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Election Monitoring in El Salvador: Fraud Prevention


Election Monitoring in El Salvador: Part 1

Pat Thornburg, Tommie Jackson and me in our monitoring vests. Photo courtesy of SHARE Foundation - El Salvador
Cathy Stripe LesterA lot of the election procedure in El Salvador is a result of elections having seen so much fraud and corruption in the past. Along with my fellow monitors, I found it fascinating to see how each stage was a counter to a specific abuse.
Overview of one of the urban voting centers. Photo courtesy of SHARE Foundation - El Salvador.
Problem: Voters were unable to get to the polls to vote. Solution: This year saw “residential voting,” whereby polling stations were set up in every municipality and village so campesinos (country people) could get there. This may not sound like a big thing to Americans, but ask yourself: if Kingsley, Grawn and Acme were up in steep mountains without bus service, how many people from there would walk to Traverse City to vote?
Problem: People voting more than once, and/or people from neighboring countries being paid to come in and vote as Salvadoreans. Solution: Everyone had to vote in their specific neighborhood, and they had to have their National ID card. At each polling station, voters had to go to a designated table. The urban center my group was monitoring had 69 tables with their own voting booths. Each table had a list of 500 voters. The voter showed their ID, found their name on the list, and an official put a stamp by their name.
Voters have to dip their thumb into a pot of indelible ink AFTER voting, so officials inspected people’s hands beforehand. One guy who’d been working had to dust his hands off on his pants twice or thrice before the officials were satisfied he didn’t have any ink on them. Only after all that did the voter get their mitts on a ballot paper.
The officials were really suspicious of one woman with a stain on her index finger. Eventually they smelled her finger and finally let her have a ballot. I asked if the ink had a particular smell. Yes. Could I smell it? Yes, but be careful. The “careful” came a second too late as I got a noseful of pungent, stinging smelling salts!
Problem: Ballot-stuffing. Solution: Each table had a pad of 500 numbered ballots. As each voter got their ballot, the official tore off the numbered corner and put it into a plastic bag. Afterward, during the counting, they first counted ALL the leftover ballots (which were then stamped “UNUSED”), then counted the torn-off corners, and added them to make sure there were 500. After the counting, the marked ballots were counted to make sure they tallied with the total.
Counting the ballot papers BEFORE voting started, to make sure there were exactly 500 in the pad.
Problem: Miscellaneous chicanery. Solution: All the parties watched a) each other, and b) each stage of the process. Each table had three officials: one from each of the two big parties and one from one a small party (there were five parties in all). In addition, each table had watchers, or “vigilantes” (vigilant ones) from all the parties. Vigilantes were allowed to wear vests showing which party they were from, but the officials weren’t allowed to wear anything that showed their affiliation, not even a colored wrist band. (In practice, you could guess that the whitest, tallest official who had an air of what I can only call “rulers’ assurance” was from the oligarchs’ party; the one who looked most Indian or mestizo was from the workers’ party, and the third one was from one of the other parties.)
Some of the younger officials, happy to be doing their bit.
The thing is, NOTHING happened without representatives from all the parties seeing it. In case of a dispute, all the parties argued it out. In case a dispute wasn’t solved then and there, a Higher Official was called in. Everything was out in the open.
The big cheese from the Municipal Election Board (JEM) weighing in on a dispute.
Problem: Buying votes. Solution: Making sure no one knows how the voter voted. (If you want to rig an election, you don’t want to buy 100 votes and have only 12 “vote right”!) Voters were absolutely prohibited from showing their ballot to anybody, and there were cases where votes were disputed because of it. One mother wanted to include her little son in the process and had him mark her ballot for her. Then the son proudly showed Mama the ballot in full view of everyone. Aww, sweet! … BIG kerfuffle.
The voting booths were made of cardboard, cunningly constructed so the voter had to stand OUTSIDE and put the ballot in through a little paper flap, then peer over the top of the paper in order to mark it. The vigilantes kept a beady eye on them to make sure the voter didn’t pull a cellphone out of his pocket and stick it inside to photograph the ballot, because one way of telling how someone voted was to see a picture of it.
Voting booth. Notice that wheelchair voters can use the lower flap.
Problem: Illiterate/blind/disabled voters. Solutions: Since this election was ONLY for the president, the ballot papers simply had pictures of the parties’ flags on them. Voters had to mark the flag they wanted with an X. When signing afterward, illiterate voters could make a thumbprint. The center I saw was wheelchair friendly, and a troop of Boy Scouts was on hand to assist anyone who needed assistance.
Blind people could use a template with Braille markings, or they could request someone to help them mark the ballot. I was amused to see an old woman wearing a red FMLN hatband choose an FMLN vigilante to mark her ballot for her. This was allowed.
Making double-sure of everything: To get around the possibility that someone could subvert part of the process, a lot of steps were repeated. The list I mentioned was only the FIRST list. When they put the completed ballot into the ballot box, they had to sign ANOTHER list. At the end, the officials counted both lists. At the table I watched, there was a discrepancy of one, and they had to go through the names one by one to find the glitch.
After the voter signed list no. 2, they dipped their thumb in that pot of ink I mentioned. (Ewww-oogh!)
Counting: When the polling place was declared officially closed, first all the materials were accounted for. Only then was the ballot box opened. In full view of everyone, the chief official pulled out one ballot at a time, read the result, and held it up for all to see.
Showing the ballot. Photo by Anna Fuqua-Smith
Any disputed ballots were argued over by all the participants. No one was allowed to disqualify a ballot on his or her own. If the officials and vigilantes couldn´t agree on a ballot, it was voided. Our table had one voided ballot.
This one was disputed because ARENA claimed the ink squiggle on the right meant the voter's intention was unclear. However, it was given to FMLN
When the box was empty, each party counted their ballots and reported the total. The results were entered onto a form with multiple copies, signed, stamped, and a copy given to each of the parties, the officials and the National Electoral Commission. The numbers were finally reported to the electoral recorder, and all the unused materials, stamps, ink, etc., sealed into the box they came in, and returned.
Salvadorean law demands a majority of 51% to declare a winner. FMLN got nearly 49%, ARENA got about 38%, UNIDAD got 11% and the last two parties had to content themselves with the remaining 2%. Now there will be a run-off on Mar. 9.
All us monitors had the feeling “we weren’t in Kansas any more.” Some of us noticed how cheap it all was – cardboard voting booths, hordes of volunteers – and yet how they trusted the count-the-papers-in-the-open more than the expensive computers the U.S.A. uses.
This one was voided because the X was not on top of the flag.
Others commented on the lack of long lines. There was a line outside at 7:30 a.m. when the center opened (half an hour late because of delays setting up, because the person with the keys wasn’t there on time), but thanks to the voting being split into groups of no more than 500 each, I never saw a table with a line more than half a dozen people long.
The whole process was highly labor-intensive with its constant checks and counter-checks. Yet it achieved what it set out to: It delivered an election that was fair and transparent enough that the SalvadoreƱos themselves believed it. In comparison to past elections, THAT is a major accomplishment.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by my fellow Michigander volunteer, Patricia Thornburg. (My camera was out of order.)
Next time: Local color, and the role of the monitors.

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