The vanilla fumes mingle with the frosty air outside the building and the stars appear. Over the next three hours, the conversation meanders from e-voting (and why it might or might not work here) to the superiority of Ukrainian agricultural produce. Only then do the first results arrive, delivered from the polling stations in person. The first exit polls were released several hours ago, with a clear pro-Western victory, but in election commissions across the country, the work is just beginning.
With its rows of folding chairs made of aged leather, the meeting room resembles a small theatre.
Every time someone in the audience stands up, the seat snaps shut with a clank that makes us all jump. We keep our coats on. “Darth Vader: seventeen,” the chair announces, reading out the first list of results from one of over 70 polling stations. The ballot boxes continue to arrive all night, each accompanied by a policeman. By 6 a.m., the sky outside is turning pink and the line of cardboard boxes and bloodshot eyes stretches all the way down the narrow corridor. An hour later it is light.
Exit polls have given way to preliminary results; a quarter of all the votes have been processed. The winners are already scheduling coalition talks. But for us and the others in this room, the world has shrunk to the size of our electoral district, vaguely delimited by low Soviet-era apartment blocks. Around 8 a.m. my eyes close, but almost immediately the alarm clock on my phone rings and I scramble to turn it off. Another pair of observers takes over and we drive back across the river, watching Kyev enveloped in dazzling autumn light.
Darth Vader earns a handful of votes from each polling station
Evening comes and we are back at our electoral commission. The boxes of ballots continue to pile up against the wall. Darth Vader earns a handful of votes from each polling station, but it no longer strikes me as odd. Out in the hallway, representatives from the polling stations doze against the wall or on their boxes. I’m not sure whether the heating has been turned on or if the corridor is warm from the bodies crowded into a narrow space.
The commission chairman pushes on. Long stretches of intense work give way to objections, deliberation, and “technical breaks,” when people head out into the cold for cigarettes and take longer than expected to return. The sky darkens again. We share jokes and chocolate and fill in another form. Twenty-four hours in, the commission decides to take a break to wash and eat and sleep. When we return that evening, the stack of boxes has almost obscured the Ukrainian Trident high up on the wall.
By now all the polling stations have been processed and the corridor is empty except for a handful of dozing policemen, one of whom has a massive gun on his lap. One committee member has his head buried in a copy of Ukraine’s electoral law. His pipe-smoking, sunglasses-wearing colleague launches into another fishing story. A ringtone starts playing a song by Okean Elzy, the best-know Ukrainian band, and a member of the audience starts singing along. It’s our third midnight here.
Soon the commission members are almost finished and are about ready to fill out the final protocols. That doesn’t sound like much, but it will be another long night, another frosty sunrise before this is over. “Democracy” is a lofty word but it would not be possible—here in Kiev or anywhere else—without the army of women and men who continue working around the clock long after the winners have opened their bottles of champagne.
By bringing in a bunch of new faces (no Darth Vaders among them) and further affirming Ukraine’s westward course, these elections echoed at least some of the spirit of Maidan protests that brought hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians out onto Kiev’s Independence Square last winter. Whether what follows will be enough to avert a Maidan 3.0, and how long for, is another matter.