IDP Voting Rights Activist Boosts Power of the Polls

After a long struggle, a law ensuring full voting rights for Ukrainian citizens displaced by war and occupation came into effect last summer. Voting rights activist Oleksandr Korenkov now wants to make sure Ukraine's internally displaced persons (IDPs) use their hard-won vote to make themselves heard.

Oleksandr Korenkov, along with his mother and brother, were among the nearly 1.5 million people displaced by the Russian occupation of Crimea and the war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine beginning in 2014. Oleksandr, much like other IDPs, put down roots in the western part of the country—IDPs work, own small businesses and send their children to school—but until last summer, they were denied full voting rights.

“If a politician doesn’t recognize your right to vote, he doesn’t care about your interests”, said Oleksandr. “And if you don’t vote, the politicians don’t see you”.  

After years of lobbying and campaigning by rights advocates, a new law came into effect July 1, 2020 guaranteeing full voting rights for IDPs. Oleksandr, who works with the NGO Group of Influence, an organisation defending the rights of IDPs, was among the activists pushing for legislation to make voting more inclusive for people displaced by war and occupation, as well as other internal migrants.

Oleksandr Korenkov, IDP voting rights activist.

“Voting rights are very important to me, and my own experience facing difficulties in voting motivated me in my advocacy campaigns”, said Oleksandr.

The main obstacle preventing IDPs from exercising their full rights was an outdated law on permanent residency requirements for voting in local elections. Until the rules changed last July, in order to vote in local elections citizens had to either own property in the municipality where they lived or know a property owner who would register them (landlords usually won’t do this for tenants). This meant that displaced people could vote in national elections, but on the local level, where the government’s decisions often have a more immediate impact on people’s lives, they were left without a voice.

Even those IDPs who could manage to register as permanent residents in the community where they lived would often choose not to. In another bureaucratic hurdle facing IDPs, changing their residency could mean the loss of their IDP status and the much needed state benefits that come with it, as well as their special permits allowing them to cross the demarcation line to visit their relatives and property in occupied territories.  

Now that the law has changed, Oleksandr says his organisation’s efforts are focused on informing the IDP community about their eligibility to vote and how to go about it. In order to better reach that audience, Oleksandr participated in Sold Out, the Prague Civil Society Centre’s workshop on social media marketing and targeting for NGOs and activists. During the workshop, digital marketing pros work together with activists on targeted social media campaigns. Oleksanr and Influence Group launched two Facebook campaigns as part of the workshop—an animation with instructions on filling in ballots, and the promotion of a course for journalists reporting on IDP voting rights.

“Our main audience was IDPs and the media they follow. Many of them didn’t know they now have the right to vote”, said Oleksandr.

Surveys carried out by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and Group of Influence show that nearly half of all IDPs believe voting in local elections is important. But despite the value they place on local electoral participation, voter turnout among IDPs was low in the nationwide municipal elections held last October, the first in which they had full voting rights. Only about 100,000 of the country’s nearly six million IDPs and other migrants voted, according to Lyudmilla Denisova, Ukraine’s Ombudswoman for Human Rights. She attributed the low turnout to the lack of adequate public information campaigning by the Central Election Commission.

“IDPs are normally very politically active and they know the price of electoral absenteeism”, said Oleksandr. “We need to spread the word on the platforms where they are, and they will turn out”.

--Emily Thompson

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