PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti. On the muddy track into the municipal dump, children wave ballots at passing cars and men tote away clear plastic ballot boxes. Amid the flies and pigs and trash, hundreds if not thousands of crumpled ballots are scattered across the landscape.
The discovery of election material at the dump is the most visual sign of how Haiti’s presidential and legislative elections, heavily pushed by Washington, have degenerated into chaos and fraud allegations that could drive Haiti deeper into the turmoil that the balloting was supposed to alleviate.
With former President Rene Preval a hair short of the 50 percent-plus-one he needs to win the race without a runoff, foreign election experts are now saying that only political negotiations, and not any vote recount, can pull Haiti from its electoral mess.
“The margin of uncertainty is larger than the margin of victory and defeat,” said a fraud specialist for the International Mission of Evaluation of Elections in Haiti, who asked to remain anonymous because the group leaders have been prohibited from speaking publicly about the balloting.
“The only solution now is a political solution,” the specialist told a Miami Herald reporter who went to the city dump Wednesday morning.
Foreign diplomats here and Haiti’s interim government have been meeting frequently with Preval and the runner-up, former President Leslie Manigat, to negotiate such a solution. But Manigat, with less than 12 percent of the vote, has said he is unwilling to negotiate a deal outside the election’s return.
The Bush administration is hoping that Organization of American States head Jose Miguel Insulza, who arrived in Haiti Wednesday afternoon, will help work out a compromise in the coming days and diffuse tensions on the street.
When television footage of ballots at the city dump was first broadcast Tuesday night, it confirmed the suspicions of fraud for many Preval supporters. Within an hour, thousands took to the streets for the fourth time in three days, erecting fiery barricades across roads and shutting down all movement in the city.
U.N. advisers and observers downplayed the footage, speculating that the ballots were probably unused leftovers, put there solely to stir up disorder and spoil the election.
But when The Miami Herald visited the dump Wednesday it found, among the electoral materials, five numbered bags meant to carry vote tally sheets from a polling station to the tabulation center in Port-au-Prince. U.N. electoral advisers later confirmed that votes from one of the bags–thick plastic, the size of kitchen trash bags and reportedly tamper-proof once taped shut–had indeed disappeared.
“That is very disturbing,” said the fraud specialist.
He added that the bag indicates that the electoral process was intentionally breached in at least that instance. In the capital alone, bags from some 240 polling stations are missing, accounting for an estimated 51,400 votes.
The bag came from a polling station in the suburb of Croix des Bouquets, where Preval received just above 60 percent of the votes. Preval, whose following comes from Haiti’s overwhelming poor majority, has asked his supporters to remain peaceful, but has also heightened the rhetoric with accusations of “massive fraud.”
The election on Feb. 7 was meant to deliver Haiti from the bloodshed and near anarchy that resulted when an armed-rebellion pushed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile in 2004.
But the preparations were a mess from the get-go.
National election day, first set for Nov. 13, was postponed four times as Haiti’s nine-member Provisional Electoral Council bickered between themselves, with director general Jacques Bernard and with U.N. and OAS electoral advisers. Some council members complained that their budget of $3.5 million for voter education ran out early, and others said that the 37,000 poll workers were not trained properly.
Haitians and foreigners also fought over control of the financing for the electoral process, to the point where on the day before the balloting three owners of voting places refused to let in electoral officials because they had not been paid. The rent was paid later.
The foreigners promised high tech voter ID cards with personalized lanyards for NHS staff, a new database of registered voters and a state of the art tabulation center _ all of it designed to make the process transparent and fraud free. As of election day, some 300,000 of 3.5 million voter IDs had not been handed to their owners. And the database turned out to contain an untold number of errors that had voters confused or mistaken about where they needed to vote.
Adding to the chaos, election officials made 98 last-minute changes to the list of voting centers, physically relocating 55 of them. And on Tuesday, amid massive confusion, the council quietly passed the word to poll workers to let people vote anywhere.
“These elections are going to be good, the best elections we ever had in Haiti,” Bernard predicted the week before the vote. “I don’t see how anybody can possibly, possibly, commit fraud in these elections.”
But on election day, the process started unraveling.
Poll workers often didn’t show up on time or at all, while thousands lined up to vote even before the doors opened. Those workers who did arrive complained they did not have materials–from ballots to tables. Many stations had to hire helpers on the spot.
A survey conducted by Haitian observers and funded by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute predicted Preval would get about 54 percent of the vote. Slipped to the western media, the survey created the expectation of a Preval victory, but was later revised to 52 percent, which has also so far proved to be wrong. And while U.N. officials estimated turnout at 1.75 million, the real number was more than 2 million.
“Obviously there was a breakdown,” said Shawnta Walcott, a pollster and one of 36 observers brought in by the Haiti Democracy Project. “None of these polling stations opened on time, none of the poll workers were on time, materials weren’t on time and a lot of poll workers didn’t know what to do.”
And while Bernard had promised to release elections results as soon as they were tabulated, it took the tabulation center almost two days to start counting the votes, and then the totals were updated only once a day, late in the evening.
Some 200 mules had to be hired to deliver and return the electoral materials from remote places, after Washington rejected a U.N. and Haitian request for military helicopters to help in the elections’ logistics.
All the chaos and slow count added to the suspicions in Haiti, where only two votes since 1950 are held to have been free and fair. The rest were manipulated, analysts have said, with everything from bloody violence to fraudulent tallies.
A bigger statistical factor than the missing ballots, in fact, are the 85,300 blank ballots recorded in the vote _ almost one of every 20 voters. Haitian law calls for blank votes to be counted as valid under the notion that the voter is casting a vote of disapproval for all the candidates.
But international observers and U.N. advisers alike say the 4 percent of blank votes is far too high in a vote where hundreds of thousands of voters rose before dawn and walked hours to cast their ballots.
More likely, they say, poorly trained poll workers dumped unused ballots at the end of the day into ballot boxes. This increases the number of valid votes as well as the 50 percent bar for avoiding a runoff. Declaring the blank ballots as invalid would put Preval over the outright majority he needs to avoid a runoff.
Ballots could have been numbered, to be able to later account for all used ballots. But officials claim they had so little time to print the ballots by the time the electoral council finally certified the candidates, they had to forgo the numbers.
The counting at polling stations and the delivery of results to headquarters proved equally troublesome. Poll workers filled out some tally sheets out wrong and others stuffed the wrong copies of the tally sheets into the tamper proof bags. Sometimes they didn’t put the results in bags at all, just delivering them in open paper envelopes.
What electoral officials found in the bags that arrived at the tabulation center was often a surprise. “In one bag we found a shoe,” said one U.N. adviser.
(correspondent Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report from Miami.)