A University of Kentucky geography professor spent a week in a remote region of Tajikistan — one of the poorest former Soviet nations — as part of an international delegation of observers of the nation's Feb. 28 parliamentary elections.
What Stan Brunn found was an impoverished, patriarchal society whose democratic process was tainted by ballot-box stuffing and widespread proxy voting.
"It was just rife with irregularities," Brunn said. "The results were that 87 percent of the population voted, which is almost unheard of unless you sort of bend the rules in some way."
That's what Brunn said he saw in the rural, rough south-central region along the border of Afghanistan.
He was among 13 Americans who joined European representatives as election observers.
In each precinct he visited, he said, men showed up with the voter registration cards belonging to their wives and other family members, and cast votes for all of them.
In nearly all of those polling places, the clear plastic ballot boxes showed multiple ballots clumped together as if they were shoved in at once.
"But the slit for the ballot box is really very thin. So how could they get in there? Well, you had to open up the ballot box, break the seal and dump in those 20 ballots," Brunn said.
And police officers wandered into the precincts, sometimes standing near voters, he said.
"There were people, I think, who were sort of party officials, who came into the precincts and were kind of strutting around (as if to say), 'I know what you're doing,'" Brunn said.
That wasn't supposed to happen.
Those findings were reflected in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's stern official statement about Tajikistan's elections, in which the group found "serious irregularities."
"I'm happy that election day took place in a generally good atmosphere, but I'm even more disappointed that these elections failed on many basic democratic standards," said Pia Christmas-Møller, special coordinator of the group's observers, in the statement.
As a result of the elections, President Emomali Rakhmon's party maintained its power in the nation's parliament.
Voting problems are far from unique to Tajikistan, especially in that region. In Kentucky, vote fraud allegations are not uncommon. For instance, eight people from Clay County — most of whom are former public officials — are on trial in federal court in Frankfort on charges related to election corruption.
The difference, Brunn said, is "it's a matter of scale."
Brunn's trip, an unusual journey for a geography professor, gave him fresh insight into the politics and culture of Central Asia, where he had previously visited and taught in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
He said he was excited to learn he would get to experience rural Tajikistan instead of being assigned to watch precincts in the capital of Dushanbe while staying at a "Hyatt island fortress."
Brunn's hotel in the southern city of Kulob, on the other hand, featured electricity for only part of the day.
Brunn, who speaks Russian, was paired with a German woman who had a doctorate in political science and at one point lived in Tajikistan. The two, along with their interpreter, visited as many as 10 precincts on election day.
The expedition took them across rugged countryside on treacherous roads with potholes that would have devoured his Toyota Prius. They passed more donkeys carrying firewood than cars while reaching remote villages with sun-dried brick houses and one-room schools.
Brunn said they visited one school, where teenagers told Brunn they hoped to become journalists or study medicine. Those are big dreams in a country where nearly half of the labor force works abroad — mostly in Russia and Kazakhstan — and sends their wages back to their families, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Brunn said he also asked whether any students wanted to become politicians. No one said a word.
Brunn said he wasn't surprised, especially as he left the country with a cynical view of Tajikistan's electoral system.
"The real winners in this case are the people who cheated ... the people who sort of fostered this environment of irregularities," he said. "And the losers were the people who were honest."