Indiana University Kokomo

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KOKOMO, Ind. — Kathy Parkison will witness history as it happens, representing the United States as an election monitor in Ukraine.

Kathy ParkisonKathy Parkison

Parkison, Indiana University Kokomo's interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, leaves May 19 to observe the May 25 elections in the eastern European country. Ukraine's parliament voted in February to remove its president and call for an early presidential election after the November 2013 revolution. The presidential election had been scheduled for 2015.

Monitoring an election is no vacation — it is a week of exhausting travel, staying in homes in remote areas, possibly with no running water or electricity, and working in potentially volatile conditions. In one country where she monitored, a polling place was firebombed just minutes before she and her co-monitor arrived.

However, Parkison, who has observed elections in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Macedonia, Moldova, and twice in Kyrgyzstan, welcomes the opportunity to serve.

"This volunteer work allows me to see parts of the world I otherwise would not see, and to show my commitment to the democratic process," she said. "It's a short-term opportunity for me to help out in the world."

She's watched news reports from Ukraine closely since her selection, as civil unrest has continued and worsened, particularly in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine.

"If it's too unsafe, they won't send us," she said. "They're not going to put people at risk."

After arriving in Kiev, Ukraine's capitol, Parkison and her fellow observers, including her husband Rob Pfaff, who is assistant vice president of academic affairs at Saint Joseph's College, will spend a day in briefings with the Organization for Security in Europe (OSCE) and the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), before receiving their assignments. Each person is paired with someone of the opposite gender, and from a different country, before traveling to assigned regions.

"The idea is that men and women see different things," she said. "We'll travel to our region, spend a day driving around looking at billboards, looking out for voter intimidation, and signs of fraud. We'll work out a plan of action for the next day."

As an election monitor, Parkison will open polling places, looking to be sure the ballot box is empty when the election begins, and that ballots have not been pre-filled. She will visit multiple polling sites, and choose one to monitor closely. She will watch as ballots are counted, and then as ballots are taken to a central election site, where she will make sure the count stayed the same.

"You do not intervene," she said. "You just document, document, document, and turn those results in during and after the election."

The day after the election, Parkison will return to Kiev for debriefing, then fly home to Indiana.

As a volunteer, her travel expenses are paid, and she receives a daily stipend to cover transportation, lodging, and food.

"I have stayed in some interesting hovels," she said, recalling one where the only bed left was on the floor, because she was last to arrive. That worked out, because those who slept in real beds found them to be infested with fleas.

"You see the way people really live, and you hope you leave a good impression of Americans."

She's always been posted to remote, rural locations, including a region in Azerbaijan that is "as close as you can get to Iran without being in Iran," and another region where she ate lunch by a river, and then waded in, stepping into parts of three countries.

"I have literally moved cows to get into a polling place," Parkison said, laughing. "I'm an Indiana farm girl, so I'm OK with that."

Officially, she represents the U.S. Department of State as an election monitor. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the OSCE and the ODIHR are sponsoring organizations in this monitoring effort. The groups monitor elections in nations all over the world, including in the United States.

"The idea is to prevent another world war," Parkison said.

She plans to continue following news from Ukraine after the election.

"An election is just the beginning of democracy," she said. "There has to be rule of law, and an agreement by everyone to follow the law. It's not just elections that count. It's what happens after the election. This is just step one of the democratic process."

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.