Over the last 10 years El Salvador has implemented a number of progressive policies to improve transparency throughout the democratic process and assure voters’ rights. EcoViva has supported this progress by partnering with SHARE to support international observers for the past two elections. I had the privilege of assuming this role for the March 1st 2015 elections, which determined representatives to the Legislative Assembly, mayors and city council members for the 262 municipalities, and delegates to the Central American Parliament.
The March 1st elections implemented a number of new (and controversial) reforms. For the first time, voters were able to select preferred candidates from political parties. Moreover, they were allowed to select candidates from multiple parties. Allowing voters to choose the people rather than simply the party gives citizens more power to directly decide who they want to govern. However, prior to elections there was a lot of concern regarding the new method and how it would confuse voters and increase null-votes. Due to these concerns, the Supreme Elections Tribunal of El Salvador increased efforts to reach citizens and instruct them on the voting methods, both new and old.
Diligent note taking was my primary task as an international-observer. I visited 10 different voting centers, each in charge of 5,000-10,000 registered voters. I took notes on the participation of party volunteers and interested citizens, on the dedication of the volunteers to protect voter secrecy and provide instructive guidance, on the strong presence of the civil national police, and on the calm collaborative sense of community presence throughout the day. I asked voters and volunteers how they felt about the process and almost everyone reported positively. Everything seemed to be running smoothly.
Elections in El Salvador are divided into 15,959 voting centers and 10,621 Voting Boards. Each Voting Board consists of a 5-person team of officials from different political parties and is responsible for up to 500 registered voters. The 5-person team remains politically anonymous during Election Day and manages the process from 5am set-up, to administering ballets throughout the day, to closing and counting at night. In addition to the official Voting Boards, there are volunteers from each political party that monitor the process and help voters in need of assistance. The voting process in El Salvador is very participatory. Hundreds of thousands of citizens interested in the democratic process and passionate for their political parties volunteer their days and nights to ensure a free and fair election.
At 5pm the Voting Boards closed the doors and started counting. At 5pm, things stopped running so smoothly. While there appeared little confusion by voters, counting the votes caused more than a little confusion. The new methods were not only more complicated, but they were also much more time consuming.
The new method allowed people to select preferred candidates, however, it maintained that a vote still only counts for political parties. Moreover, each voter still only has the right to one full vote. Thus, if a voter selected candidates from different parties, the person’s one vote was divided between those candidates’ parties. For example, if the voter selected candidates from three parties, each of those parties received one-third of the vote. After counting the votes per party and deciding how many representatives each party won, the Voting Boards then had to calculate which candidates per party received the most votes. For example, if the FMLN party won three assembly members for the department of Usulután, the three FMLN candidates that received the most preferred votes would earn seats.
To allow voters to select preferred candidates, ballots for the Legislative Assembly contained all of the candidates’ names and photos for each political party. For example, in the department of San Salvador, there were 24 candidates for 8 different parties as well as an independent candidate: 193 candidates in total. Voters were able to mark up to 24 candidates, crossing political parties and independents. The large ballots were both challenging to physically maneuver and difficult to count accurately. The Voting Boards had to tally the chosen parties as well as the preferred candidates. Thus, for each vote, the Voting Board had to examine the ballot for marks on the party flags as well as for each candidate. For San Salvador, that meant they had to check each of the 193 candidates, then count the total number of marks to ensure the vote remained valid. Remember that each Voting Board was responsible for up to 500 registered voters.
Counting continued late into the night and for many departments has prolonged into today. Delayed election results slow the government’s ability to promote a consolidated country and return to effect governing. However, democracy is slow. Ensuring participation is time-consuming. The election process in El Salvador is far from being efficient, but it is very participatory. 278,125 Salvadorans contributed to monitoring and ensuring a fair and inclusive electoral process yesterday. That result is noteworthy.