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Your location>Home>Publications>PeaceWays>Spring 2013

   
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Election Observation in Lumakanda
Joe Ossmann, AGLI Extended Service Volunteer

As we approached the March 4 national election in Kenya I was somewhat surprised and relieved to learn that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) welcomed observers and extended a great deal of cooperation. I believe that the IEBC genuinely wished to conduct a transparent, free, fair, and credible election, and they saw that unbiased observers could be a big part of that, by witnessing their efforts, keeping them honest, and reporting to the world what was observed.

A wide range of figures for the number of election observers have been published, but it appears that there were more than 10,000. In addition to many Kenyan groups, the Carter Center was here from the US, the European Union sent a team, and many other smaller groups pitched in. For our part, the Friends Church Peace Teams and African Great Lakes Initiative trained and deployed 265 observers in western Kenya. Quaker Peace Network-Africa placed 222 observers and Turning the Tide had 150. Change Agents for Peace, International (CAPI) also brought in 20 foreign observers from nearby East and Central African countries. The Quaker total was therefore 657 or more than 5% of the total observers.

On election day I arrived at the polling station at Lumakanda Township Primary School at 5:15 a.m. to observe the setup, and I was welcomed by the IEBC officials. Voters were already beginning to line up outside. Another observer arrived shortly after I did, and party agents were showing up as well. I set about doing my pre-opening observing. Were security officers present? Were the polling booths well situated? What were the beginning serial numbers of each of the six sets of ballots? Were the ballot boxes verified as empty and sealed? All of the observers and agents recorded the serial number on each ballot box as well as the serial numbers on each of the seals.

Soon the first glitch of the day appeared. The IEBC had established a highly touted – and expensive – biometric voter registration system which stored the fingerprints and photos of every registered voter. A laptop computer with a thumbprint reader was the first stop at every polling station, to provide positive identification of every voter. Unfortunately, at our polling station the staff did not have the password to get into the computer.

After fruitless attempts to get the laptop going, we finally opened to the increasingly restive line of voters at 6:55 am. By this time there were about 200 voters in line for our room, one of three streams of voters for our polling station. All three streams were unable to access their computers, so the clerks had to process voters using the printed registers. Voters were crowding into the door, occasionally shouting about the delay. The register for each stream had close to 700 voters and there was no way to tell in advance which register a voter would be found in. Moreover, the registers were not even in alphabetical order! So each voter would enter a room and show identification. The clerk would then have to search the entire register. If the voter was not found, which happened two-thirds of the time, he or she was sent to the next room to try that register. It was chaotic, and voters were being processed at a very slow trickle. Finally the staff in our room got the laptop working at about 8:15 am. Suddenly things got a lot smoother. Voters were processed much more quickly, the lines began moving, and the voting booths were full.

As my wife, Kathy, and I traded shifts during this very long day we recorded a number of important factors. Was any partisan activity taking place inside or outside the polling place? Were voters properly identified? Are the clerks issuing the ballots properly? Is voting secrecy maintained? Are disabled and illiterate voters given proper assistance? Do the voters insert their six ballots into the boxes with the matching colored lids? Is the small finger on the left hand of each voter marked with indelible ink? Any time we noticed any possible irregularities we called them to the attention of the Presiding officer, who always responded appropriately, correcting the error if necessary.

By the late afternoon the lines had dwindled to only a dozen or so. When the polls closed at 5:20 pm there were only two or three people in line, all of whom were allowed to vote.

Finally the actual counting began. The 650 ballots in each box were examined one by one to determine the voter’s choice and sorted into piles by candidate. Then each stack was counted and the numbers were noted by the IEBC staff, the observers, and all the agents. By the time all of the ballots were counted it was 2:00 am. Even then there was more to do, as original count sheets for each office needed to be prepared for the IEBC and all the agents, and everyone had to sign each one. Finally, with all the ballots and the count sheets back in the boxes, the boxes were sealed again and we all recorded the seal numbers. Since I had the only vehicle there, we loaded all the boxes and other materials into the back of our truck and transported them to the tallying station about a quarter-mile away. We finally got home sometime after 3:00 a.m.

It was an inspiring day for me. Some of the memories I will carry with me include the long lines of Kenyan citizens waiting in the hot sun, determined to cast their ballots; the commitment and fairness of the IEBC clerks and officers; the clerk who helped a voter by holding her blanket-wrapped infant while she voted; perhaps most of all, the fatigue of everyone after a 22-hour day.

Kenya was determined to get this election right. Our polling station did an exemplary job. It was an honor to be part of making that happen.