Before the rain started falling two weeks ago, dumping over 50 inches of rain on El Salvador and causing extreme flooding around the country, we began working on a series of articles regarding recent reforms to the Electoral Code. We will continue to report on the flooding and cleanup efforts, but we don’t want to do so at the cost of discussing other important issues in El Salvador – of which there are many.
“To guarantee Salvadoran society the autonomous and effective administration of democratic electoral processes; a reliable electoral register; prompt execution of the judicial aspects of the electoral process; full exercise of political rights and the promotion of a democratic civic culture.”
-The “Mission” of El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)
“The Electoral Register that we have audited is, in general terms, a reliable instrument. This consideration is accompanied, as is often the case in the international experience, with some challenges to improve upon.”
-Pablo Gutiérrez, Director of the Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation at the Organization of America States (OEA), in a 2007 audit of El Salvador’s Electoral Register, quoted in the TSE 2009 annual report
On March 11, 2012, Salvadorans will cast votes for all 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, and mayor in each of the 262 municipalities. As the parliamentary and municipal elections approach, Voices will be considering a variety of topics relating to Salvadoran political institutions and the pursuit of democracy.
Today’s installment examines new voter registration and attempts to bring voting centers closer to homes. In both areas, we look at recent attempts to improve voter participation.
New Voters – More than 75 percent of potential new voters ineligible to vote
On the 2012 election calendar, voter registration was set to close on September 12, 2011 180 days before the March elections. However, the Electoral Code says that any Salvadoran turning 18 years old after registration closes and before the election takes place will be included in the Electoral Register and eligible to vote provided that they register for a national identification card, or DUI, before the September 12 deadline.
While more than 58,000 Salvadorans will turn 18 during that window of time, fewer than 14,000, or 23.8 percent of these potential new voters registered for a DUI and will be eligible to participate, according to the National Citizens Registry (RNPN). The other 76.2 percent did not register for a DUI before a modified September 19 deadline, despite a registration campaign by the TSE.
The TSE praised the registration in a recent statement. “We are very satisfied with this campaign,” said TSE President Eugenio Chicas, referring to a three-week-long effort to register prospective voters. RNPN President Fernando Arturo Batlle Portillo similarly called the registration “successful,” even though 44,000 Salvadorans that could be participating in the March elections will not be.
This year’s campaign is better than some in the past. According to the TSE, the 2008 campaign leading up to 2009 national elections lasted four months and only registered 6,000 new voters out of 50,000 potential voters. In that light, the campaign can be seen as an improvement. However, as TuCanalLocal points out, the official 2009 TSE report lists 14,695 new voters under the age of 18, significantly more than the 6,000 claimed by TSE.
Nonetheless, Chicas said that more could be done to incorporate new voters who should be able to participate in elections. “The challenge remains significant and we should continue our efforts. I believe that we still lack work on a community level, we need more time and resources.”
The June-July 2011 constitutional standoff between the judicial and legislative branches is one problem with registration this year. The campaign to register new voters was scheduled to begin on August 12 and end 31 days later on September 12. However, the Legislative Assembly took longer to approve the budget for the General Election Plan (PLAGEL) than expected, pushing the start of the campaign back to August 29.
To compensate for the delay, the Assembly granted a one-week extension for voter registration, but the campaign still lost 10 days, lasting 21 days instead of the 31 days planned. Many of the new voters registered during this extension period – 7,000 new voters registered by September 12, according to the RNPN. Between September 12 and September 19, an additional 7,000 registered, with almost 5,000 registering on September 19th alone.
While 44,000 eligible youth will be sitting out the March 2012 elections, El Salvador now has 14,000 new names on the voter registry.
Local Voting Locations, or El Voto Residencial
“The current electoral model in El Salvador … concentrates voting locations in urban centers … without considering the distance that the voter will have to travel.” (TSE, “Concepts of residential voting”)
El Salvador is one of the last Latin American countries without a “residential voting” electoral model. For some citizens, the nearest voting location is 70-kilometers away. For many, the trek can be expensive, difficult, and a disincentive to vote.
The TSE is planning to implement a residential voting program throughout El Salvador over the course of the 2012 and 2014 elections, fulfilling political promises made continually since 1994. Under the new system, the TSE will open voting locations based on proximity to voters to facilitate access and improve electoral participation.
The initiative began in 2006, when the TSE implemented a “Voto Residencial” (Residential Voting) pilot program in seven municipalities. In 2009, the TSE expanded the pilot program to the Department of Cuscatlán, scaling up from 7 to 23 total municipalities. In the March 2012 elections, 185 of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities in central and eastern El Salvador are expected to participate in the program, plus key urban areas of San Salvador and Santa Tecla.
Reports on the 2006 and 2009 pilot initiatives demonstrate the impact of the program on the participating municipalities. Under the program, 18 voting centers grew to 73, averaging between two and ten centers per municipality.
The program had a positive effect on voter participation. In the 2004 presidential elections, 70 percent of Salvadorans on the Electoral Register in Cuscatlán cast a vote compared a national average of 67 percent. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, Cuscatlán had 63.5 percent electoral participation compared to a national average of 54 percent. In 2009, the pilot program in Cuscatlán had 65.5 percent participation in parliamentary elections and 71.5 percent participation in presidential elections compared to 54 and 63 percent respectively on the national level. While national participation remained the same or fell, participation in Cuscatlán, already higher than the national average, rose in both presidential and parliamentary elections.
Additionally, the program is expected to facilitate voting access for many of the most vulnerable members of Salvadoran society, including the elderly, persons with disabilities, and those without the financial means to travel a longer distance.
When voting centers are closer to home, it is also more difficult for political interests to perpetrate electoral fraud by bringing in people from other communities, or as has been alleged in previous elections, from Honduras or Nicaragua. Citizens are more able to police the voting registry and identify people that are not from their community.
Poco a poco, Salvadoran institutions are working together, or in some instances forcing other branches of government, to reform the electoral system so that more people vote, and to ensure their votes are counted. The campaign to register new, young voters and expanding voting centers are only two of the most recent reforms. In the coming weeks and months we will explore reforms to the ballot that voters will use once they are in the booths, efforts to decentralize power once held by political parties, and other changes.