Wednesday, February 7, 2024

El Salvador's Elections: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As the dust settles on El Salvador's February 4 elections, the landslide reelection of President Nayib Bukele tells only part of the story. Amid Bukele's dominating 85% electoral sweep, a parallel narrative unfolded—one that could redefine the Salvadoran electoral landscape for generations. These elections didn't just test the popularity of a president; they put El Salvador's ambitious drive to modernize its voting system under the microscope.

The implementation of new voting technology in the election brought positive lessons, faced tribulations, and experienced turmoil. This analysis reviews the highs and lows encountered in streamlining the country's electoral process.

The Good:

One of the most laudable achievements of the 2022 general elections in El Salvador was the significant strides made in enfranchising the Salvadoran diaspora. Approximately 1.6 million Salvadorans, about 25% of all registered voters, reside abroad and were given the unprecedented opportunity to vote in this election.

The passage of the Special Law for the Exercise of Suffrage Abroad in 2022 was a major milestone. It mandated both internet-based remote voting and in-person electronic voting systems to assure that Salvadorans living outside the country could cast their ballots freely, equally, transparently, and confidentially.

The implementation of these systems appears to have been largely successful, enabling broader participation of expatriate Salvadorans in the democratic process.

The Bad:

Despite these advances, the participation of Salvadorans living abroad was not without its setbacks. In certain instances, polling centers overseas closed prematurely, leaving some voters disenfranchised. According to some official explanations, the provider hired to offer end-to-end services, from online voting to the setting and allocation of vote centers, did not consider the possibility of extending voting hours, a necessity in elections. Those vote centers located in private buildings were not allowed to stay open.

While initial reactions from the authorities suggested that additional voting opportunities might be scheduled to rectify this issue, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ultimately reversed its decision and announced that there would be no extra day of voting. Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado issued a statement, ensuring the public that anyone obstructing the electoral process would be held accountable.

The Ugly:

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the election was issues regarding the preliminary results system managed by the TSE itself. On election night, counts from only 31% of polling stations were reported. By Monday morning, figures had only reached 70.25% for the presidential election and a mere 5.06% for legislative positions. The TSE ordered manual vote tallying overnight and later instructed electoral bodies, with urgency, to return original records and election packages.

Poll workers' criticisms included reports of vote duplication or even triplication when processed records were entered into the TSE system. These irregularities were particularly noted during legislative vote scrutiny, raising concerns among voters about the integrity of the electoral process.

The delay in the announcement of election outcomes led an impatient President Bukele to prematurely announce his victory on social media, an action that breached election protocols. Had his advantage in the vote count been less substantial, it is likely that authorities and the public would have been less inclined to accept his early self-declaration of victory.

In conclusion, considering the difficulties encountered, it becomes imperative for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to carefully engage expert vendors with established expertise in managing preliminary election results. Outsourcing this critical aspect to such entities, which usually invest many more resources in developing election solutions, is a practice that typically yields better outcomes than risking the substantial investment and inherent challenges associated with in-house development of these complex technologies. This strategic approach by the TSE would be pivotal.