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Last Updated: 03/27/2012
Reflections on an Observation: El Salvador International Election Observation Mission
Jennifer Dillon

Having recently returned from an International Election Observer Mission to El Salvador, Jennifer Dillon reflects on how the voters in this growing democracy have revived her belief in the electoral process and brought the magic back to Election Day.

My earliest childhood memories revolve around the electoral process. From taking family portraits for my father’s campaign literature, to getting to stay up way past my bedtime on Election night in order to attend the parties and watch the results be announced--elections have shaped my life. At some point my days as a young child outside the polling station became days of running municipal campaigns as a college student and more recently leading a Congressional re-election campaign.

As such, win or lose, Election Day held an almost Christmas like place in my life for many years. However, that anticipation and excitement slowly became marred by the exhibited apathy of the general populous and the growing influence of money, which necessitates spending more time with donors than constituents. Since 2009, when I left professional politics, my discontent with the electoral process has grown. With only 21% of registered voters in my hometown showing up at the polls this past November, Election Day losses a little of its magic.[1] When the rhetoric of the Presidential Primaries becomes less about the salient issues of the day and more about divisive, identity politics, Election Day losses more of its magic.

It was with this growing disillusionment and questioning of the process that I signed up to be a member of the UPeace International Observer Mission to El Salvador for the 2012 Municipal and Legislative elections. Though admittedly not the best context from which to start, I was curious to see how elections would work in a relatively new participatory democracy, in relation to those which I had experienced my entire life in the United States; those which are often made the global standard of free and fair.

Photo: Marina Nassif

At the risk of being overly emphatic, I have to say that the people of El Salvador have renewed my electoral enthusiasm by reminding me of what Election Day is all about--participation, cooperation, and pride.

Beginning at 6am the polling place in which I was stationed was overrun by election workers. Never before had I seen such a people intensive operation, and while I’m not sure if it was despite, or because of, the sheer number of people, the desire to work together and solve problems in a cooperative manner was visible and understood across languages. Witnessing people of all ages and of different parties work together in order to do their absolute best to ensure a successful and fair election outcome was incredibly refreshing in contrast to my experiences. Not only do local municipalities in the U.S. struggle to find just a handful, let alone hundreds, of polling station volunteers, but animosity between campaign workers is often palpable outside polling places on Election Day.

Once the polls opened I was struck once again by the constant flow of voters who entered throughout the day to cast their ballot. At any given point throughout Election Day there was always a number of voters coming through the doors. This included women with small children, the elderly and disabled citizens who not only had to endure the heat of the day to visit the polling place, but had to maneuver crowds and narrow walkways once inside the location to cast their ballot.

I was honestly choked up upon experiencing that rush of voters when those doors first opened in the morning. Seeing that flow of voters sustained throughout the day and to ultimately have people try and sneak by police at 5:05pm in order to enter the polling location before the doors were shut was nothing short of incredible. This pride in self, place and country and the participation that it engendered, is to me the true meaning of democracy.

This then raises the issue of the obvious disconnect in U.S. elections and made me wonder what those of us in the States who are committed to elections and the political process could learn from El Salvador. One might argue that as free elections are relatively new in El Salvador there remains an enthusiasm to exercise this newly acquired right after years of turmoil and war, while the United States is apathetic given that democratic elections, with changing degrees of enfranchisement, have occurred for over two-hundred years. While there is no doubt a bit of truth to this argument, I believe it’s overly simplistic and negates the possibility for change.

What then accounts for the constant stream of voters on March 11, 2012 to the polls in El Salvador and the 21% turnout rate in my hometown on November 8, 2011? First and foremost, I believe the U.S. can take a cue from El Salvador and hold elections on a weekend. The long held practice of conducting elections on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November acts counter to the modern reality of commuting and after school activities which consume most of the weekday hours for adults. Secondly, in reflecting on the reality of the Salvadorian elections I believe that the sense of importance and urgency needs to be reinvigorated in my fellow Americans. The people of El Salvador know first hand the alternative to democratic elections and thus the importance of having one’s voice and opinion heard peaceably. It is this reality which must be imparted to the American electorate.

Having government officials elected by 21% of the populous is not democracy. I fear that we in the U.S. have forgotten that every time we choose not to participate on Election Day we are essentially giving over our voice and rights to strangers and to those who yell louder. This intrinsic sense of duty and pride can not be guaranteed through traditional teaching mechanisms, but what can be taught is a real understanding of the process and the true power of each vote alongside a teaching of those past and current global struggles for democracy. It is here that schools play a key role in democracy and the United States must make a commitment to restrengthen the resources devoted to civics and citizenship education.

Photo: John Paul Martinez

Ultimately, as I reflect on my experience as an election observer I wonder, perhaps controversially, should not the United States, participate in International Election Observations? If countries such as El Salvador open themselves up to this process and possible external scrutiny, could not the U.S., the so-called defender of democracy worldwide, allow for the same in order to not only allow others to see our process up close and personal, but to learn valuable lessons from these observers in order to continually evolve electoral practices and processes? Though I remain skeptical that this shall ever occur in the near term I believe a debate on the merits of granting observers access to U.S. elections may reveal a great deal, good and bad, about the current state of American politics, elections and democracy.

[1]Office of the Secretary of the State. (2011) Secretary Merrill Releases Turnout Figures from 2011 Municipal Elections. News Release. [Online].

Jennifer Dillon is Masters student at the University for Peace in Sustainable Urban Governance and Peace program. She hails from the United States of America and in her home state of Connecticut she has worked on political campaigns for all levels of government office. Her last job in politics was Deputy Campaign Manager for a 2008 Congressional re-election campaign.