Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Election Observing in El Salvador: Crayons and Paper

Salvadorans vote with paper ballots.  One of the most important roles of the election observer is to keep an eye on those paper ballots.

The system is set up to be secure.  The ballots arrive in the sealed box of voting supplies assigned to the voting table.  The ballots are printed and glued on one side to form tablets of 600 - one ballot for each of the 600 voters assigned to each voting table.  Prior to the start of voting, the table secretary counts the stacks of ballots to ensure that there are indeed 600 ballots in the tablet.  For the 2018 election, the voter received 2 ballots - one for the national election and one for the local election.

Future voter peering over the tablets of pink and yellow ballots
at one voting table.

The light pink paper was the ballot for the local, mayoral election.  This was the simple ballot.  It contained the political party flags for different candidates who are running for mayor.  To vote, the voter hands his or her identity card to the president at the voting table.  The secretary signs and stamps the ballot and tears off one, perforated corner.  The corners are put into a little bag.  The voter casts his or her ballot for the preferred candidate by using the special black crayon to mark an X or checkmark (or actually any symbol) over the flag of that candidate's party.

The light yellow paper was the ballot for deputies in the national election for deputies in the Legislative Assembly (similar to representatives in the US House of Representatives).  Each of the fourteen departments (like states) in El Salvador has a different assembly ballot.  The number of deputies assigned to each department is based on the population of the department.  San Salvador is the largest department, and has 24 assigned deputies.  Voters can vote a straight party ticket by marking one of the eight party flags at the top of the ballot.  San Salvador voters could vote for 24 individual deputies from different parties.  With 8 political parties represented, each with 24 candidates running for seats, plus 4 non-partisan candidates, the grand total of individual faces on the ballot was 196.  Each ballot counts as one total vote.  Cross-over voting results in fractional votes for candidates.  As on the pink ballot, the voter casts his or her votes by making a mark with the black crayon over the party flag and/or faces.

San Salvador ballot for deputies and a box of crayons.  Note
the corner has been torn away on the bottom right in the photo.

Once the polls close, the first step at the table is to put away the black crayons and the ink (used to mark the finger of each person who has voted).  The next step is to count the unused ballots and to tear them in half so that they cannot be used in a fraudulent manner.  The little corners are counted as a cross-check to make sure the number of used ballots plus the number of unused ballots adds up to 600.

Tearing unused ballots.
The yellow ballots were counted first.  The table president held up each ballot and called out either a party name (straight party vote), party with preferences (votes for specific candidates under a marked party flag), cross-over vote (faces marked from different parties), abstention (nothing marked) or nullified vote (intentional or unintentional marking of more than one party flag, more than 24 candidate faces, or a vulgar message).  As observers, we noted some differences in interpretation of nullified ballots.  

The counts for each category were added up, and hopefully the total matched the number of corners from the little bag.   At two of the voting tables at the school where I was an observer, the end count came to 601.  Everything unused ballot and cast ballot needed to be recounted to make sure there had not been an extra ballot cast.  In the end, all tables ended up with 600 ballots accounted for.

The paper and crayon method of voting is labor intensive and slow.  Yet, it does provide clear visual evidence of the votes cast.  And some of the messages on the nullified ballots were quite unique...but that is a story for another day.

Stacks of ballots being counted and sorted.

A voting table president holds up a ballot
after the election.

This is the third in a series of blog posts about the 2018 elections in El Salvador.  Unless otherwise noted, the photos in this story were taken by the author.  Other stories in this series include:
Election Observing in El Salvador:  The Voting Experience
Election Observing in El Salvador:  Cardboard and Tape

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Election Observing in El Salvador: Cardboard and Tape

Aside from the tens of thousands of election volunteers, hundreds of international and national election observers, and more than 10 million printed paper ballots, the recent election in El Salvador could not have happened without 2 things:  cardboard and tape.

Photo taken in March 2014 during observation of
 the presidential election.
On March 4, 2018 there were 9422 voting tables set up in more than 1400 public schools, fair grounds and other voting centers.  At 5:30 AM, the 262 Municipal Election Board (JEM) delegates are responsible for delivering the 9422 sealed voting packets to each of the voting centers in the municipalities.  This is done with police escorts and much vigilance, as one might imagine.

When the packets arrive at the voting centers, each voting table president is responsible for opening the packet with all of the table members present, and within the eyes of the party vigilantes. The contents of the packet are verified.  The roll of tape is extracted, along with paper lists.  Then the taping begins.
Voter lists at the entrance - hurray for cardboard,
tape and plastic
On March 3, 2018, stacks of cardboard stamped with TSE (Supreme Election Tribunal) were delivered to the 1400 plus schools and other voting centers around the country.  At many centers, preliminary work was done by volunteers to fold and assemble cardboard voting booths, cardboard A-frame structures, and walls of cardboard hung near the entrances to the centers. Volunteers put the voter lists up on the cardboard walls, and covered them with clear tape -- 600 names, alphabetically arranged below each voting table number located at the voting center.  Some voting centers are small, with a few tables.  The largest voting center was at the fair grounds in San Salvador, with 63 voting tables.  The center at which I observed was one of 21 voting centers in that municipality.  It had 12 tables. 
Cardboard voting booths and A-frame voter list kiosks
As quickly as possible, still in the dark of the early morning, each voting table went to work with their lists.  Job number 1 was to tape the voter lists to the cardboard tripod assigned to each pair of voting tables -- one table on one side, the other table on the other side.  The lists show the voters' photos with their identification numbers.  The voters refer to these lists to verify that they are at the correct voting tables.

Voting booths in a classroom
The voting booths which stand in open courtyard were taped back to back, with the hope that they will stand up to a brisk  The voting booths set up in the classrooms were taped to the tops of student desks.  Each voting table is assigned 2 voting booths.

Ballot boxes, taped and inserted into
a base box so they don't blow away or tip over
The final items to be assembled and taped were the ballot boxes (called urns).  Careful attention was given to ensure that each box was empty prior to assembly and remained empty until the voting table members cast their votes.  The table members placed their identity cards (DUI's) into a small plastic bag, which was taped closed and deposited into the ballot box.  The vigilantes  did the same.  This practice prevents election staff from voting at voting tables different from the ones they are staffing. 

6 voting tables set up in the school courtyard
Once all the tables were staffed, and all the cardboard was assembled, and all the lists were taped up, and all the ballots were prepared, the voting center opened.  The center at which I observed opened 1 hour and 38 minutes late. 

Voting booths and ballot boxes
At 5:00 PM, the voting tables closed.  Then began the process of counting the ballots.  In this election, it was a long and laborious process to analyze the cross-over ballots which were cast for deputies in the Assembly.  Each table recorded the party vote totals and tallies for the cross-over votes on a large spreadsheet which was mounted on...cardboard.

Spreadsheet of vote totals
At the end of the night, the counted ballots were placed in plastic bags and and sealed with tape.  All of the election supplies, bags of ballots, and forms were inventoried, placed into plastic bags and sealed with tape.  The bags were placed into the packet box, which was sealed with tape.  The packet boxes were collected from the voting tables, and delivered by voting center's Municipal Elections Board to the designated municipal site. 

Ballots counted and sealed in plastic bags
In the wee hours of the morning, the elections workers went home.  The observers went home.  The police and security officials went home.  The Elections Tribunal staff went home.  In the voting centers across the country, plastic garbage bags were filled with giant tape balls, empty food containers, and indelible ink bottles. Neatly piled near the doors, stand giant stacks of cardboard. 

Hopefully, the Supreme Election Tribunal recycles.

This is the second in a series of stories about the 2018 elections in El Salvador.  Unless otherwise noted, the photos were taken by the author during this election.  Other stories in this series:

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Election Observing in El Salvador: The Voting Experience

I am planning to write a series of stories about the recent elections in El Salvador.  This first story will describe the experience of the typical voting family at the voting center in which I was stationed.  It is written from the perspective of a female voter with her family. It includes actual and accurate observations which my colleague and I made during the hours between 6:30 AM to 11 AM and 2:30 PM to 11:45 PM at one voting site.

I vote at the school which is several blocks from my home.  The ARENA party came around with their micro-bus to offer us a ride.  The FMLN followed shortly behind with a big coaster.  The rides were free, but my family members don't really see eye to eye on politics, so a friend drove us over in his truck.  We hopped out of the truck about a block away from the school because the police had put up cones in front of the school to block traffic.  Nearby I saw a family a lot like my own - the mom, the dad, a couple of kids and a grandma.  They climbed out of an ARENA micro.  "Vote for ARENA!" the driver joked with the kids.  That family walked toward the ARENA orientation tent.  We walked directly to the school.

The big black gate to the school was closed, and we could see that the police were letting the voters in through the smaller door.  There were a few officers outside, chatting with the people and keeping the cars away.  We entered and one of the officers asked to see inside the diaper bag I was carrying with my stuff and things for my little one.  They pulled my husband aside and patted him down a bit.  They didn't ask anything of my mom or my son. 

We weren't really sure which tables we were supposed to go to.  We looked at the big lists on the wall, but it was dark and hard to read the small print.  An elections tribunal worker helped my mom to find her spot.  The vigilantes (party observers) from the ARENA and FMLN parties came quickly to try to help us.  I think they were in a little bit of a competition to see who could help us first.  I noticed that many people had little tickets with their table numbers and voter numbers written on them.  The vigilantes told us that those were from the different political parties' orientation tents, but they had smart phones and were able to look up our table numbers right there.


My husband took our little boy with him, I had our daughter with me, and a vigilante helped my mom to get to her table.  We were at three different tables because they are organized alphabetically and we have different last names.  Well, that is our culture, but it makes it tricky.  I had to wait a little bit in my line, but my husband and mom didn't have to wait.  They voted in classrooms, but I was on the covered playground.  It was really hot. 

When it was my turn, I handed my DUI (identification card) to the first person, and she found my name and photo in the list.  600 people are listed at each voting table, and as I looked at the pages of the voter list, it looked like only a few voters were crossed off on each page.  The next person at the table signed the back of my ballots, tore the corners off, and handed them to me along with a thick  black crayon.  The FMLN vigilante showed me which cardboard voting booth to go to.  I had to wait for a man to finish before I could go.  There was a reporter with a video camera walking around and filming people while they were voting.  That made me a little uncomfortable.  When it was my turn to vote, I made my choices by marking a black X over the faces of the candidates.  It was a little hard to see who I was voting for because the pictures were so small!  Then I folded my ballots and put them into the cardboard voting boxes.  The yellow ballot went into the yellow box, and the pink one into the pink box.  I went back to the table, signed my name, got my DUI back and then they dunked my finger in permanent ink (to show I had voted). 

I walked out to the sunny part of the playground where there were no voting tables.  There were 8 or 9 police officers standing there.  They looked tired.  One tall officer came over and squatted down to say hi to my little girl.  The rest of my family joined us.  My son was pretty excited because he had watched his daddy vote and helped to put the ballots in the boxes.  I think that was a good learning experience for him.  My husband said a gringa in a blue vest took his picture.  Everyone in the room said it was important to share the picture as a message to parents to teach their children to be responsible citizens.

Our little girl had to use the bathroom before we left to go home.  All the doors and toilets in the restroom were broken, and it was very dirty and smelly in there.  I don't think the students should have those kinds of conditions in their school.

After we left the school, we could hear loud singing.  The ARENA orientation tent had nothing more than workers with laptop computers.  The FMLN tent had a guy on a microphone telling people to come vote.  Where was the signing coming from?  We walked toward our ride and the singing got louder.  We saw two gringas in blue vests walking that way too.  Hahaha, the woman from the evangelical church had set up her keyboard and microphone along the sidewalk on an empty patch of dirt and was singing very loudly!  There weren't too many people listening to her.

Later in the evening, we listened to the news and learned that voter turnout was pretty low.  We also learned that there were a pretty large number of null votes cast.  Well, the people had something to say about our politicians, I guess.  

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Just Click: Special 2018 Elections Edition

In one week, Salvadorans will go to the polls to elect their representatives (deputies) of the National Assembly, as well as mayors and city council members.  Campaigns will continue through Wednesday, after which candidates are not allowed to campaign, .and voting takes place on Sunday.  

Over the past month, campaign volunteers have been fast and furious in taking down propaganda from the opposition and installing their own.  In the old days, campaigners armed with cans of paint and brushes would transform light poles, curbs, and guardrails from one party color to another, creating new streetscapes overnight!  Paint is no longer allowed, nor are posters pasted up on walls or light poles.  Billboards are allowed and seem to be rented by the week as the images change from one party to another frequently, providing steady income to the advertising companies.  Flags are also allowed (which I personally find very fun), as are stiff posters mounted on light poles and free-standing banners posted in the medians of major roadways.

ARENA came out early with billboards along all the major roadways.

Not sure how Shafik would feel about this juxtaposition.
(This is a monument to FMLN icon, Shafik Handel, with an ARENA billboard in the background.)

This candidate, clearly proud of the hours he spends at the gym, had his campaign posters up early in January.  His strategy is effective, everyone who José #10 is - the guy with the big arms!
(The #10 indicates to the voter that on the ballot he is the tenth person down in the list of ARENA candidates for deputy.)
Week 1:  ARENA Flags go up.
Week 2:  FMLN flags go up.
Week 3:  Orange GANA flags (behind the red one) and taller ARENA flags go up.
The FMLN has fewer big signs, instead opting for smaller signs posted on light
poles.  We did notice that every FMLN candidate photo features a suit with red
tie for the guys, and a red outfit for the gals.
Vote PCN (Conciliation National Party) by marking an X
Or go to the little piggy pork restaurant.
Midway through the campaign, PCN seemed to overtake ARENA in the billboard wars.

A few weeks into the campaign, the FMLN plastered signs on the back of buses.
Other parties dabble in bus propaganda, but the FMLN definitely has the advantage...

If you call this an advantage.
Something new for the final two weeks:  billboard AND a flag!
Day by day, more posters, more flags, more's like a country-wide fiesta!

Even in towns where there is no chance of an opposition party victory, the flags of the local party fly high.

ARENA's slogan:  We can be more.

FMLN:  Glass of milk - part of a campaign touting milk and school supplies for children as an FMLN success.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Just Click: On the Road Again

Every now and then I spend a few days with my phone in hand, snapping pictures of the scenes as they go past the car windows.  Here are a few moments from the first two months of 2018...

New Year = New selections at the Super-Hero-Pajamas Corner

The San Salvador volcano is in our daily view... we noticed the installation
of a small shrine at the edge of the sugar cane field and were told it is the
beginning of a new housing development planned by the Catholic Church.

Paper beats rock. Rock beats scissors. Cow beats semi.

The tree shadow caught my attention in this photo, with the twin peaks of
San Vicente in the background.

Saddled up for a ride.

Bus driver gets out, helps woman unload her huge sacks of produce...this
is how fresh stuff gets out to the small towns far away from the capital city.
Rivers run low at this time of year.

Empanadas and coconuts.  Really, just about everything is available at
a roadside stand somewhere.

San Miguel volcano
Loaded gun, riding with a bunch of propane tanks.  Not sure that hard had
will do much good...

¡Feliz viaje!  Happy travels!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My Flashy Charla

My charla is flashy.

Hot flashy.

In my charla we talk about menopause.  But this story is not really about my charla; it is about the great-grandmas who come to my charla.  Hot flashes left them years ago, but the older ladies love to come to my charla anyway.  They sometimes wait in line to come.  As soon as the seats are free, they sit down and smooth their aprons. I introduce myself and tell them that my charla is about menopause.  They grin a little and wag a finger at me, gently saying "Ya pasó." (It's already passed.)  It's OK, I assure them, there are plenty of things that happen after menopause.  Of course they agree.

The post-menopausal women with lined faces, gray hair, flowered dresses, ruffly aprons and twinkly eyes tell me that they come because there is always something to learn.  They bring daughters, granddaughters and friends.  They often travel in pairs.  They nod.  They smile.  They listen.  They ask questions.  The young women watch them.  The young women listen to them.

I have a display.  I put up a pink backdrop.  My charla is flashy.

We spent one day at the Lutheran Clinic.  Two women sat down  After introductions I gave  each a half paper plate.  I told them we would make a little work of art during the charla.  It's practical - a hand fan for those flashy moments.

"I am an artist.  I really can draw," sang out one of the women.  She got started with her artwork right away.  The other woman hesitated.

"I don't know how to draw," she said. "I never went to school."  This is a somewhat common response.  Usually I encourage the hesitant women to try following the curve of the plate and make colorful lines.  Some have no idea how to use a marker.  I show them how to remove the cap and put color onto the plate.

The artist was a great encourager.  "Do you have a picture in your mind?" she asked the woman seated beside her.  "Everyone does.  You can draw -- just draw the picture you see in your mind."  The women draw while we chat about pelvic floor exercises.  The artist sat through 2 charlas so that she could finish her work of art.

We spent one day on a giant soccer field under tarps.  It was hot and windy.  Women in their 20's come to learn about the process their bodies will go through in 20 years.  Older women came in groups.  At every site the women are interested in the picture of the female anatomy.  We talk about everything.  The Menopause Charla provides a safe space for the women to ask questions and to make comments.  One grandma stayed for a minute after a charla group to talk with me privately.  "I want to tell you that for 30 years I did not have any relations, but recently, the experience came to me to have them again."  She giggled.

"And how was it?" I asked.

"Deee-viiiiiiine," she cooed as she looked up to the sky.

"Are you using condoms?" I asked.

She said yes, of course.  For a gentleman of that age, you cannot really know his history.