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Burnet County Elections Administrator Barbara Agnew observes Albanian procedures

Burnet County Elections Administrator Barbara Agnew (left) visits with Muharrem Kastrati, an Albanian election chairman, during her recent voting observation trip to the former Communist country. Courtesy photo


MARBLE FALLS — While Albania’s democratic elections have some problems, Burnet County Elections Administrator Barbara Agnew witnessed something during the June process she wished she saw more of in America.

“The young people are so passionate and engaged in the elections,” Agnew said. “They attend political rallies. They work in voting centers. They are very involved in the process. I would like to see that more here (in the United States).”

Agnew recently returned from a trip to Albania, where she served as an international observer through Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The June 26 elections drew 243 international observers, including 20 from the United States.

Agnew’s role was to observe, take notes and report back to OSCE officials. She wasn’t there to advise or interject.

“We went there to be the eyes of the mission, not the mouth,” she said.

When the U.S. contingency arrived in Tirana, the capital of Albania, OSCE officials assigned them to one of the 15 teams scattered across the country to observe the elections, polling locations and ballot counting. Agnew was teamed up with a Greek observer, Christos, in the city of Shkodra.

An Albanian political campaign sign. Courtesy photo
An Albanian political campaign sign. Courtesy photo

The trip, while interesting and exciting, was work. The day started at 6:30 a.m. with Agnew and Christos checking 10 polling locations.

Though Albania gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, it fell under the oppressive weight of more totalitarian regimes, first in 1939 after Italy conquered it and then in 1944 when the Communists took over the nation after World War II.

The country held its first democratic elections in 1991.

Albanians headed to the polls in June to elect a new parliament, which, in turn, choses the president.

An Albanian political campaign sign. Courtesy photo
An Albanian political campaign sign. Courtesy photo

While the United States and Albania are thousands of miles apart and one is just finding its own as a democracy, the election procedures are very similar.

“They have a voters’ registration list, and the clerks check for the name as people come up to vote,” she said. The Albanians, like Americans, step into a booth and fill out a ballot. One of the things Agnew said she hopes Albania will utilize more in the future is electronic balloting.

With 67 political parties on the ballot, making a selection and counting votes can be overwhelming.

An interpreter and a driver accompanied Agnew and her Greek partner. During the down times, Agnew learned a great deal about the country and Albanians through conversations with the two.

While Albania elections are generally safe, at one point during the day, the driver informed Agnew a shooting had occurred at a city about 30 miles from the capital that left one person dead and a candidate wounded. After an argument, gunfire broke out near a polling station that killed a 49-year-old woman and wounded a 49-year-old candidate, according to reports. The cause of the argument and the shooting wasn’t known at the time or if it was even politically related, but it did cause Agnew some concern, especially after the polls closed and she accompanied a ballot box to a counting location.

As she, the poll supervisor and others stood in line to turn in the box, the process seemed to come to a halt. The line quit moving.

Agnew looked around and noted she was one of only a few women in the building. But as her nerves became a bit jangled, the driver’s son, Samuel, sidled up to her with a bottle of water from home. Her smile returned, and she stepped out of line to visit with Samuel and several other people.

The election night passed without incident.

The next day, Agnew returned to observe ballot counting.

Ballot counting is conducted at tables. A team of people reviews each ballot and tabulates the count. Each ballot is placed under a camera that broadcasts it to a nearby TV, so people, typically members of the political parties, also can keep count.

“The ballot counting really draws a crowd,” Agnew said.

When Agnew left Albania three days after the elections, the results hadn’t been determined. Eventually, the ruling party for the previous eight years found itself replaced by another party.

With the trip behind her and the Texas elections on the horizon, Agnew said the experience was well worth it.

“The Albanian people were so welcoming to us,” she said. “The country has a lot of problems, such as high unemployment, but I think they’re moving forward. In the capital city, you could see a lot of cranes on the skyline. So, they are working and improving their infrastructure.”

As for another trip as an international election observer, Agnew hasn’t ruled it out, for herself or her staff.

“I would love to go back to Albania in 10 or 12 years to see how much progress they’ve made,” Agnew said.