On December 1, 1991, over 90% of Ukrainian voters cast their ballots in favor of national independence, establishing Ukraine as a sovereign country and starting them on their path toward freedom and democracy. I was there as an “international election observer”, invited by the Central Election Commission of Ukraine to bear witness to the events of that day.
The “Independence Referendum” was Ukraine’s way of exercising its right to withdraw from the former Soviet Union. Other “former Soviet Republics” declared independence through their legislatures, without a vote of the people. Ukraine understood that the people are sovereign and must declare independence for themselves.
I spent the day of the Independence Referendum in Odessa, a major Ukrainian city on the Black Sea, visiting as many polling places as time allowed. The voting process I saw would be familiar in any democratic country prior to computer technology. To guard against intimidation, no one was allowed to come near the polling places except election board members, credentialed observers and of course the voters themselves. To guard against cheating, everyone had to vote in person in the precinct where they lived. Inside each polling place, the election board sat behind long tables where voters identified themselves and received ballots. Voters marked their ballots secretly, inside curtained booths, and deposited them directly into ballot boxes that had been inspected and sealed at the start of the day. Local observers representing both sides of the issue were also present throughout the day.
On election night, I stopped at one precinct to watch the votes being counted. The ballot boxes were opened by cutting the seal, and all the ballots were poured out onto a large table where they were divided into several piles. Each pile was hand-counted by a team of four members of the election board and then recounted by another four-person team to assure accuracy. When the totals matched, the head of the election board announced the result to everyone present and posted it on the outside door of the polling place. The ballots were then placed in sealed containers and transported to a central facility where they were preserved in case of a challenge.
The result at the polling place where I watched the counting was 92% in favor of independence and 8% opposed. By the next day, the world had learned that over 90% of Ukrainian voters had chosen independence.
History records that Soviet leaders at that time respected the will of the people, and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved three weeks later, on Christmas Day, 1991, largely as a result of the Ukrainian Independence Referendum.
From the beginning, democratic Ukraine has been in a race against time to strengthen itself against invasion by its much larger authoritarian neighbor. Today, Mr. Putin, having succeeded in suppressing democracy and dissent within his own country, obviously does not have any regard for the results of a 30-year-old popular referendum in Ukraine. He believes that history can be rewritten, even after a full generation, using the tools of coercion and propaganda that he learned so long ago as a young Soviet KGB officer.
Yet Mr. Putin is powerless to change the most important fact of all. Ukraine’s declaration of independence was not a technical act by an old Soviet-era legislature and kept in place by force, like his own regime. It came via the ballot box from the hearts of tens of millions of Ukrainians, where the invading Russian army cannot reach and every bullet fired will only strengthen the resolve for separation from the oppressor.
James R. Huntwork is a Phoenix attorney who served a long stint as the Republican Ballot Integrity Chair and was the first member chosen on the initial Arizona Redistricting Commission in 2001.