||U.S. International Electoral Observation Delegation|
Matagalpa Delegation Report
Eight of us observed the 2001 Nicaraguan elections in the Municipality of Matagalpa in northern Nicaragua. Nelson Artola, leader of the FSLN in Matagalpa, meet with us on Saturday afternoon, November 3, and explained his main concerns for the elections in Nicaragua. This included a fear that the liberal party would bog down the electoral process through multiple submissions of bogus impugnaciones, or legal challenges. He was also concerned that we accompany the ballots at the end of the voting to the Municipal Electoral Council in the Instituto Nacional Eliseo Picado where the voting results would be communicated to the Computing Center in Managua.
On Sunday morning, we met at the ATC (Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo) office. Dr. Artola had a FSLN driver take us out to the four JRVs where we observed the voting. Jeremy Turner and Dale Wimberley were positioned at the Escuela Guy Ruth in Barrio Guanuca, Phyllis Ponvert and Kurt Berggren at the Escuela Carlos Fonseca by the Colegio San José, Tanya Cole and Melissa Gerke at the UNAN, and Cheryl Musch and Marc Becker at the Escuela Solingalpa in the rural community of Solingalpa on the outskirts of Matagalpa.
Cheryl and Marc were positioned at Solingalpa, arriving about 9:30 a.m. and remaining through the final tallying of the vote at 4 a.m. the next day. There were 5 polling stations (Junta Receptora de Votos, JRVs) at this voting center. We observed numerous national electoral observers, including ones from Consorcio Civil Electoral (CCE), Etica y Transarente (E y T), and Caritas Diócesis de Matagalpa (CODIAL). We observed a couple other observers, who may have been from the International Republican Institute (IRI) or the Carter Center, who drove up in a SUV, made a quick round of the voting booths, and then took off again. We also saw three military helicopters fly overhead with Republican Congressmen from the United States who were observing the electoral process in the departments of Jinotega and Matagalpa.
We spent at least one hour in each of the five polling stations, alternating with observing events in the school’s courtyard outside of the polling stations. At no time were we barred entry or prevented from observing any events. In fact, we were welcomed and treated courteously. Several people passed notes to us or mentioned to us events which they viewed as electoral abuses, under the impression that we could do something to correct the situation. The voting process was painstakingly slow with party officials and observers very diligently monitoring the process. By all appearances, despite minor irregularities the casting of votes was legitimate and free of fraud.
Typically, a polling station had three people (president, first member, second member) staffing the voting table, three fiscales (one from each of the three parties) reviewing their procedures, at least two observers, and an electoral police guarding the door. It usually took ten to twelve people and an average of two to three minutes to cast each vote. Long lines stretched out of each Junta and persisted throughout the day, keeping all of the Juntas open beyond the official 6 p.m. closing time.
A voter entered the classroom that served as a polling station and showed the president of the Junta an identification card. The president typically would scan both the front and the back of the identification card with a black light, and then check the voter’s left thumb with the black light to assure that it was not marked with indelible ink which would indicate that the person had already voted. The first member of the Junta would then check the identification card against the list of voters. Both the president and first member would sign the back of the ballot and explain to the voter how to cast the vote. The voter would proceed to behind a cardboard box that served as a voting booth, mark the vote, then fold the ballots in half and deposit them in each of four voting boxes (urnas). A color on the back of the ballot corresponded to a color on each of the ballot boxes, but the colors were so similar that many voters had difficulties getting the ballots in their proper boxes. The second member of the Junta would then ink the voter’s left thumb, before returning the identification card and allowing the voter to exit the polling station.
The most significant disputes of the day revolved around people voting in Juntas in which they were not properly registered. Occasionally this was because voters queued up for the wrong Junta. More problematic, however, was when people attempted to vote in a Junta in which they were not properly registered. The electoral law allows people to vote if two witnesses would testify that they indeed did live in the Junta’s district. This was intended to allow people who had recently moved and in our training we were told that this would be a relatively rare occurrence, but it appeared to open up the possibilities for fraudulent abuses. Specifically, party militants would bring in voters who were not on the electoral list and serve as their witness. This opened up all sorts of debates in many of the Juntas. Could a suplente (substitute member of the voting table) serve as a witness? Did the witness have to live in the same community as the voter? The electoral law is very vague on these points. Some people maintained that even a sitting president could serve as a witness.
An example of this issue came to a head in Junta 8191. The Conservative Party (PC) officials did not show up to work the election table, so a Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) suplente took this position resulting in liberal domination of the Junta. Two liberal party activists, including a suplente, brought in an old man (“anciano”) who claimed to have lived in this are for one year but his address was still elsewhere. He claimed not to have the two cordobas (about $0.15 US) for bus fare to the other polling place. With the insistence of the FSLN fiscal, the man was not allowed to vote. The FSLN fiscal claimed that the liberals were using their dominant position in the Junta to ram voters from other areas through this polling place. A CODIAL observer noted to us that fiscales were being very interventionalist in their behavior. From our perspective, the “anciano” who had been brought to the front of the line was not that old and probably either should have updated his identification card or could have found a means to travel to his proper voting place.
Ultimately, both the FSLN and PLC appeared to be using party activists to bring voters to the polls and to serve as witnesses, with the opposing party often complaining whenever this happened. Different Juntas applied different standards in accepting witnesses, with 8180 accepting perhaps five witnesses during the day and 8170 accepting 28. 8180 needed to process more voters than any other of the Juntas, which added to their resistance to accept people who were not on the electoral list since this would require the processing of additional paperwork.
Among other irregularities, in Junta 8181 the black light was not working properly which slowed down the checking of identification documents. We did not observe this Junta checking any thumbs under the black light for indelible ink. Among the other four Juntas, 8191 irregularly checked thumbs. Furthermore, the cardboard ballot boxes were to be taped shut, but the boxes in 8170 and 8190 were simply folded shut.
We observed the counting of votes in Junta 8170. At 6:30 p.m., it was the first Junta closed. Other Juntas remained open with long lines, and there was some discussion whether this Junta also need to remain open. There was also a debate whether observers could be present for the counting of votes, but ultimately we were allowed to remain for the process. Three members of the voting table, three fiscales, and five observers remained locked in the room until after midnight counting the votes.
The president and first member first counted the unused ballots, with the first member writing “no usada” on each unused ballot. Apparently the initial count of National Deputy ballots was in error, as the number never equaled the 400 votes that were to have been delivered to the Junta. This was noted as an inadvertent error on the electoral report. Then the president opened the ballot boxes for each of the four races (president/vice-president, National Deputy, Departmental Deputy, and Central American Parliament) and sorted the ballots into their proper piles. It became obvious at this point just how many ballots were deposited in the wrong box. At the end, all the ballots were placed into envelops and taped shut and then put in plastic bags which were also taped shut. Finally, it took about an hour to fill out and sign all the sheets reporting the vote. We did not observe a single impugnaciones (legal challenges) which the FSLN had feared that the PLC would use as a tactic to bog down the electoral process.
In each of the four races, nine or ten votes were either blank or spoiled. All of these votes were reported on the official forms as “nulo” but not included in the public vote totals. In each race, one to three votes were blank (nothing marked). Of the other votes, most of them had both the PLC and PC marked, almost as if to say anyone but the FSLN. In a broader context, this “protest” vote was quite minor. In Ecuador, for example, it is reported that the blank and spoiled vote regularly surpasses that of the elected candidate.
The FSLN won about 50% of the vote in each of these races. In a reflection of national trends, only two people voted for the PC presidential candidate, but over ten times as many people voted for the PC in the other races. This “split vote” drew support almost exclusively away from the PLC.
At 12:10 a.m., we emerged from the classroom which had served as the polling place. The electoral police guarded the classroom with the ballots and report locked inside until the other Juntas completed their count. It took Junta 8190 four more hours to complete their vote. When they were finished, the person in charge of the polling place had each Junta line up in the school’s courtyard with their votes. Then they backed an old school bus up to the school’s gate (which had been locked since the polls were to have closed at 6 p.m.), and had us load the back from the bus’ back door. With an armed escort, we drove to the Municipal Electoral Council at the Instituto Nacional Eliseo Picado in Matagalpa. The Juntas then joined a long line at the council and waited several more hours to report and deposit the votes. In all, the counting and reporting of the votes took about as long as it took to cast them.