What we’ve learned 30 years after the first foray into electoral assistance

By Jeff Fischer

March 20, 2017   |   0 comments


In 1986, the repressive regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier fell in Haiti, and the country confronted a new challenge: running democratic elections.

The fall of Duvalier’s 15-year government coincided with the rise of democracy and electoral assistance organizations in the United States—including new groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and its core organizations, the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Center for International Private Enterprise and the Solidarity Center.

Early democracy assistance was at first directed toward political party support and domestic observation, but there was not an organization designed to assist the newly formed electoral management bodies that were responsible for the administration of elections.

Haiti would be among the first countries to receive this type of non-partisan electoral assistance.

It was three decades ago that the first form of assistance occurred—a study tour of Haitian officials who headed to the United States to observe its electoral processes.

A Haitian constitutional referendum was scheduled for March 1987—30 years ago this month—and the U.S. State Department wanted those individuals charged with administration of the referendum to observe an election in the United States. 

The election selected for them to observe was a municipal primary in February 1987 in Kansas City, where I was serving as Commissioner on the Kansas City Election Board.

During their visit, the delegation was able to observe the preparations for voting, the establishment and operation of polling stations and the retrieval of sensitive voting materials for accounting and tabulation. They also monitored the board’s process to review and certify the outcomes.

After their visit and the successful conduct of the Haitian referendum that March, I continued to provide assistance for the general elections scheduled for November. I was invited to Haiti to mentor the first Provisional Electoral Council, or CEP as it is still known by the French acronym, and made four trips to Haiti that year. The Center for Promotion of Electoral Assistance also had a representative advising the electoral management body.

I was generally encouraged by the enthusiasm and dedication that I saw among the election organizers.

During my visits, I regularly met with election managers at the Provisional Electoral Council to discuss their options in organizing voter registration for the first time, polling station locations and organization, poll worker recruitment and training, ballot design and security.

I found the Haitian to be open and receptive to the guidance being given on these issues and a general appreciation that there were standards to be followed in conducting elections.

For election day, international organizations sent freshly minted delegations to monitor the voting. At an observer coordination meeting, the names of the groups participating were posted and this was the first time that I saw the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in a programming role. 

Electoral violence, lessons learned

Despite the optimism and collaboration of Haitians and international assistance providers, remnants from the Duvalier regime, in particular the Praetorian Guard known as the Ton Ton Macoutes, would have none of these elections. They menaced the campaign period with attacks.

Election day was no different. The Macoutes attacked a polling station at the Argentine School in Port-au-Prince, killing 17 voters. Other violence flared around the country and voting was cancelled around 10 a.m.

Haiti went into one of its many political winters under a succession of military regimes that lasted until the 1990 election which brought Haiti’s first democratically elected president Jean Bertrand Aristide to power. 

While the 1987 Haitian election demonstrated the vulnerabilities of the electoral process to violence and the need for election security, the 1990 election was a kind of redemption for the notion of assistance to electoral management bodies. 

The 1990 democratic election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was seen as a genuine expression of the will of the people, and that elections can be successful even in tenuous political environments. 

In fact, Horacio Boneo, the founder of the Electoral Assistance Unit within the United Nations Secretariat, has contended that the 1990 Aristide victory combined with the same-year electoral victory of Nicaraguan presidential candidate Violeta Chamorra—another expression of the will of the people and an upset over Sandinista contender President Daniel Ortega Saavedra—demonstrated to policymakers that fair processes and good election administration can produce legitimate “opposition” victories. 

Had Duvalier’s internationally favored presidential candidate Marc Bazin, a former World Bank official, won in Haiti, and Daniel Ortega retained power in Nicaragua, international electoral assistance might not have emerged with the strength that it has.

Electoral assistance today

Today, electoral assistance is provided by a global family of inter-governmental and nongovernmental organizations, of which Creative Associates International is a member. 

Then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, electoral assistance was largely focused on the establishment of electoral management bodies, training the staff and constructing viable electoral processes as countries like Haiti moved from conflict or authoritarianism to democracy.

The challenges today, however, are different.

Rather than establishing the foundation for electoral management bodies and processes, many countries need to protect elections from malpractice and violence and ensure they have the resources to carry them out.

Today, the focus for electoral assistance should be two-fold.

First is electoral integrity—that is protecting elections from malpractice and violence. As elections are processes, they must be protected from perpetrators seeking to influence the outcomes by malfeasance.

Second, elections must be financially sustainable through domestic budgets, particularly in developing countries. Assistance should also be directed at financial management in order to reduce the election “opportunity costs” whereby inefficient election spending translates into fewer monies for health care, education, infrastructure, security, or other public goods and services.

In 1987, the Haiti experience demonstrated that bilateral cooperation on electoral assistance was a viable concept. It demonstrated that transfers of skills in electoral administration could be obtained. However, it also revealed the limitations on assistance in environments where spoilers intend to delay or disrupt the process and the significance of national political will in achieving a successful result.

Jeff Fischer is a Senior Electoral Advisor at Creative Associates International.

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