PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Michelle Altima spent all of election day trying to vote, trekking to three polling stations. Henry Emalack lined up at 6 a.m. only to find his name did not appear on voter rolls. Christian Jean found the name of his brother, who was killed in the January earthquake, but not his own.
Thousands of Haitians living in camps share similiar stories: When they tried to cast ballots in Sunday’s pivotal national elections, they could not vote. They likely represent the country’s most disenfranchised group.
“The government did not do its job. We were the people who were affected by the earthquake. And we couldn’t vote,” said Emalack, whose polling place had 39 only registered names, but had more than 5,000 people wanting to vote.
The elections led to controversy when 12 of 18 presidential candidates joined to denounce the vote as fraud. The candidates pointed out that their supporters were unable to cast ballots because of widespread confusion. The vote has since received the blessing of international observers and the Haitian electoral council. Even some of the leading candidates who criticized the election have switched positions.
Two candidates who were quick to criticize the irregularities, Michel Martelly, a musician, and Mirlande Manigat, a career academic, backed away. Not surprisingly, early returns show them running No. 1 and 2, respectively. A Jan. 16 runoff election is nearly a sure thing, since it’s unlikely one candidate will win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first-round.
The next president is expected to receive buckets of international aid and the vast responsibility to rebuild infrastructure that barely existed before the earthquake.
Yet, as ballots began to be counted, it became clear that thousands of voters were barred from voting in the historic election. That was particularly true in the 1,300 camps inhabited by 1.3 million to 1.5 million people who were made homeless by the January earthquake, election monitors said.
“These were people living under tarps who wanted to vote and spent their day getting turned away at three or four places,” said Melinda Miles, executive director of Kite Ayiti Viv (Let Haiti Live), a Port-au-Prince-based organization that sent monitors to observe the vote. “It was a systemic failure.”
At one camp, Corail, about 10 miles north of Port-au-Prince, roughly 5,000 people showed up to vote, but the polling place had a list of just 39 names, the polling place supervisor said.
Nearby, in a settlement of people displaced by the earthquake, the polling station had hundreds of registered voters but never opened, Miles said.
GlobalPost visited half a dozen camps in the days after the election and found similar complaints in each. The most common: Voters with a valid identification card went to the local polling place but their name did not appear on a list of registered voters. Some gave up there. Others were sent to other polling stations.
Altima said she walked for hours to polls set up in school classrooms.
“Everywhere I went, they told me the same thing, ‘Go to another place,’” she said. “By the end of the day, I went to three places and never found my name.”
Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council said it sent teams to register the displaced people in their camps. The Centers for Operation and Verification (COV) were supposed to help those Haitians find their polling place, but few Haitians knew about the teams until Election Day or later.
At a camp in Port-au-Prince’s Delmas neighborhood two days after the election, the concept still confused Chrstian Armond. He shot an unconvinced look and asked “COV? What’s that?
“We didn’t know where the polls were and we didn’t know where we were supposed to go. They didn’t tell us anything,” he said.
A COV team, in fact, was at his camp for several days. Voters who registered there told GlobalPost that messages were broadcast by radio. Armond doesn’t have electricity, let alone a radio.
In previous elections, polls had been opened to all voters in the afternoon. But this year, the electoral council maintained that voters named needed to be listed for them to vote.
Claims of fraud were rampant. Observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) concluded about 4 percent of polling stations — or about 440 — were destroyed. But confusion, as was the case with Armond, appeared to be the bigger culprit, suggesting Haiti was not ready for an election, despite millions spent to support the vote and the assurances of international organizations.
“Under intense pressure from the international community, Haiti’s provisional electoral council pushed forward with elections at the wrong time,” the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research said in a statement after the elections.
The OAS/CARICOM mission said the “very late launching of the ‘Where to Vote’ campaign,” which included a phone number and website where voters could find their polling station, “did not fully offset the negative repercussions of the delayed campaign. … This would have grave effect on the ability of voters to find their polling stations on Election Day.”
A mission spokesman said the observers’ reports were still being studied and he did not know if the problems were more acute at the camps.
The effect was startling. At a polling place in one camp with an estimated 45,000 residents, 109 votes were cast for president, a polling place worker said. Some voted elsewhere; others said they had no chance.
Pollsters expected only 40-something percent of the 4.5 million registered voters to turn out, a huge drop from the 60 percent turnout in the 2006 presidential elections. But even 40 percent seems ambitious now.
At another camp, a campaign organizer said one of the most important elections in the country’s history passed with little notice.
“They just had too many other things on their mind,” said Francois La Paix, referring to a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 1,700 recently and the post-earthquake chaos in general. “Voting was too much work for some people.”