Friday, September 17, 2010

Residential Voting in El Salvador

Campesino casting his vote
What if you had to ride various busses three hours to vote? Would you still vote? This is the reality for the people who live in the communities on the Tamarindo Beach in La Union, El Salvador. On voting day, the nearest poll where they can vote is in the town of Conchagua, which is a three hour bus ride from where they live.

Or take for example the residents of the Ciudad Corinto, a middle class residential neighborhood of mostly confiminiums in Mejicanos. The nearest voting center for those residents would be in the Montreal neighborhood, where intense gang violence has increased in recent months, as we saw with the burning of a bus with passengers aboard in June. Would you venture into one of the most dangerous neigborhoods in El Salvador to vote?

Finally, take the example of San Salvador residents who instead of voting by where they live, they vote by the last letter of their name. This means that a person can live on one side of the city but need to report to the other side of the city to vote at that polling center. While not as extreme as other locations, it is still a really big hassle for some people.

Given all these circumstances, it is admirable that as many Salvadorans DO vote, given the hoops they must jump through to get to their polling center. But all of this could change with the proposed Residential Voting Plan that is currently being presented by the technical team for Eugenio Chicas, president of the Supreme Election Tribunal.

In this proposal, voting conditions will improve and become much accessible for Salvadorans all over the country. Instead of 460 voting centers, there would be 1755 stategically placed in schools that have the capacity to recieve all the registered voters. The idea being that no voter would need to travel more than three kilometers to vote. Currently, in places such as the Tamarindo Beach, voters travel up to 40 kilometers to reach the nearest polling center. In San Salvador, voters would go to a polling center in or around their neighborhood, instead of travelling to the other side of the city to vote.

Voter holds the 2009 ballot
The technical team for the TSE, proposes that this shift could be made partially by the 2012 mayor and representative elections and fully by the 2014 presidential elections. They also propose that it could be done with a budget of eight million dollars, though opponents suggest that it could be done for no less than twelve million. These opponents, such as the ARENA party, have in the past earned a lot of money during the elections by hiring family members, friends or their own businesses, to do much of the work required. The TSE technical team shows how by using tools like Google Earth, they were able to save a significant amount of time and money by not visiting all 6,000 schools in the country to determine which would be the best polling station. President Funes has already offered to financially support this initiative, as has the European Union.

The proposal for residential voting, would fulfill one of the objectives of the Peace Accords, by making the country more democratic. It would also be a great step towards development as El Salvador is also the only country in Latin America that does not have residential voting. And the TSE technical team suggests that it would promote citizen participation by making polling stations more community run and more accesible. This type of organization could be greatly beneficial in the future during natural disasters and health promotion campaigns.

While still in the early stages of promotion, it is very likely that this project will move forward and bring El Salvador closer to true democracy.

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