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ETAN Observes Voting Day in Liquiça

Liquiça District, Maubara, Suco Viviquinia, July 8 - It is hard to believe that Election Day has come and gone.

by Elice Higginbotham

In this northern coastal suco, west of Dili, Saturday, July 7, parliamentary voting began at 6:00 a.m. in the local public school. STAE staff in bright pink polo shirts and baseball caps set up the polling places in two classrooms. Boxes of sensitive (pads of ballots and voter registration records) and non-sensitive (office supplies) materials were unpacked; corrugated cardboard voting booths were set up in a row at one end of the room. Tables for the staff, who are checking identification, crossing voter’s name off the registration list, and handing out the ballots were set up along one wall. The ballot box itself, followed by a table where each voter dips his right index finger into indelible ink after voting, along with staff for each, were placed at the opposite side. Along the final wall were ranged the chairs for fiscais (accredited observers from each party and coalition on the ballot) and national and international observers. The presiding officer displays the uncovered ballot box, showing it to be empty, then places the slotted cover on top, and fastens it to the box with numbered seals, reading each seal number aloud as fiscais and observers take notes.


Compared to the crowd and noise that often characterize my New York City polling place, the voting takes place in what seems to me like a very quiet, calm atmosphere.

I arrive with a co-worker from La’o Hamutuk. This is her home suco and her polling place, where she and the other Timorese observers and STAE staff cast the first votes of the day, so they’ll then be free to concentrate on their jobs for the rest of the long electoral workday. At 7:05, as my notes show, the local observers and STAE staff are in line to receive and cast their ballots; by 7:15, the queue controller lets in the first voters who have been standing in long lines outside the classroom door.

The first time I observed at a polling place in Timor-Leste, I worried because it seemed to me that the process of ID checking and marking the voter’s name off the registration list presented the first opportunity for potential cheating – if there’s a crowd around the table with the registration lists, wouldn’t it be possible for someone to slip quickly past the crowd and pick up a ballot without being checked first for valid ID and registration? More careful observation on my part, however, showed that this is the responsibility of the queue controller: s/he limits the number of voters who enter the room at any given time. Anyone standing at the ID/registration check table is clearly seen being served by staff before picking up a ballot.

Compared to the crowd and noise that often characterize my New York City polling place, the voting takes place in what seems to me like a very quiet, calm atmosphere. The voters waiting outside in line are, also quiet, anything but unruly or impatient. Pregnant women and people accompanied by small children are given first priority, ushered politely to the front of the line by the queue controller, as are persons with disabilities. I notice a number of older women who look very dressed up in their traditional colorful kebaya blouses. They, too, receive special courtesy by the polling place staff.

Counting votes at Colmera in Dili on Saturday afternoon (Photo: Simon Roughneen)  
Counting votes at Colmera in Dili on Saturday afternoon (Photo: Simon Roughneen)  

As was explained to us in our STAE training for observers, the voting booths are positioned differently for this election. In previous elections, the voter’s back was to the wall of the room, and s/he was hidden from view by the booth. This time, the booths’ position is reversed – the voter’s back faces the middle of the room, and we can observe the voter’s back as s/he votes. This is to help prevent a number of fraud possibilities: leaving anything in the voting booth that could offer direction to other voters; marking anything on the wall of the booth; photographing or phoning within the booth.

My own worry is about the size and cumbersomeness of the very large ballot, with 21 parties and coalitions listed, each with names, flags and symbols. Is it possible for a voter to find her/his selection, mark it by pen or pencil or (more commonly) by nail-punch (a nail on a string hangs in each booth) without holding it up where some watcher could see the voter’s selection? If voters folds the long ballot to keep as much of it as possible hidden in front of them while voting, what are the chances that the nail may actually perforate two layers of paper, thus invalidating the ballot? These worries do not seem to become actual problems. I can see no one’s selection as I watch her/him voting from my observer’s seat at the opposite end of the room; and the small percentage of invalid, or “spoiled,” ballots seems to indicate that most voters are perfectly able to mark their choice without confusion.

From my observer post in this seaside suco, the voting was free, fair and transparent. No campaign propaganda was evident. Neither Timorese nor UN police appeared in any way intimidating, but played their proper role of being unobtrusively watchful at an appropriate distance from the polling place. Staff were courteous and helpful, but did not intrude. Voters had the necessary privacy for a secret ballot. The integrity of the process – from polling place set-up, to voting, to close of voting, to counting, to transfer of the counted ballots to the District Tabulation Center -- was rigorously maintained and documented.

I heard of only one potential possibility for fraud in the district where I observed. Party observers reported that over 400 ballots destined for distribution to Liquiça polling places were seized and cancelled on the day before voting because they had somehow been pre-perforated or marked. These spoiled ballots were not distributed.

Interestingly, about the middle of the voting day, the STAE staff presiding at “my” polling place called for the attention of all fiscais and observers present. He held up a pad of ballots, saying that each ballot in the pad was being stamped “Do Not Use,” as a mark was found beside one party name on this pad. I had to opportunity to examine one of the ballots in question – the mark appeared to be only a small fold, but it was clearly positioned next to a party name.

More interesting: As we progressed to the stage of counting the ballots after the voting ceased, there was a single contested ballot at this polling place. The counter held it up so that we all could see the single punch mark. Also clearly visible was the stamped “Do Not Use” on the ballot; one spoiled ballot apparently had made it into the hands of a voter, but only one. The system is not perfect, but it nonetheless worked well enough.

Results of the voting are still provisional as I write, and will be for a few more days. I observed in a suco long known, said my colleague, as “FRETILIN country,” and the vote-counting bore out that history. Nationwide, at this writing, local news sources report CNRT as the top vote-getter, without achieving the majority of sets necessary to form the next government alone. FRETILIN closely follows, with fewer seats going to Partido Democratico and Frente Mudança.

The electoral season is not over. Now the coalition-building begins….

see also

ETAN Volunteers Observe Timor-Leste Parliamentary Election 2012 (observations and reflections)

Read Noam Chomsky on ETAN's 20th Anniversary

Read Noam Chomsky on 20 years of ETAN

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