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Honduras election: How votes are counted ... counts

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(Read caption) Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate of the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), arrives for a meeting of presidential candidates with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in Tegucigalpa November 20, 2013. Honduras' presidential election will be held on November 24.

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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

For the last few weeks [leading up to] the Honduran election, no surveys of the electorate can be published. But really, the only poll that matters will take place this coming Sunday, Nov. 24. According to the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), 5.3 million Hondurans are eligible to vote.

Throughout the country, people in five thousand election centers will place their ballots for president, congress, and municipal mayor in three separate ballot boxes.

What happens then? What ensures that the ballot cast is counted and reported accurately? How reliable should we expect the numbers to be? In part, what you think the answer is depends on how you assess the procedures set in place by the TSE.

Each individual ballot for president has a Mesa Electoral Receptora number, the name of the voting center, and the department printed on it.  Each of these ballots also has a unique number, with the name of the municipio preprinted on it.

Each Mesa Electoral Receptora (MER) has a custodian. In previous elections the churches, through the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church Association, supplied the custodians. Most of the custodians this time around are students from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras (UNAH).

Each MER has one representative, and an alternate, from each political party.  Each has a president, secretary, watcher, and members, all appointed to office by the TSE. All procedural votes are by simple majority, with the president of the Mesa abstaining unless there is a tie.

The charge to the MER technical custodians is

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Those tally sheets are key to linking the count made at the Mesa and the outcome the TSE reports.

A separate manual for each department of Honduras has detailed instructions including how to count and record the votes from each of the ballot boxes. Observers, both national and international, may be present but must not reveal any results nor advocate for any candidate. The members of each Mesa fill out and sign an opening form that records how many ballots they have for each office (in numbers and written out in words).

To prevent voters selling their vote, cell phones and cameras are newly banned from voting booths. The voter is given a ballot for the presidential vote, congress, and municipal mayoral election, signed on the back by members of the Mesa. The voter folds each of the three ballots in half to obscure their vote, then brings them back to the Mesa where members verify they have the required signatures on the back.

Counting of the votes begins with checking the ballot for the required signatures and stamp, then the voter's markings are evaluated. Each ballot has a photo of the candidate, the party flag, and a space to mark the vote. But a mark anywhere on the candidate or the flag counts, as long as most of the mark is in the space of a single candidate.

Vote counting is done in public. Anyone can watch, but must remain silent.

First the President takes an inventory of the leftover supplies, stamps each as "left over" and records the counts on the accounting form. The president then hands the sealed ballot box to the examiner who opens it and extracts a vote.

The examiner qualifies the vote as valid, null, or blank and indicates to which party (if valid) it belongs.  It is shown to the members of the Mesa, then passed to the president, who ratifies it. The secretary records it on the appropriate tally sheet with a tick mark for the party, null, or blank.

The president sorts ballots into piles by party, null, or blank, then gives each pile to the Secretary who seals them in plastic bags and puts them back in the voting place briefcase.  Once all the votes are counted, the Secretary fills out the vote count section for each candidate as well as tallying the number of citizens, and Mesa members, who voted.  This, along with the annotation of the number of blank ballots received, plus those left over, finalizes the form. The numbers are then transferred to the closing tally form which is signed by the Mesa members.

Getting the vote tallies to the TSE in Tegucigalpa has been a point of potential weakness in the whole process. In 2009, the tallies were read over cell phones, and entered into the computer in Tegucigalpa based on the phoned-in counts. The results were, to be charitable, incredibly inaccurate.

This year, the TSE is trying a new approach, used successfully in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Completed closing forms for president, congress, and the municipal election will be scanned, and sent to the TSE either through a wired internet connection or through a wireless modem across the cell phone network.

500 voting centers lack electricity or an internet connection, so those votes will not be counted until opened more than a week later in Tegucigalpa.

In addition to scanning and transmitting the closing form, each custodian will print out a copy for the representative of each political party, and for any member of the Mesa that desires a copy.  Once sent, the original closing form will be stamped by the custodian with a stamp indicating it has been transmitted (all copies will be stamped).

The president of the Mesa will then aggregate all the official forms into an envelope to close out the polling place.  All papers will be returned to the briefcase, sealed for return to the TSE.

In the past, the TSE then recounted every ballot box, and entered the data into a new computer file. The TSE has said it will not announce results the night of the election, only "trends". Meanwhile, Hagamos Democracía, an NGO that produced exit polling that was more accurate than the TSE in 2009, will be operating again this year.

A fairly fragile system for such a consequential election.

– Russell Sheptak, the co-author of the blog Honduras Culture and Politics, specializes in the study of colonial history and economic anthropology in this little-reported corner of Central America.

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