We have friends here in Roatan, Honduras who were volunteer observers of the recent presidential elections and I am posting their account in its entirety. Article by Don Rocks and Janice Carter.
An election came our way. When you live as an expat in a foreign land for an extended period of time, it becomes less foreign. Our "foreign land" is Honduras. Not mainland Honduras, but Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands lying some 25 miles off the mainland North coast.
Voters we could not be, but we could volunteer, bonafide, Internaccional Eleccione Observadors. The National election of 2009 was additionally significant as it followed the constitutional and legal ouster of Rogue President, Manuel Zelaya who, in the waning days of his administration, repeatedly violated set-in-stone articles of the Honduran constitution which ultimately gave the Congress, Attorney General and Supreme court no option, lacking an impeachment process, but to either arrest and jail or simply remove him from office and the country. Practical, but a tactical error that gave credence to the "military coup" allegations from countries and organizations that should have known better..
The United States was the leader of the pack and put forth a fine example of tortured logic whereby the United States of America was acting in defense of Democracy and demanded the return of democratically elected President Zelaya to his rightful place at the head of the Honduran government. Demands and further punitive actions were America's gift to Honduras for standing firm, for cleaving to its constitution and truly defending its Democracy against a blatant and persistent attack from within.
Against this backdrop Honduras remained unrepentant from June 28 to November 29, the date of the regular and previously scheduled National Election, which a number of governments and entities labeled "illegal" , vowing to not recognize the outcome. And while the US administration now calls the Honduran election result a good "first step", it still hopes to bully Honduras into "further steps" under the thin cover of the so-called "Accord" backed by the United States and engineered on the ground by Costa Rican President, Oscar Arias; an effort doomed to ignoble failure from the start.
Political backdrop aside, our Election Observer post was the village of Politilly Bight. Our participation was made official under the auspices of the Honduras "Tribuno Supremo Eleccion" which is the governmental body that oversees Honduran elections. We were issued caps, polo shirts and a vest, all bearing the TSE logo with the back side of the vest emblazoned with the words "Internaccionall Observador". Further armed with instructions and a three page reporting form, we set out for the village. The announced polling station opening time was set for 6:00 AM. Which came and went.
Arriving in advance as instructed, we and poll workers found the door of the kindergarten school building locked tight. After a delay of some duration, the keeper of the key showed and the door was unlocked. Now the poll workers are waiting for voting materials which are late arriving from Coxen Hole.. A caravan of TSE representatives from down island arrives at 7:30 AM. One large box for each of the two Politilly polling stations. An exchange of pleasantries ensues. Poll workers now get about the business of unloading and setting-up the polling station.
The list of registered voters voting at Politilly has been apportioned between the two polling stations here to reduce waiting lines. One site is the kindergarten building and, the second is a smaller, unfinished outbuilding, intended purpose unknown. The setting-up process is something of a complex job accompanied by precise instructions and a goodly quantity of polling station supplies and explanatory signage for voters.
Each polling station is manned and under the "control", if that be the word, of a "President" who is in charge of the process and poll workers, a secretary, a ballot security person, several volunteers, and a representative of each of the five political parties represented on the ballot for a total of 12 authorized poll workers and watchers for each polling place. The President, while "in charge" must still explain things and answer questions and the buzz can be quite animated. Set-up complete, the door is thrown open to the first voter at 8:30 AM.
There is a National Police Officer and another posted and armed soldier stationed outside each polling stations. These personnel stood by quietly and unobtrusively in whatever shade they could find. They are guarantors of a quiet and orderly election process and are there "just in case", but their bell was never rung. They, like we, can not get involved in the voting process itself.
As Observers, we can go where we will and have full access to the polling station but may not in any way get involved election matters. Observe and record for reference when completing the TSE questionnaire/report form. Did the process have integrity? Any political activity within 400 meters of the polling station? Any multiple voting? Did poll workers unduly attempt to influence? Deny the right to vote arbitrarily? Etc., etc.
The process is designed to be secure and transparent with little or no room for poll worker or voter chicanery. Only voters actually in the process of voting are admitted. Voters show their registration card. Poll worker looks for verification in a big book that has the name and a photo of every voter registered for that polling station. Voter signs the book and receives three ballots. Ballots too bear name and photo of the candidates. Voter proceeds to privacy booth, records vote, and returns to table. Ballot is stamped, voter signs testifying he or she has voted and ballots are returned to voter who proceeds to place them in the appropriate ballot box. And finally, the voter gets a finger marked with indelible ink to prevent his or her voting more than once; although it's difficult to see how anyone could successfully navigate their way through the security steps at this polling station or any other.
Our Oakridge run was part break from a long day in one place and part interest in what Election Day was like at other polling sites. Election Day always falls on Sunday which rather becomes a holiday. Inside polling stations the atmosphere is loose and chatty; not hushed, not reverent by any stretch, and voters and bystanders alike are out to enjoy themselves, their neighbors and the event itself.
Polls close at 4 PM. Unless they don't. And they didn't. The poll close was extended to 5 PM. Just seemed to be an on the ground agreement. No evidence that the word came from on high. Even though the polling station opened late, there was no one actually in line at 5 PM, although a couple did straggle in during the extended hour.
The hour passes. The doors close. The ballot boxes are opened for the count. There is a designated poll worker whose job it is to open, read, and display each ballot for all to see. The vote is recorded and the ballots placed in piles according to which candidate received the nod Slow but thorough. Vote counts are recorded, counts are compared to the number of voters passing through, all twelve poll workers and poll watchers sign the book to verify that the count is accurate. Vote counting that starts shortly after 5 PM can take until 11-12 PM to complete. Check and double check. All unused ballots receive a cancellation stamp to render them useless for ballot box stuffing. And when the process is complete, leftover supplies, ballots, books, and results get re-packed for the return to a central location.
A full day, a full if slightly wearing experience, but our International Observer stint is over and we would not have missed it.