Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal and IFES Enhance Partnership

By William R. Sweeney, Jr., IFES President and CEO

IFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney and Supreme Electoral Tribunal Chairman Dr. Rudy Marlon Pineda Ramirez meet ahead of Guatemala’s October 25 elections.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) professional culture is to remain in the background, as election management bodies (EMBs) are both our client and partner. Ultimately, we provide technical assistance for EMBs during their elections in their country. Our success is not measured by media prominence, but by the trust of and partnership with an EMB. In this regard, the IFES Guatemala team has certainly set a new bar during preparations for two rounds of elections in Guatemala this year. Individually and collectively, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has been effusive in its public and private praise for the IFES team. This trust is visible to U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson and the leaders of USAID Guatemala. At the TSE’s welcoming banquet for international observers, Chairman Dr. Rudy Marlon Pineda Ramirez publicly acknowledged the contributions of IFES and our Chief of Party Maximo Zaldivar as part of his formal welcoming remarks! I’ve rarely had the experience of such universal acknowledgement of the value of IFES’ contribution to the management of an electoral process.

Preparing for Election Day

While printing costs money, it is tangible and can be used in real time by poll workers and party observers on Election Day. This is particularly useful in societies where the electricity supply is problematic and Internet access is intermittent. Printed items can also be perceived as more official and trusted when the logos of the authorities are prominent. Guatemala’s TSE clearly believes in the continued value of print and they have implemented enhancements to the electoral process and successfully communicated these improvements with old fashioned print materials. The TSE’s web site is also world class – with applications for smart phones that were implemented with IFES assistance – and was utilized by many on Election Day, particularly during the vote count. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to see the presence of print throughout the electoral process.

President Sweeney and IFES Guatemala Chief of Party Maximo Zaldivar with other members of the IFES team.

While the TSE used traditional print methods for voter education, it also relied on online tools during this election cycle. For example, this video on YouTube explained how women should be able to make decisions on who to vote for free from intimidation and coercion.

Cell phones are a growing issue for election commissions, particularly when they are used during the count by party observers to transmit preliminary, inaccurate, or overly optimistic reports, or suggest electoral malfeasance. After much consultation, the TSE published an edict authorizing the managers of polling stations to hold the cell phones of all observers during the counting process. This was controversial but there had been plenty of abuse acknowledged by all parties during the first round of voting on September 6. IFES assisted the TSE in the development and circulation of the edict and published it in local newspapers. The U.S. Ambassador was delighted to see the official edict with the USAID and IFES logos.

In May of this year, a security committee was convened by the TSE with representatives from the police, military, emergency services and Public Works. In the lead up to the elections, the committee met every three weeks with IFES support. None of the institutions represented changed their personnel attending the meeting, allowing for trust to develop between all the stakeholders. IFES helped with regular mapping exercises concerning potential hot spots for electoral violence. Guatemala appears to have benefited from lessons learned around the world from such committees: the same people with authority have to meet early and often to ensure continuity and focus.

U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Todd Robinson (center) and President Sweeney meet with the TSE Board.

IFES and the TSE also worked together to produce a document with contact information for those responsible for answering queries on Election Day, which the TSE distributed to polling stations. The document provided a tangible answer to the question: “Who are you going to call?” TSE Chairman Pineda held up a sample of this document during a press conference to demonstrate its utility.

Election Day

In many countries on the eve of a national election, there is either a palpable tension about the day ahead. A sensitive political observer can get a sense of this tension from the media, the conversations, and the dynamics of interaction with people on the ground (e.g., the famous taxi driver poll). Despite the fact that it is a country with a history of electoral and political violence – unfortunately evident in the first round elections on September 6 – tension was noticeably lacking.

Like election professionals everywhere, the TSE’s staff had been working long hours to prepare for the election, and then had public events and media responsibilities that only added to their stress and exhaustion. The TSE Commissioners and staff fulfilled their public obligations while keeping a steady hand on the management of a very complicated electoral process. Guatemala has a tradition of holding a public event to officially open the polls. This is the last opportunity for the TSE to project confidence in the day ahead. Chairman Pineda selected a school where he was registered to vote as the venue for the official opening of the polls. The event was well covered by the media. Both Mayan and sign translators were engaged and sent a signal of inclusiveness.

The location of the event was a logistical problem for some of the other TSE Commissioners who also had a responsibility to publicly vote in their stations as well as handle other details on Election Day. Three of the five decided not to attend the formal opening ceremony. This created an awkward situation concerning who filled the seats on stage. Fortunately local election officials and Guatemalan senior observers were present and available to join the TSE Chairman. There was a brief discussion about the Chairman of the Organization of American States’ delegation and IFES sitting at the table but it was quickly ended – after all, it was Guatemala’s Election Day. The morning difficulty did not last long – the TSE team was publicly evident at the Media Center on election night.

President Sweeney examines a voter education poster detailing how voters' can find their polling location in Ciudad Vieja.

The voting booths in Guatemala were designed to allow one out of every four stations to be accessible to people with disabilities as well as the elderly. I was not aware that the TSE had built the polling booths with such sensitivity. This demonstrates great leadership that should be copied by election management bodies around the world. Unlike some other elections around the world, thousands of Guatemalans volunteer their time to work at polling stations. In Guatemala, the participation of citizens is vital to the conduct of elections.

IFES materials were visible at every polling station. Posters with the IFES logo detailing processes were posted everywhere. Poll worker manuals were on every table of every polling station – and polling workers told us of their utility and value, particularly the graphics and direct explanations. IFES Guatemala’s contributions to making the electoral process more efficient and comprehensible were omnipresent and welcomed.

Following an 80 mile journey and visits to 15 polling stations in the northwestern Department of Sacatepéquez, the day ended at the Command Center for the TSE, which was attached to the Media Center.

President Sweeney points to the IFES logo on a voter education poster.

Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) and Foreign Ministry worked with the TSE to provide ink and the process for verification that a person voted. I was unaware of this partnership and exchange of a best practice until Election Day. The INE is a regional and world leader in election management practices. Guatemala has its own way of casting a ballot transparently. The TSE provides the tables for each polling station. Each table has a series of slots with clear plastic bags underneath each slot. In the first round, there were five ballots and thus five slots with five clear plastic bags for cast ballots; there are no ballot boxes. Each voter can see their ballot fall into the bag. At the end of the day, the poll workers count the ballots from the bag in front of party and civil society observers.

The TSE IT infrastructure was made more robust and secure by the contributions of IFES consultants from the IT Department of the Panama Election Commission. Our team was experienced, professional and provided a fresh perspective and new energy that was critical to the success of any long-term IT undertaking. IFES was also the secretariat for the impressive Election Security Working group organized by the TSE. This team had been meeting for months and worked into the night on Election Day. The security preparations were among the reasons for such a peaceful second round.

President Sweeney reviews the voter list with polling station workers in the city of Antigua.

The working relationship and partnership with the TSE was acknowledged on the night of the election at the TSE’s Command Center. IFES was the only organization honored with an office at the Command Center. Working space is always at a premium and the TSE’s recognition that IFES needed space to continue its mission was a great endorsement of the value of the partnership.

President Sweeney meets with members of the Federation of Radio Broadcast (FGER) and the National Council for People with Disabilities (CONADI).

Over the past few years, IFES has developed a strong competency in working with EMBs to share raw data from the count from every polling station around the country as quickly as possible. Data transmission directly to the EMB web site and in a partnership with the national media makes the election results visible and credible to the nation. Media Centers become the sites for election night coverage by television, radio, print and web journalists. Mystery, intrigue, rumor, and suspicions are reduced by the open sharing of data. The American politician Lawton Chiles used to say “the best disinfectant is sunshine” and Guatemalans appreciated the visibility of the election results.

On Election Day, the polls closed at 6 p.m. The TSE reported unofficial results at 8 p.m., declaring Jimmy Morales to be the winner. Morales arrived at the Media Center at 10 p.m. and essentially made an acceptance speech and then visited media outlets’ booths, which were located at the Media Center. Morales upstaged both the TSE’s official announcement of results – which was moved until 11 a.m. the day after the election – and his opponent’s concession speech. The TSE’s decision to postpone the results until the next morning was a prudent move. By the time of the official announcement, 100 percent of the results had been collected, including figures on voter participation, which was initially estimated at 49 percent but ended up at 56 percent, a praiseworthy number for a run-off election.

Overall, the TSE conducted two rounds of credible, transparent and inclusive elections in 2015. Voter turnout for the first round elections in September was nearly 71 percent, with more women than men registered to vote. The corruption scandal that ultimately led to the resignation of then-President Otto Pérez Molina days before the September 6 vote was just one high-profile development during a unique change in political leadership. The October 25 vote offered Guatemalans with two very different candidates to lead the country. Morales, a former comedian, convincingly won and will look to move the country past the corruption scandal that roiled the political scene for much of 2015. The TSE performed commendably during this tumultuous political period and its contributions to Guatemalan democracy are evident.