I am writing this report to share my thoughts on my experience as an election monitor in Haiti for the Haiti Democracy Project.
I am a twenty-eight-year-old Caucasian male with no prior election observation experience and I do not speak French or Creole. I am sure my lack of experience and understanding of the language compromised my work to some degree. I have handed in all of my filled-in questionnaires so I am writing these thoughts down from memory.
Upon my arrival in Haiti I was sent to Les Cayes in the South and was sent to monitor BVs in Camp-Perrin with three other monitors, all Haitian-Americans. We were given very little instructions on how to go about our work, which meant we needed to use the single copy of the questionnaire each of us was provided with and figure out how to go about observing. I believe each of us ended up with different interpretations of what to do.
The day before the election we did not visit Camp-Perrin, but instead visited one of my fellow observation monitors? birth village. One of my fellow observers assured me that he and the drivers knew the area well and we would not get lost. He also assured me that we would have no mobile-phone reception because of the surrounding mountains. I informed ground mission director Claire Sturm of this and I agreed to get in contact with her somehow during the election day to insure her of our safety. Originally our group leader in Les Cayes wanted us to split up and work separately as four individuals instead of the teams of two I was explained we would be working in. He thought this would work better because one of the polling locations we were supposed to monitor was an hour?s drive from the four others on our list. Later in the evening Haiti Democracy Project director James Morrell told him we would need to work as pairs and our group leader agreed to do this.
We (my observation teammate Dartigue Gilet, my driver/interpreter Fabrice and I) arrived at the Merçant polling station about twenty minutes before the polls opened. I tried to acquaint myself with how the individual BV’s functioned within the larger location (there were ten BVs at Merçant) and randomly chose BV #4 to observe for the opening and closing. The president at #4 told me he counted the ballots at 5 a.m. and that there were four hundred of them for each of the four elections (Depite, Majistra, KASEK, ASEK) taking place at Merçant. After witnessing the closing it seems that they had more like 420 ballots per candidate. This was collaborated by the notes of the other team of observers in Camp-Perrin who told me that each BV was given about twenty extra ballots just in case some of the ballots were filled out incorrectly by a voter and the voter requested a new ballot. The president had filled out the tops of all of his procPs-verbal forms, which was an exception, as most of the other BVs I would visit that day had not filled out all of their PV tops. The ballot boxes were not properly sealed. Please see attached photo. About 50 percent of the ballot boxes I saw on election day were improperly sealed. The lines were neat and orderly and in general the BV staff seemed to be doing a good job. Security was present and handled the minor arguments well.
After witnessing the opening I visited other BVs at Merçant and found minor irregularities and arguments that I reported in my notes. Perhaps the biggest issues I saw was one of the Lavalas candidates had been left off one of the ballots because they had apparently been late in paying a fine. For the most part Dartigue and I walked around separately at Merçant. My driver, Fabrice, was a great help translating for me. We stayed at Merçant for three hours because we kept finding new irregularities to look for. We were truly learning on the job.
Next we traveled to the St. Joseph school location which had only 3 BVs. The situation here closely resembled the one at Merçant with orderly lines, adequate privacy for the voters, enough security and minor irregularities such as the ballot boxes not being fully sealed and the PV form tops not having been filled out.
From St Joseph we traveled to St. Agnes (which had been mislabeled St Anne on our location list) which had eighteen BVs. Just as we pulled up a candidate also arrived and was cheered by the crowd and was escorted through the crowd to a BV. Later on we would witness him leave on the shoulders of his cheering supporters. He didn’t seem to linger too long or intimidate other voters.
The St. Agnes location was chaotic. When we spoke with the location supervisor he complained that they were not given enough security, but he had not had any major problems yet. The first concern I had was most of the BVs lacked an orderly line. For some of them, this would have been difficult given that their door faced a main thoroughfare that left little room for people to cue up. The second major problem I witnessed was that the BV rooms were for the most part too small. With a four-person staff and six party representatives the rooms were already crowded. They exacerbated the problem by letting in too many voters at once, as many as six at a time when two would seem to have been more appropriate. At many of the BV’s at St Agnes I saw party reps either looking over the shoulders of voters while they voted or worse yet, speaking to them. My driver would help me question them later and the most common answer they gave as to why they were speaking to the voters was to help them fill out the form as they did not know how to. What amazed me most was all of this took place before my eyes when the party reps could clearly see that I was an international observer. I could only imagine what was taking place when I wasn’t there.
While examining the BVs a man came up to me and said that the presidents at two of the BV’s were telling voters whom to vote for. He pointed out BV #16 and #17 to me, both of which I had already visited. At BV #16 there was a domesticl observer present who denied the man’s story and said he was probably a party rep trying to stir trouble. We then went back to #17 which I had previously noted had serious security issues because the tiny room had three doors, of which only one was properly sealed. At this time the other team of observers arrived at St Agnes and the four of us went into examine the situation. There was a big argument between one of the party reps and the president and I am not quite sure what the conclusion was.
After this we ate lunch at a small guesthouse and caught up on what we had witnessed. The other team had actually visited all five voting centers on our list, including the one that was an hour drive away. Dartigue and I decided it would be best to cover the closing of BV #4 in Merçant so we would have a complete set of data for one BV. When we arrived the lines had really died down from the morning. We were informed that the BVs would close at 16:00, instead of the 17:00 listed on my observation form. I believe the 4 p.m. close was standard throughout Haiti for this election.
At 15:40 a big argument erupted at BV #5 and Dartigue, Fabrice and I went in to investigate. We made our way through the crowd that had congregated at the BV entrance and went into the BV room. We were told that a man who was standing before us had been accused by the secretary of voting twice. While he had only signed into the BV once and they had only seen him once, he already had his finger marked with the black crayon. He claimed that he had done it himself out of confusion. Outside we heard and could see a fist fight break out which shortly thereafter was broken up with tear gas used by the security guards. This was effective as the crowd was quickly dispersed. At 15:52 we left BV #5 to go to BV #4 to witness the closing. The doors to all BVs had been closed already, because of the fight, so it seems that the closing was at roughly 15:50, meaning that perhaps a few voters may have been disenfranchised.
The count began at 16:00 and the president unsealed the first ballot box, but did not count the folded ballots inside. One of the secretaries would pull a vote out of the box, hand it to the president, who would unfold it and it say out loud whom the vote was for. He would then hand it to the other secretary who would place in the appropriate pile. The president used this same process for all four ballot boxes. This did not raise the ire of any of the party representatives, who throughout the count kept independent counts and would occasionally ask for small recounts. The sun went down after about an hour and a half and then the votes were counted by candlelight. I understand that they were supposed to have battery-powered lights available but this was not the case at any of the BVs located at Merçant.
They finished going through the ballots after 21:00 and then recorded the data in the PV forms. The whole process ended at 22:20. The supervisor of the Merçant location came in and helped seal all of the ballots in multiple large zip-lock bags and then put everything in a large garbage bag. He then took the garbage bag to a now-unused BV room where other garbage bags filled with ballots were being stored. He told me that at some point that night or the next morning MINUSTAH would come by and pick everything up and that until then the room would be guarded by security.
First and most importantly, this mission was SEVERELY compromised by a lack of observer training. I was not given a questionnaire until the night before I flew to Les Cayes when it could have been emailed to me weeks in advance. Also, a general description of what I should expect to see on Election Day as well as a checklist for what irregularities to look for would have greatly helped me in doing my job properly. Again, this could have been e-mailed to us weeks in advance. Pictures of what a BV and location looks like would have been useful also. None of these steps would have required a single cent to be spent, which I know loomed large over this project due to the last-minute funding by US AID. We also should have had a proper briefing by the mission director with some Q & A time. I know we had time for this for me and several other observers that were present at the 21:00 meeting we had at the Hotel Montana on December 1st. Why we were not fully briefed escapes me.
We also were only given one observation form per person, which given the lack of instructions, became very confusing as to whether we were supposed to record our observations for individual BVs, locations or an overall assessment of all of the BV’s we visited. Each of us should have received at least 40 observation questionnaires, or better yet, a form better suited for tracking multiple BV’s, which would have allowed us to cut down on paperwork. Throughout the election I had to interpret what I was supposed to be doing and learn on the job, which I am sure was detrimental to my overall effectiveness.
In regard to the actual BVs I monitored, I do not believe I saw intentional vote rigging or intimidation. Instead I saw many minor and possibly major irregularities that may have impacted some of the races. I believe these were a result of incompetence or unclear directives rather than bad intentions. At Merçant’s BV #4 I felt that the staff were pretty competent compared to the BV staff I witnessed at other BVs. That said, they still skipped an important step in the counting process that may have opened the door to a major irregularity. As the party reps accepted the results without complaint I can only assume that the vote was not compromised.
The major problems I witnessed seemed to be a result of the presidents (seemingly) not following uniform instructions, BV rooms being too small and the lines being too chaotic. I imagine there isn’t much that can be done about the small rooms; however security and perhaps a marked or roped-in line could fix some of the mess. I hope that the BV staff receives further training and perhaps some of the irregularities I and my fellow observers witnessed can be emphasized to them so they do not occur in future elections.