Power to the Process

JUST five years ago, dictators and despots had nothing to fear from elections. Even if the process appeared to be open and free, dictators controlled and hence could manipulate the vote-counting apparatus. Opposition candidates had few resources to counter such vote fraud. Today, this is no longer the case. In recent elections in the Philippines, Chile, Panama, and Nicaragua, independent vote counts have revealed irrefutably the true outcome of the elections. Incumbents have been exposed as frauds and usurpers or, as happened in Chile and Nicaragua, have been obliged to cede power.

In emerging democracies, independent vote counts assume critical significance in verifying, challenging, or forcing the release of official results.

In the Philippines, the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) used a highly-publicized ``quick count'' in the 1986 presidential election. NAMFREL hoped to deter the Marcos regime from tampering with the official results, or to provide the basis for determining the bona fide winner of the election. The latter, in fact, was exactly what happened, as Filipinos took to the streets to denounce the rigged Marcos election results.

Chileans also developed a quick-count operation for their 1988 presidential plebiscite. This operation, organized by the Committee for Free Elections, relied on results from a statistically accurate random selection of polling sites. Three hours after polls closed, it produced reliable results that convinced the Pinochet regime to recognize its defeat.

In Panama, a church-laity group conducted a quick-count operation using a similar random sample. Despite obstruction of the tabulation process, the operation obtained sufficient data to project an overwhelming defeat for the Noriega forces. This information allowed former US President Jimmy Carter to endorse the opposition victory and denounce the government's attempt to ``steal'' the elections.

It is within this historical context that the Nicaraguan parallel tabulation operations were organized. The ruling Sandinistas and the opposition parties, the United Nations, and the Organization of American States all conducted parallel tabulations based on a sampling technique. The independent tabulations were able to project the presidential winner based on results from relatively few polling sites. Thus, well before midnight, information from the ruling party quick count was presented to incumbent Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

This prompted a meeting of the Sandinista national directorate, followed by a meeting between President Ortega and President Carter, Elliot Richardson, personal representative of the UN Secretary-General, and OAS Secretary-General Joao Baena Soares. Their job was to assure that the election results were released in a faithful manner and defuse any tensions that would disrupt what had been a peaceful election day.

These observers convinced President Ortega that early UN trends demonstrated an inevitable opposition victory. Ortega allowed the Supreme Election Council to release the results immediately and agreed to make a conciliatory concession speech.

There are several valuable lessons to be learned from recent examples of parallel tabulation operations. First, in a controversial election, a parallel tabulation should be conducted by an independent national organization. In some cases, it may be necessary, as in Nicaragua, for an external observer group to assume this task.

Second, strategic uses of the parallel tabulation should be established prior to election day. In Nicaragua, the UN was most interested in speed of tabulation, suggesting an appreciation for the potential strategic uses of a parallel count on election night. The OAS, on the other hand, emphasized the verification role of the parallel tabulation, and thus was much more concerned with obtaining large numbers of verified tally sheets. Had the election been close, or had there been allegations of fraud, the OAS would have been in a better position to determine the true results.

Third, for a parallel tabulation to be most effective its capabilities should be publicized prior to an election. This instills prospective voters with confidence that their ballots will be counted, and helps to deter election-day fraud.

Free and fair elections are a fundamental right for citizens of all countries. And as the Nicaraguan example clearly demonstrates, the presence of internal observers and mechanisms like the parallel tabulation can perform a pivotal role in ensuring that this promise is met throughout the world.

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