SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—The roosters woke me up far earlier than my watch alarm was set for on Election Day. In El Salvador, the roosters apparently don’t follow the American standard of screeching only at dawn. The sun still had hours of sleep before it had to rise, unlike me.
Our group of eight AU students - half of the total alternative break group sent to observe the El Salvadoran presidential elections - slowly awoke. We stumbled out of our mattresses that lay scattered across the tile floor of the mayor’s office, brushed our teeth at the outdoor water basin and hustled out into El Carrizal. If we did not reach the voting center by 5 a.m., we would be locked out of the set-up process.
Luckily, in a small town like El Carrizal we just had to cross the road.
Workers from the Junta Electoral Municipal, which monitors the elections in each municipality, were handing out boxes to each Junta Receptora de Voto, which carries out the voting process. A president, secretary, two vocals, alternates and representatives of the two political parties in the election sat at each Junta table.
From 5 to 7 a.m., the Junta members arranged the table and counted the 450 ballots to make sure they were all there, while lines of voters steadily grew. Then voting began.
Each voter approached the table where the president checked his or her identification and hands. An ink stain on a voter’s finger meant they had voted before. The secretary signed and stamped the ballot, a piece of paper with the El Salvadoran seal on the back and the flags of the two political parties on the front. The voter walked to the cardboard voting booth and marked an X with crayons on the flag of their preferred party. Then, the voter put the ballot in the ballot box, signed a piece of paper and inked their finger to mark that he or she had voted.
The process seems simple. But there is plenty of room for controversy and fraud.
For the five days before the election, we listened to El Salvadoran lawyers and judges and priests and mothers of disappeared children denounce the electoral process. We were trained to recognize fraud and told we would see it. ARENA, the right-wing party that controlled the Salvadoran government during a civil war bloodied by massacres and human rights violations that governed since the war’s end in 1991, would work hard to keep power, we were told. And we knew the FMLN, the left-wing party formed by the war’s guerrillas, would work just as hard to unseat them.
We were told that foreigners with fake identification cards were being bussed to polling stations by ARENA and that citizens were supposedly being paid to vote.
But in El Carrizal, the controversy was small.
The meticulous Junta president turned away two people who tried to vote with identification numbers that were past the nine-day cut off. A few people voted right on the table rather than at the curtained booth.
One young voter had yellow stains on her hands that looked like the ink of the voting stations. The Junta told her to wash her hands and then return, but the blots were still visible.
Suddenly, the table erupted into a discussion that was too quick and heated for me to understand with my limited Spanish. I asked my new Salvadoran friend Mariano, a university student and fellow election observer, what was happening.
In simpler Spanish, he said the Junta president, who was with the FMLN, and the secretary, who was from ARENA, were arguing over the stains. Each Junta alternates between FMLN presidents and ARENA secretaries or ARENA presidents and FMLN secretaries.
The girl told the Junta the stains were vinegar from making pupusas. The president wanted to let her vote but the secretary did not. They knew she would vote for the FMLN, Mariano said.
I asked him how he knew.
“It’s a small town,” he said. “When people go to meetings, everyone knows.”
With the help of the Junta Electoral Municipal, the dispute was resolved and the girl was allowed to vote.
Voting closed at 5 p.m. and ballot counting began. A few Juntas exploded into debate over the validity of some votes the crayons often smeared or voters marked below or above flags rather than on them - but the evening was generally calm.
The FMLN won in El Carrizal by five votes and overall with 51 percent. For the first time since the civil war, the FMLN will govern El Salvador.