Saturday, March 14, 2009

The transparency of Salvadoran elections

It is the eve of El Salvador's fourth presidential election since the end of the civil war in 1992. The former warring factions are now the country's leading political parties. If Mauricio Funes of the FMLN wins, it will mark the country's first transfer of power to a leftist government.

The elections in El Salvador, in my view, have a great deal of transparency. The reason is that the political parties are permitted to have observers, "vigilantes," at every single voting table in the country. They scrutinize each step from the verification that a person's name and ID appears on the election roll, to the counting of the votes. In addition, some 4000 observers, both national and international, have been accredited to watch every step of the process. Besides that, the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH), will also have 1500 observers in the field at polling places.

To see how the process works at each individual polling place, you may want to review the instruction booklet which the TSE provides to the poll workers. The booklet covers everything from the setup of the polling tables, to assisting blind voters, to filling out the report of the final vote count for each table.

In simplified form, the process is as follows:

1. Every Salvadoran who is registered to vote is assigned to a polling place in his or her municipality alphabetically. Thus, in San Salvador, you might live in one corner of the city but your polling place might be in the opposite corner of the city because your last name starts with the letter "R" which only votes in one location in San Salvador.

2. At each poll location, there are voting tables, one for every 450 voters. The voter must find her table by locating her name on the electoral roll which is posted at the poll location.

3. The voter approaches the poll location and hands over her DUI (national identity card). The card is matched to the name and photo on the list of voters for that table and the voter receives a ballot and a crayon.

4. The ballot contains the logo of the FMLN and the logo of ARENA. The voter marks an "X" over the logo of the party of her pick for president.

5. The voter then deposits her ballot in the ballot box.

6. The voter signs the voting list to indicate she has voted; she dips her finger in indelible ink to prevent her from voting twice that day; and she receives her DUI back.

7. The polls close at 5 p.m. Every person in line to vote at that time is permitted to cast a ballot.

8. The votes are scrutinized and counted with everyone watching.

Despite this fairly transparent process for casting and counting votes, there are still many warning about the possibility of fraud. The fraud they worry about is the possibility that a political party (usually asserted to be ARENA) will transport in foreigners by the busload who will then cast fraudulent votes. Of course, this would require several things -- first, it requires that the "padron electoral" the list of eligible voters -- must have been compromised and that it has been altered to add fake identities for many foreigners. Second, it requires generating fake national identity cards -- DUIs -- for thousands of foreigners. Third, it requires moving thousands of foreigners into the country to vote with no one noticing. I guess it could happen, and in San Isidro in January it apparently did happen, but I remain skeptical that this could really work on any large scale without being detected.

Tomorrow we will see how the process works out in reality. I'll be blogging throughout the day and as the results come in. Please send me your reports of what you are observing throughout election day. Let's hope for an overwhelming turnout and a peaceful election day.


Anonymous said...

I would like to tell the Salvadoran people to vote as they wish and ignore the propaganda "supposedly" coming from the US.

They should also know that the US Republican Party, making the threats, has almost NO power in the US government. Their racist comments about Latinos should let everyone know what they really think.

Dean said...

Tim, by some estimates there are over 100,000 more names on the voter rolls than the census warrants, including dead people, etc.
Check this out yourself on the web: Amalia Granados Lazo has two ID numbers and can vote twice.


To verify, go to the website of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Just plug in the numbers one after the other.
How much of this is going on?

Chichimeca said...

Paranoia and fear of the hard-left are always the far-right's best weapons come election time.
What has been unsurprisingly overlooked in most articles is the fact that supporting the "hard left" candidate (in the form of a non-party organization known as "Friends of Mauricio [Funes]") are a group of renowned entrepeneurs and capitalists, including the ex Executive Director of the Salvadoran Banking Association (ABANSA), Carlos Cáceres, as well as other notorious figures, all of which could hardly be labeled as "hard left". Astonishingly -or not- amidst "hard left" candidate supporters there is also an ex member of the World AntiCommunist League, and known leader of the paramilitary groups that selectively "disappeared" workers and union members during the 70's, Luis Lagos.

Apparently this has done nothing to appease Republican party and other representatives of "American interests", although I suggest they not lose sleep over the elections: a "Chavez-like" agenda is unlikely, to say the least.

Tim said...


I've seen the two examples the FMLN has given of a single person with 2 DUIs. For that situation, I guess the question is whether the indelible ink on your finger after you vote the first time is really indelible.

With respect to the number of names on the voter rolls versus what seems appropriate from the census, it does open the possibility for fraud, but it could just reflect a fair amount of incompetence/inefficiency at the TSE as it fails to remove persons who have emigrated, died, or otherwise became ineligible to vote. I'm just saying that the system in El Salvador is set up in a way that appears to make large scale, systemic fraud difficult to keep hidden.

That doesn't mean the overall electoral system is a level playing field. Problems with the system such as the politicization of the TSE, the use of government resources by politicians to campaign, the unequal access to mass media, the lack of residential voting, the lack of a vote for Salvadorans outside of the country are all issues needing reform. But there is transparency in the system that lets us see that such reforms are needed.

Transparency is necessary for free and fair elections, but not sufficient.

Samuel said...

If there are voters with two DUIs, the presence of thousands of observers alone will be useless, because people with two DUIs could vote "legally" twice. That's fraud.

Here is another example:



People with two DUIs can "legally' vote twice tomorrow in the face of thousands of observers, who may think that there's a great deal of transparency. If that was the case tomorrow, thousands of observers could be just wasting their time in El Salvador.

What if this kind of fraud is happening massively and nationwide, and we just don't know It?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Samuel, bottom line everything that DO NOT help to get transparency into this elecction, knowing it in advance, it's a fraud. The ink they're going to use this time is different from the previous one, the same day I voted previous elections the ink was gone, hopefully this time is different, but I am positive that if they went too far getting 2 DUIs they figured already the ink' issue. I really hope that everything goes ok, and by 2morrow, WE all have a new president!

Anonymous said...

I am an international observor for elections tomorrow. I am here with a city of los angeles delegation. I will be blogging here tomorrow throughout the day on my observations. My day begins at 5 am with briefing and off to polls to observe openings...jose

Anonymous said...

I was an international observer with CIS in the January elections in San Salvador (the Feria). The process, as Tim stated, is fairly transparent with lots of observers and vigilantes. There are a number of other problems, though, that make it difficult to be sure that the results are truly the "will of the people."

Postings have already mentioned the issuing of false DUIs, and the fact that these are wholly controlled by the party in power (in this case, ARENA) is obviously an invitation to fraud. As mentioned, there were numerous cases where busloads of people were stopped who were apparently coming from other states (departments) or even other countries to vote. It's unknown how many were NOT caught, since false DUIs could have been used.

There are also a number of issues of accessibility ... the lack of residential voting means the poorest are most likely to lack transportation and that provided by the parties or the public busses is not adequate to meet the needs of the voters. The fact that husband and wife may vote in opposite ends of the municipality doesn't help. In addition, most voting areas are totally lacking in handicapped access.

And then there is the misinformation campaign.... and the cases of bribery. Threats of losing US remittances, promises of material benefits for voting a particular party (and there is not enough privacy in the booths that the vigigilantes of that party can't make sure which way a person votes), etc.

I just hope that somehow the election is truly open and fair, and that the parties are able to work together afterwards. El Salvador has been through so much ..

My prayers are with the Salvadoran people!


Renegade Eye said...

The leadership of the FMLN, has been in the last year so focused on winning the elections, they have ignored struggles like against the terrorism law. Still vote FMLN.

Regards said...

No electoral system is fool-proof, but the Salvadorian system (based on the Mexican system, which grew out of our own extensive "research" in creative voter fraud)is probably as good as you're going to find anywhere.

Salvadorian election officials don't have the same challenges the Mexicans do (where you have indigenous districts that vote according to "usos y costumbres"... by consensus and not by ballot) and, it's a smaller population to deal with. The odd requirement of setting up polling stations by last name is a new one to me, but it's hard to see how that would be manipulated to support one or another party.

eldiablodehoy said...

The fraud is coming from big business owners forcing thousands of employees to vote for arena or they will get fired. They've gone so far as to give out camera cell phones so the voters have to show a photo of their ballot;
Same is happening with public -state employees, they have practically been rounded up in trucks and buses, housed in public buildings and forced to vote for arena the government in power.
How can Saca and the big media repeat time after time, "votemos en libertad"

Anonymous said...

First incident. Minor. A person pretended to be observor and didn't have credentials. Jose

Anonymous said...

Already some serious incdidents involving ARENA warehousing foreign nationals, bags of spare DUI's, 150 suspicious buses parked at the Cuscatlán Stadium in San Salvador, and denial of credentials to int'l observers:

And Tim, you merely described how fraud would happen: I don't see any reason why all three of these elements could not happen. You say you are skeptical that all this "could really work on any large scale without being detected."

But do you really think evidence of fraud or outright exposure will stop ARENA from claiming victory? If they were willing to murder tens of thousands, do you think they will stop at simple fraud or allegations of illegitimacy? Getting caught is the least of their concerns ...

Anonymous said...

I saw a person acting suspiciously outside a voting place once he saw I was an observor. Later I saw in news that this same person had been detained for having 15 duis. Jose

El-Visitador said...

A great post by Tim.

And it is fun to read the paranoids and conspiracy theorists who responded by writing in their wacky "fraud" "denunciations".

Their lunacy, thank goodness, pales because most commenters remained sane.