Democracy Up Close In Somaliland Reflections Of An International Election ObserverThe polling station staff includes four people: a chairman, secretary, and two ‘scrutineers’ responsible for inspecting and applying the all-important ‘indelible’ ink, which will in theory serve as a sufficient replacement for a national voter registry. Ideally, the first scrutineer greets voters by inspecting the little finger of their left hand for ink. If no ink is found the voter steps in to the polling station chair and secretary, where one records by hand the voter’s name and approximate age in a record book containing a hand-written log of every ballot number. If the voter is under 16 years of age, judged according to appearance because few people have any kind of official identity document, a ballot is issued. If the voter appears too young, the chair and secretary can question the person to determine their age. In a dispute, someone from the community – perhaps an elder, or just a neighbor – can be consulted.

Once the ballot is issued, a makeshift voting booth is located in the corner behind a white sheet, strung up with string to a nearby bench. The ballot box, a clear plastic bin sealed with plastic ties on the corners, is on the floor in the middle of the room, within sight of all. In theory, the process is sound, democratic, and transparent. In practice, the challenges of making this system work well in Somaliland – or, probably, any place facing the particular constellation of issues that Somaliland faces – are significant. Our experiences over the day will reveal as much.

In addition to the polling station staff, agents for each party – Kulmiye, UCID, Rays, Waddani, Dalsan, Umadda, and Xaqsoor – are seated along the walls of the room, the goal of increased transparency clearly in mind. No one without official credentials, with the exception of voters, should be inside the polling station at any time. In particular, men with guns should remain outdoors. But that rule, too, we found lacking in practice.


In total, that means at least eleven people should be inside the station at all times, in addition to the requisite voting materials. The ballots are large and complicated, essentially 11×14 sheets of paper. With all the necessary tables, chairs, and benches to accommodate these people, and most stations little more than a twelve-foot by twelve-foot room, space is limited.

Nada and I enter the first station and stand in the only available corner, still about 15-minutes until the polls open. The noise, chaos, and excitement outside is mounting while the polling station staff, mostly young university students and a mix of men and women, prepare the materials for what will be a very long day. When the voting finally begins, order is maintained for a time. Voters enter, have their fingers inspected, register in the logbook, and cast their ballot. At least, this is how it is supposed to work.

Virtually all of Somaliland is extremely rural and illiteracy is high – close to 80% in 2001 – so in these elections candidates and parties are identified by numbers according to the assumption that most people possess basic numeracy (an assumption rooted in the rise of cell phones, which are extremely popular and widely used across Africa, and patterns of day-to-day economic activity). However, even this system of numeracy is not understood by all and a high proportion of voters enter with small printed cards indicating their intended vote. When the card is presented to the chair, the ballot is filled out on behalf of the voter, confirmed by each party agent, and set into the ballot box. When so many voters use these cards, however, voter confidentiality becomes an important consideration; in our observations, probably close to 50% of all votes ended up visible to everyone in the room. Given the situation, this is a difficult issue to overcome.

We remain at the first polling station for thirty minutes before departing, filling out checklists and writing comments as we go. This is just the first station of the day: we have a list of twenty-five polling stations to visit in the next eleven hours. Unfortunately, what we do not have is a map, nor are there any road signs at all – roads themselves apparently missing – outside of the capital. This is a giant challenge in the planning process, considering that most of the polling stations are many miles apart over rough roads. Although our driver is able to identify several towns from the list, most are unknown to all. Even the Mayor of Salaxley, who we were finally forced to approach for help, couldn’t help us locate every station.

As we attempt to establish some sort of route, we in the meantime visit two additional polling stations within a few minutes drive of Salaxley proper. When we arrive at the next station – ‘Salaxley B’ – the scene is somewhat different. Many more people, much more chaos. There are two ballot boxes at this station and four lines (two each for men and women). The closest line appears to be verging on a riot. Everyone is yelling, and two men begin swinging at each other with wooden canes. Inevitably, everyone must be involved and the pushing and shouting mounts swiftly. Our own SPU agent appears to enjoy this environment and, bolstered by his own military fatigues and rifle, immediately enters the fray. He grabs a man by the collar and shoves him out of the crowd. Someone begins blowing a whistle, which seems to be an alert of sorts. Nada and I hang back, looking toward our vehicle and considering the risk of continuing to watch from the fringe. Interestingly, the second set of lines, not even a hundred feet away but leading toward a different polling room, appear totally unfazed by the nearby chaos and instead everyone stands patiently waiting. We enter the second room, bolstered by the peaceful and quiet queue out front.

As we enter, the first thing that is immediately apparent is that the second ‘scrutineer’ – the one who is supposed to be applying indelible ink – is clearly not doing so. This was uncommon over the course of the day, but perhaps it was influenced by the chaos outside. The next voter enters, and it is clear to me that he cannot possibly be older than 12 or 13. Certainly not old enough to drive in any country! Thankfully, Nada is able to translate to me as the young man spins his story: to my surprise, the chair waves the boy on to cast his ballot. Later as we are leaving the station, I notice an entire row of young boys queuing to vote, some probably only 10-years old. But before we leave, another interesting event occurs: Nada and I watch as our SPU agent walks calmly into the station, rifle over one shoulder, registers for a ballot, casts his vote, and walks out, neatly walking right past the station where he is supposed to have his finger marked. This is all fine, except we watched him do the same thing 15-minutes prior at the first polling station! I realize quickly that this process is infinitely more complicated than I ever could have anticipated.

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