The Future’

Lviv is a churchgoing town. Folks lined up by 7:30 a.m. for the pre-church voting wave, and there was an even bigger swell after church. The voters wore their Sunday finest. Because of the gravitas of this election, traditional Ukrainian embroidery and heels were in full force.

Astonished, I watched a 70-something woman dressed to the nines, with very unnaturally red hair, head proudly down a cobblestone sidewalk to vote in 5-inch stilettos.

Then there was the babushka who looked like she was straight off the prairie north of Odessa. A flowered scarf was tied in a large knot under her chin. I grew up with grandmothers who looked like her. She had the air of discomfort that comes from being in unfamiliar territory, but she did not waiver in her focus.

I watched her find her name at the registration table with her passport, comprehend the 15-inch-long ballot with 21 candidates in very small font, make her way through a maze of strangers to the blue and gold curtained voting booth and emerge with a look of deep satisfaction on her face.

The entire time, she was closely trailed by what appeared to be her 11- to 12-year-old granddaughter. Let’s call her “The Future.” That girl and I exchanged a dozen looks and serious extended smiles. These were not mere glances; we connected in an unexplained, knowing way. And then, luck of all luck, we whizzed by each other on the sidewalk a few hours later. She looked back at me. I looked back at her. Twice. Hope and a memory etched in our minds. Maybe a free, independent Ukraine could give her some of the chances that I had.

A man from a rural area near the border of Ukraine and Poland arrived at the polling site without his passport and there were no exceptions to the protocol. He did not take the news lightly and made a four-hour round trip home to retrieve his documents saying, “Ukraine will not get the right president without my vote.”

There was a standing ovation from the room when a 98-year-old man with a cane placed his ballot in the box. He struggled up the handicap-unfriendly stairs and slowly navigated the entire process, all the while proudly refusing help. Maybe he had a feeling this was his last time to vote in a presidential election.

Counting commences

It’s now 11:25 p.m. The polls closed at 8 p.m. After racing around to a dozen different polling sites, I end the day where I started. It was inspiring to see the high percentage of females and optimistic young adults on the election committees. This team is a bit weary, the ladies have taken off the high heels and some are even in cozy slippers. They seem halfway through the count.

The drill includes sorting 1,562 ballots and stacking them into 21 possible piles, though several candidates did not get even one vote.

The pyramid of ballots was 3 feet high when dumped from the ballot boxes onto school tables that had been pushed together. They started with two tables and added six more. They count each stack out loud while holding up the ballot for all to see and contest. I should be able to count to 100 in Ukrainian by now.

There is no copy machine at the precincts, and the final hurrah is writing – by hand – 19 individual four-page result summaries.

In my mind, I scream, “No way – it’s 2 in the morning!” This manual, primitive process is excruciatingly slow and hard to comprehend at first. Then one recalls the time of dimpled and hanging chads in the land of a superpower.

There is not one iota of whining from the local committee on their 20-hour ‘shift.’ It’s as if they believe it’s an honor to do this work.

All in all, it was a day I will never forget in a country whose hope defies its history.

Fiechtner, a 1978 North Dakota State University graduate, worked in human resources for 21 years at Pfizer, a global pharmaceutical company. She helped establish HR organizations in Russia and emerging Eastern European markets and was named a Pfizer Global Health Fellow based in Ukraine and Russia, working to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.