March 2019: jetlagged and wandering the streets of Kyiv, a city I only see every few years. Familiar but disconcerting. Ukraine has been a country on the edge of the hardening line between East and West. Even when the city is calm, there’s a tension in the air.

I arrived in Kyiv for the first time in 2004, to monitor the election following the so-called Orange Revolution. Pro-Western protestors had forced a rerun of a vote rigged by the pro-Russian government; Viktor Yanukovych had been declared the winner but the Supreme Court threw out the result, citing widespread fraud. The Central Electoral Commission itself was suspected of altering results by entering faked information through a parallel computer system.

I had just moved to Toronto after a year working with refugees in Cairo, not sure of my path. I had graduated from law school before leaving for Egypt and was finishing my first term of an MA program in Immigration Studies. I applied to be one of 400 Canadians monitoring the second round of Ukraine’s presidential election and, to my surprise, I was selected. Along with MPs, election officials, former military officers and Ukrainian-Canadian activists, I spent two weeks watching a country decide its future.

I was 26 when I first walked around Independence Square, then filled with tent cities, stall after stall of orange-themed merchandise and endless rallies. This democracy being fought for, the democracy being practised, was new, unformed and youthful – a reflection of the age of many protesters and the rough edges of a country not used to speaking up for itself. Everything in Ukraine in 2004 was still a little bit Soviet. Buildings were past their prime. Few people spoke English.

I was deployed to the east, to Lugansk. Ten years later, in 2014, the area would be the scene of fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces and today it is the self-styled Independent Republic of Lugansk, a region given limited recognition only by Russia. In 2004 the manipulation was more subtle, as evidenced by the massive voter fraud in the first round of the presidential election. After flying into an abandoned airport and sleeping in a hotel with no heat, I set out with another observer. We concentrated on hospitals and nursing homes, and followed the mobile voting boxes which served citizens unable to make it to the polls. Despite the hostilities and fraud in the earlier round of voting, election day was calm and the process credible.

Fast forward to 2012, and parliamentary elections. This time I went west, to Lutsk, a city near the Polish border, and my team focused on regular polling stations. An observer, as the title implies, spends a lot of time watching. You look around, and you record any person or procedure that does not follow the rules. You know that, in isolation, the observations of any one team are meaningless; only the aggregate can indicate whether an election is fair. Training issues and human error are common, as they are in Canadian or any other elections. With experience you can improve your ability to tell the difference between an honest mistake and attempted fraud – or at least you think you’re improving. Again, it doesn’t matter: your job is to note problems, not to analyze or fix them.

Time is of the essence. While driving between polling stations you send in your observations with a cell-connected tablet so the central team in Kyiv can look for patterns. That team coordinates with other election monitoring teams, local and international, with the media and with Ukrainian politicians, election administrators, security forces and the international community. When the day is done the results collected from all those observing the process are compiled and shared, creating a deeper picture of the election.

Despite fair elections in 2004 and 2008, what stuck out in 2012 was how many people were still not used to the secret ballot. Election workers spent a lot of time coaxing citizens, especially the elderly, to vote alone and to keep their vote secret. Elections are connected to the political and social structures they are part of; unless a population is aware of their rights and how to exercise them, an election day can be error-free but still offer no real indication of the underlying health of a democracy.

Two years later I was back for another presidential election following another revolution. Yanukovych, the failed candidate from 2004, was legitimately elected president in 2010 but was thrown from office and fled to Russia in early 2014. In 2004 Ukraine asserted its independence; in 2012 it seemed ready to enter the ranks of reasonably clean, reasonably dull democracies. The 2014 elections were different. In response to Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia had annexed Crimea and instigated widespread violence across the east – only 20 per cent of polling stations opened in the Donbass region. Back in Lutsk, in the west, things were calm – though this may have been a reflection of the fact that my evacuation plan was simply to drive the few kilometres into Poland.

International attention focused on the risks of wider Russian involvement and a wider war. While election observation attracts people generally interested in world affairs, that is not necessarily useful when it comes to doing your job. Broader issues seem far away as you focus on the layout of polling stations, or how certain officials complete certain forms.

This election, I paid special attention to what happened after the votes were counted. In Ukraine, as in Canada, observers are locked in when polling ends. You watch the election officials get to work, sorting and then counting the ballots. Unlike Canada, Ukrainian elections feature long lists of candidates, meaning there are often recounts. In a nod to the country’s Soviet past, after repeated sorting and tallying, the information is recorded by hand; many copies are made; and election officials, candidate representatives and domestic election monitors sign a copy to verify that the results are true and accurate. This takes many hours – snacks are advisable, bathroom breaks are often not allowed, and you chart the passage of time by watching clouds of cigarette smoke fill the room, slowly lowering from the ceiling as midnight passes.

Despite the drama of the international context, the 2014 election in Lutsk was peaceful. Russian-linked hackers announced they had compromised the new IT system that was supposed to increase transparency by posting real-time results, but their claim only increased confidence in the final, official outcome. In the east elections were not held at all, showing an interesting limit to Russian interference: democratic institutions could be manipulated, but attacks on polling stations were still seen as counterproductive.

Fast forward to 2019 and the first round of the presidential election. This time I was deployed to Pervomyask, the old site of the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile station, in Mykolaiv Oblast (regional government division) which touches the Black Sea. This time, in Kyiv and beyond, there were echoes of the violence of 2014 – plaques and monuments honouring those who lost their life in the Maidan and Ukrainian soldiers who died fighting Russia and its proxies in the east.

This election was not a rejection of the old Soviet order, as 2004 had been. Then, first-time voters had been born under Communism. A poignant moment in the most recent election came when my observing partner questioned the continued problem of older voters not understanding the importance of the secret ballot, wondering whether this was a Soviet holdover. My interpreter responded, “I don’t know – I was never under the Soviet system.” She went on to talk about what youth wanted and why they were more engaged in politics this election, even though that engagement took the form of support for Volodymyr Zelensky, a presidential candidate – now President-elect – whose only political experience was playing the president of Ukraine on a national comedy show.

OPORA, a Ukrainian nonpartisan electoral monitoring organization, runs a parallel vote tabulation process similar to an exit poll to add a layer of security to election results: if the results at the local level don’t add up, OPORA can quickly identify the areas where problems took place. Again, in 2019, election day was largely uneventful. Problems with training and procedures continued to raise questions, but my team agreed with our mission: the election met international standards.

Ukraine, as seen in four snapshots over four elections and 15 years, has evolved. Where in 2004 the international community led the monitoring effort, in 2019 Ukrainians were in charge. This was not always easy to accept; on election day in March I saw the blue fatigues of the ultraright National Corps, who had threatened violence if they didn’t approve of the conduct of the election. Members of the Corps’s NGO wing, recognized as domestic election monitors, added to my sense of unease even though, in the end, they did not interfere.

Despite continued corruption, conflict and external threats, despite the slow growth of toxic nationalism as evidenced by the rise of the Corps, Ukraine’s institutions have strengthened. That it has just had a peaceful transfer of power in the face of the ongoing conflict with Russia is testament to that. The election of an actor as president may be taken as a sign of naiveté, or a hopeful sign of confidence and a willingness to embrace change despite the looming threat of Russia to the east and a crumbling West. My more modest hope, for whenever I next return, is that the no-smoking signs in polling stations will be enforced.