A Look at Salvadoran Political Institutions, Part Two: Election Day Misconduct in 2009

On March 11, 2012, Salvadorans will cast votes for all 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly and the position of mayor in each of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities. As the parliamentary and municipal elections approach, we are taking a look at a variety of topics relating to Salvadoran political institutions and the pursuit of democracy. The first installment, posted on October 25, discussed efforts to add new voters to the Election Registry and increase the number of voting stations.

Today’s installment looks back to January 18, 2009, the day of the last parliamentary and municipal elections, in order to better understand possible challenges to free and fair elections on March 11, 2012. We focus on two examples of Election Day misconduct monitored and reported by international observers.

“While the January 18 (2009) legislative and local elections went fairly smoothly, serious deficiencies in the electoral process persist.” -Voices on the Border Delegation Report on January 2009 Elections in El Salvador

Campaigning In Voting Centers On Election Day

The Salvadoran Electoral Code explicitly prohibits promoting political parties or candidates (i.e. campaigning) three days before elections. Article 230 reads:

“Political Parties … and all citizens… are prohibited from campaigning … during the three days before elections and on the day of elections. Party propaganda is also prohibited in voting centers.”

The law, however, was not enforced in 2009. Election observers reported partisan groups displaying signs, making announcements, and handing out t-shirts, food, and money near voting centers. There were also reports of party enthusiasts carrying party propaganda, chanting party slogans, and disrupting voting, even within voting centers.

“Cases of intimidation were reported within the vicinity of, or inside, 25 percent of the observed voting centers,” according to European Union (EU) Electoral Observation Mission (EOM), which observed 118 out of 400 voting centers.

An even higher estimate came from The University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), which observed a representative sample of 1,578 of the 9,534 total polling stations, on behalf of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). IUDOP noted, “30.0 percent of observed polling stations registered cases of either party propaganda inside voting centers or party members trying to verbally induce others to vote in a certain way.

The EU EOM attributes the behavior to “a pattern of excessively zealous party activism on Election Day in Salvadoran electoral culture,” but the behavior also confirms a degree of impunity for party promotion beyond the legal limits. Often, it was candidates running for office who brought party propaganda into the voting centers.

The Center for Exchange and Solidarity (CIS) election observation report documented individual cases of election misconduct. 12 out of 16 documented cases of party propaganda within voting centers involved political candidates, up to and including the ARENA presidential candidate, Rodrigo Ávila, who was interviewed within the voting center, surrounded by singing supporters, according to the report.

A more extreme case is documented in Santa Ana, Santa Ana:

“Between 11 and 11:45 a.m. Mayor Orlando Mena, of the PDC, was in the voting center with 50 party representatives (including the head of the voting center staff and other members of the staff), citizens dressed in [the party color] green, and some media singing ‘Mena yes! Others no!’ Mena voted, showed his ballot, and held an interview at 11:15 a.m. right next to polling station 03003.”

This provision of the electoral code is meant to provide a cooling off period just before the elections. It gives voters a recess from the otherwise intense and overwhelming campaigning, hopefully so they can make a clear decision about which candidate or party they want to vote for. For the same reason, the electoral code prohibits the consumption of alcohol during this same period – they want people to make clear sober decisions and avoid conflict. It remains unclear whether the no-drinking provision is enforced more or less than the others.

Voter Fraud

Following the 2009 elections we reported that one of the most serious issues with the January 18 elections was voter fraud, in which foreigners from Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala were bused into municipalities to vote. In addition, there were reports of Salvadorans voting in municipalities that were not their own.

At 9:50 a.m. on January 18, 2009, citizens protesting voter fraud forced officials in San Isidro, Cabañas to shut down the voting center and delay elections for one week. Citizens alleged that numerous individuals from nearby municipalities, including Ilobasco and Sensuntepeque, were illegally registered as San Isidro residents in order to influence elections. International observers also documented similar allegations in other municipalities and in the rescheduled San Isidro elections.

According to the EU EOM report, the problem of voter fraud stems from two under-regulated processes in El Salvador – applying for and modifying a national identification card (DUI).

In order to cast a ballot in the March 2011 elections, voters need to register for a DUI. Once registered, voters are automatically included in the Electoral Register, the official list of people eligible to vote at each voting center, complete with photo IDs and DUI numbers. On Election Day, voters arrive with their DUI and sign their name to complete the process. Anti-forgery devices on the DUI help to discourage fraud.

The problem, according to the EU EOM, is that voters can register a fraudulent address on their DUI in order to vote in a highly contested area. “The lack of rigorous controls on effective residency (utility bills, rent leases, children’s school enrollment codes, or other similar proof) in the procedures for modifying addresses opens up the possibility for parties to abuse these procedures.”

The EU EOM explains that by moving Salvadoran voters, “parties can transfer voters from a hypothetically safe, or lost, municipality to others, which are expected to be closely fought.”

“On the other hand,” the report goes on to say, “the lack of any safeguards or verification by other administrative bodies implies that the municipal authority has control over the issuance of birth certificates, which frequently leads to speculation that certain mayors seeking re-election may abuse the system by issuing false birth certificates.” With a false birth certificate, even voters from outside of the country can apply for a DUI and be placed on the Electoral Register.

There are two ways to address this particular problem. First, authorities can tighten procedures related to applying for and modifying a DUI, as the EU EOM recommends. However, part of the problem is that no one is sure of the extent of voting fraud. A second solution is the implementation of a Residential Voting program. As discussed in part one of this series, a residential voting program would create additional voting centers, subdividing the Electoral Register and bringing voting centers closer to homes. It is expected that fraud will be more easily identified within a more local group of voters.

In the coming weeks we will post another installment into this election series that will discuss the control that the political parties have had over the electoral process, and how the recent reforms to the Electoral Code will impact voters when they get into the booth.

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