As ready as we can be

[Again, a reminder: these posts are all one week old, and I’m putting them up in sequence, roughly corresponding to when they were written, to give a feel for my time in Liberia as it happened.]

9:30 p.m. the evening before “E Day”, and we’re about as ready as we can be. We’ll be up at five, on the road at six, and if all goes according to plan, we’ll reach Mongbain, our first stop of the day by seven, in plenty of time to observe the polling place opening procedures. The Liberian Election Procedures Manual specifies in painstaking detail who will do what and how tomorrow in every polling place in this country, in what order the seals on the ballot boxes are to be verified, applied and documented. What latitude the Ballot Controller has in folding the stamped ballots before giving them to verified voters. On which finger of which hand voters will have the I-have-voted ink applied, and when. And – since this is a post-conflict country – what to do if they don’t have that finger, or any fingers, or any hands. How the Ballot Box Controller should shake the box to get more room if it begins to clog (the BBC is not supposed to touch the actual ballots, even to give a push to one that didn’t go all the way in).

No one’s counting on all these rules to be followed to the exact letter. But the Liberians are rightfully proud of having gotten this election together themselves, and we’re willing to bet that this pride will keep them close to official protocol. Really, though, we’re not looking for little slips of whether the ink is applied before the ballot goes in the box or after (the manual says “after they have voted” – leaving it ambiguous on whether “voting” refers to the marking of the ballot or the placing of it in the box). We’re looking for patterns of behavior that are inconsistent with fair and transparent elections.

We’ll spend roughly 30 minutes at each of the dozen stations on our priority list, crisscrossing two districts in a semi-random order designed to make our arrival at any precinct as unpredictable as possible. We start an hour before the polls open, and stay until the tally of polling place ballots have been signed and posted, and the re-sealed boxes have been delivered to the county magistrate. Our laptops and phones are fully charged. Checklists, spare food and water are packed. Emergency numbers programmed onto our phones – we’re ready for anything we can think to be ready for.

My half of the gear

Just before we turn in for the night, a last-minute text message comes in: “Check email for important last minute instructions. Do not go to sleep this evening until you have received them.” And then? Then Lonestar cell service goes down throughout the city. Zero bars. I check all three of my phones and the GPRS modem. Nothing. Embassy folks on the patio confirm it – the signal’s gone. Crap. This may be a long night.

[Turns out to have been just a local Lonestar outage lasting about half an hour; the other cell carriers were unaffected. But Susan and I had a nervous few minutes, speculating that – if you wanted to disrupt an election and instigate some cross-border mayhem – the first thing you’d do is take down the country’s communication network, wouldn’t you?]

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