March 31, 2000
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NCHR Deplores Haiti Election Delay, Insists on Early Vote
The National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR), a non-partisan Haitian human rights organization based in New York and Port-au-Prince, deplores the ongoing delay in the organization of critical parliamentary elections in Haiti. NCHR insists that the Haitian government and electoral officials must move quickly to establish a clear plan for resolving recent voter registration problems in time for a ballot at the end of April or early May.
Organization of the long-delayed parliamentary vote has been troubled by poor leadership and management, leading to well-publicized recent voter registration problems. Nevertheless, the electoral process is far enough along to rectify the registration deficiencies and other serious administrative problems in time to hold elections within six weeks. The vote will not be perfect—like all Haitian elections in recent years, it will be marred by poor administrative coordination and oversight, voter confusion and frustration, and uncertainty and some fraud in vote counting and reporting. But a reasonable effort to fix existing problems, complete voter registration, launch a voter-education campaign, and persuade candidates to address critical issues that might convince voters to turn out, can move Haiti to blemished but credible elections now. Further delays—after one year’s worth of work—will not significantly improve the quality of the elections and will likely have severely negative consequences for the survival of what remains of Haiti’s fledging democratic institutions. Delay will also lead to severe reductions in the international economic and social assistance now largely holding Haiti back from complete collapse.
Serious, but Manageable, Election Problems
NCHR fully recognizes the scope of the organizational problems which have plagued the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) since its formation one year ago, particularly the recent disarray in the voter registration process. NCHR has criticized the sluggish, disjointed way in which the CEP has worked since the day its members were appointed. NCHR pointed out last spring that the CEP would never be able to arrange the vote for its first targeted date (November 1999), and repeated the same warning for the second date (March 2000). In January 2000, NCHR argued for a CEP delay of the scheduled March vote to May in order to provide enough time to overcome clear logistical troubles that had become painfully evident as the CEP struggled to get the registration process underway.
Those logistical problems have been widely documented by the Haitian and international press and confirmed by NCHR’s own research: disputes over local officials appointed by the CEP; far too few voter registration offices, particularly in the poorest areas (3,500 this year as compared with 10,000 in 1997); terrible logistical blunders in the control, distribution, and re-supply of registration materials; poorly trained registration staff; and no credible system in place for supervising the registration process and identifying the numbers of individuals registered. As a result, while large crowds have turned out across the country to obtain a voter card, finding an accessible (and open) registration bureau has been a nightmare for many and impossible for some. Conflict among local elections officials and party representatives over alleged political favoritism has erupted in several regions. Registration materials have been stolen, both for sale on the street and, allegedly, the fabrication of false cards. And throughout the registration process, which opened in late January, the CEP and others have made numerous contradictory and unreasonably optimistic claims about the number of eligible voters registered, with no concrete data upon which to base such estimates.
Although these problems had been evident for several months, during which the CEP had, as noted, itself twice postponed the election, the process came to a jarring halt two weeks ago when President Preval intervened in a highly disputed way to challenge the CEP’s choice of April 9th as the newest election date. NCHR has disputed Preval’s claim that he has any legal right to play a role in determining the election date. (Preval’s intervention is deeply troubling because his constitutional and democratic credentials are questionable after he closed parliament and remove local officials in January 1999, establishing a de facto government through which he has since ruled by decree.) Nevertheless, the critical point is that Preval, the CEP and the political parties reach consensus on a new, early date and take the immediate steps necessary to correct the most glaring organizational problems: voter registration, logistics, and CEP staff training and supervision.
Determine the Number of Voters Registered
Registering voters was the CEP’s first—and most challenging—elections task. The registration campaign has been fogged by confusion over the number of voters eligible to vote and those who actually obtained a card during the registration period. The number of potential voters has been estimated at between 4.5 and 5 million—the actual number is probably impossible to determine given the lack of hard data of the exact size and structure of the Haitian population. The numbers are important only to the extent they provide a rough determination of how well the CEP has carried out its registration function, and what percentage of the eligible population may still be without a card. The CEP should be able to obtain a reasonable estimate of the number of registered voters by conducting a quick count of the number of registration books filled (each book holds 400 registrations) across the country to determine how successful the existing process has been in spite of its problems.
In any case, the exact number of eligible voters does not matter as long as every eligible Haitian has a reasonable opportunity to register and participate. And by opening only 3,500 registration sites around the country, the CEP may have made it very difficult for populations in certain rural areas and very poor urban sectors to obtain a card. This problem was compounded by the shortages of registration materials that developed just a couple of weeks into the process, forcing many sites to close early. A geographic analysis of registration patterns should identify underserved areas.
Extend Registration for Two Weeks in Underserved Areas
Although the voter registration process has been fraught with difficulties, a surprisingly large number of Haitians have turned out to obtain a voting card (even if a much smaller number actually intends to vote). The most serious problem has been the failure of the CEP to open and consistently supply enough registration offices to give every eligible Haitian a reasonable opportunity to register. The CEP should remedy this situation by using this week to identify underserved areas and then promptly set up (even temporary) offices in these regions for an additional two weeks of registration. The opening of these additional offices should be accompanied by a simple radio-based voter education campaign, alerting potential voters to the locations and dates of the extended registration periods. The critical goal is to give all Haitians, from all economic and geographical locations, a fair chance to participate, and to deny to political actors the post-election argument that the elections were unfair because their supporters were not given a chance to obtain a card.
Address Fraud Concerns via Staff Training and Supervision
The administrative confusion surrounding the elections has raised charges that one or more political parties have stolen registration materials in order to make illegal cards that would enable their supporters to vote more than once. Election materials (cameras and film) have indeed been robbed, and reportedly sold for reasonable prices in Port-au-Prince’s street markets, and funds have been stolen by CEP employees. These are criminal acts, lamentable but not surprising in the context of Haiti’s poverty and security situation and the CEP’s lax administrative controls. They do not, however, affect the potential fairness of the election and should not slow down the electoral process.
While it is likely that the elections will be marred by fraudulent activity—every election in Haiti since 1986 has seen its share—the most serious problems will not arise from illegal cards. All Haitians older than 18 are eligible to vote in any case, and every voter will be stamped on a finger with indelible ink after voting, which should help to prevent multiple voting (with or without an illegal card). The greater concern is with manipulation of the vote count by CEP staff at the voting stations and en route to the CEP headquarters in Port-au-Prince, a problem also evident in past elections. This problem can be addressed by ensuring that no single political party or faction controls any voting or counting station and elections observers and CEP supervisors follow the voting and counting process closely.
Thus, the concerns about fraud are real but misconstrued, and lie with the training and supervision of the poll workers and CEP regional vote counters. The CEP’s faults in training, supervising and compensating its voter registration workers are now evident, but the CEP should have almost a full month to remedy its most serious problems prior to the actual election.
Finally, suggestions that the computerization of registered voters is the only way to avoid fraud is both factually mistaken and completely impractical in Haiti—a government unable to manage a simple manual electoral process will have even less success with machines requiring reliable electricity, well-trained data processors, and reliable software and hardware support, requirements all in very short supply. Automating the electoral system would result in months of additional delay with no assurance that the opportunities for fraud will be reduced—computerized numbers can be just as easily manipulated as manual ones if supervisory controls are weak.
Candidates Must Give Voters a Reason to Turn Out
With Haiti again on the brink of economic and social collapse, political candidates and parties across the political spectrum have failed to address any of the appalling crises facing the country. Bickering over the organization of the elections, personal attacks, irresponsible charges of election “coups” and “conspiracies,” and hollow propaganda slogans have substituted for any serious attempt by anyone to suggest what they might do for the country in the event they were to win an election.
As a result, the irresponsible, petty wrangling for personal political power marring Haitian politics for the last three years, the same squabbling that disgusted voters so much that only 5% turned out for the last election, threatens to lead to the same outcome this year. Political leaders and candidates have offered these voters no reason to change the eloquent judgment they rendered on the Haitian political class by refusing to vote in 1997. NCHR has concluded that the overriding reason Haitians have turned out to register is to obtain the first photo identification card most have ever owned, one recognized officially by the government. It will serve a wide range of business and social purposes as well as provide the first proof of nationality and citizenship most have known. The pride in owning the card, however, suggests very little about whether the same Haitians will turn out and vote. A perfectly rational interest in obtaining a photo identification card should not be confused with a desire or intention to actually fill out a ballot. A repeat of the 5% turnout in 1997 will rob any new government of the political legitimacy and broad support necessary to begin to rebuild Haiti’s institutions.
NCHR therefore urges political candidates to face the issues in a way that will give voters a belief that they have something at stake in the elections. Where are proposals to jump-start Haiti’s economy, to provide economic hope to the country’s poorest? Proposals to address the security situation, to reverse the erosion of the Haitian National Police and confront the alarming growth of the drug trade that now threatens to turn Haiti into a “narco-state”? To build a justice system that functions to protect citizens’ fundamental rights? To provide health services and education to the most illiterate population in the Western Hemisphere? To halt the increasing desertification of what had once been a lush tropical country? To build democratic political institutions which actually function?
The International Community Should Send a Large Monitoring Mission
While the US, Canada, France, the European Union, the UN, the OAS and a number of other states have been pressuring Haiti to move forward with elections, they have been slow to arrange for a sizable international elections monitoring contingent. Given the importance of these elections, the organizational problems that may lead to a muddled vote, and the lack of a well-structured and financed domestic monitoring capacity, the presence of a large international monitoring mission becomes crucial for determining whether the elections are reasonably competent and fair and the resulting new parliament, therefore, legitimate. The UN/OAS civilian mission in Haiti that played a large role in monitoring earlier votes, MICIVIH, has closed down, and a smaller successor mission, MICAH, will not be on the ground in time to play a monitoring role. Efforts to develop more than a small international monitoring presence have not proven fruitful to date. NCHR urges a redoubling of efforts in this area.
Remember the Stakes
The year-long conflict among Haiti’s political actors over the organization of new elections has obscured the actual purpose of the vote—to halt Haiti’s slide back toward authoritarian rule and reestablish frail but functioning democratic institutions. These institutions, in turn, are necessary for the construction of a state government strong and competent enough to tackle Haiti’s dire economic, social and security issues (with extensive international assistance). And only a state with a respected police force, independent judiciary and vibrant civil society can protect and promote the human rights of its citizens.
The postponement of these elections under pressure from President Preval—whether for several months or until the November presidential vote—would be another serious setback for democracy in Haiti. It would bring widespread international censure, and return Haiti to the camp of authoritarian states. Large-scale development assistance would disappear, and economic and political isolation would further exacerbate Haiti’s already-extreme poverty.
©2002 NCHR -- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED -- Last updated: 01 May 2007