Thursday, March 8, 2012

Indecision 2012

Yesterday was election day here in Belize, and I got to be an international election observer.  In everything I have done with the foreign service, this felt the most diplomatic.  I went around the country and got to see how another country does their elections.  I must say, I was impressed.

First, much of the election process is the same as in the United States.  Yesterday was the general election (voting for the National Assembly), as well as municipal elections.  People came to the polls, stood in line, voted and left.  The guy (they were almost uniformly men) who got the most votes was elected to the National Assembly.  Anyone American who witnessed this would recognize it as an election.  So, although I am going to focus on some of the differences, it really is basically the same.

The first big difference is the attitude of the voters.  Almost everyone in the country seemed to be engaged in the election.  Voter turnout was low despite being well over 60%.  The supporters of the parties all wore shirts the color of their party (red for the incumbant United Democratic Party and blue for the People's United Party).  Outside the polling places were crowded parties celebrating the election (and doing a bit of campaigning too).  The government declared yesterday to be a holiday, so most had the day off, but it was still a stark contrast to U.S. elections, where 'get in and get out' seems to be the norm.

One of the other big differences was in how they work to prevent voter fraud.  Just like in the U.S. everyone has to be registered, but here they also have a voter ID, with a master file that contains a photo.  They also dip the index finger in ink so that no one can vote twice.  The ink was like a cross between the "I voted" stickers we wear in the U.S. and the ashes Catholics get on Ash Wednesday.  Voters displayed their purple fingers as proud citizens.  In all honesty, I think we should adopt such a tactic in the U.S.  It seems a bit archaic, but it is so simple and effective.

Results coverage is one area where Belize could certainly take a few points from the U.S.  Results were being reported by the media in raw numbers with no context and no visual reference.  They would read candidate names and then the vote total.  Moreover, there did not seem to be anywhere on the internet to get up to date information.  There was no ticker on the bottom of the screen.  Unless you listened to the raw numbers very closely, it was hard to tell who was winning (they would announce totals box by box, rather than a sum).  Someone with a simple blog could do real well for the next election to just post results online as they come in.

Perhaps the best thing about Belize elections is how blissfully short they are.  Back in late December and January when roads started being re-paved and painted, smart observers stated that the PM would call elections soon.  But the entirety of the true election period was only 5 weeks and then it was over.  There is a bit of chaos in the five weeks leading up to the vote, but it is better than the indefinite elections we have now in the U.S.

Ultimately, the elections were very close.  Many races were within 100 votes and one was separated by no more than 11 votes.  The incumbant UDP had previously held 25 of 31 seats in the National Assembly.  After last night's elections, they only held on to 17 of 31 seats.  The UDP will maintain control, but with a much smaller majority.

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