Election Day

Didn’t get to sleep stupidly late last night, but didn’t get that early bedtime I was hoping for, either. The urgent “Don’t go to sleep until you’ve retrieved the important email” message was, at the end of it all, kind of vacuous. Hours later, when Lonestar had come back up and we’d succeeded in retrieving the damned thing, the contents mostly repeating our previous instructions with one added admonition: “Make sure you get to bed early and get a good night’s sleep.” Alex, back at Ops, was going to pay dearly for that one – I was sure of it.

But morning was here. Steve was at the veranda tables by 5:50 a.m., waiting for us.

“We talk so much about Liberian time,” he said. “I know that today, with you depending on me, I’ve got to be on American time.” Rock on, Steve.

We were out of town, northbound, by six, headed for Mongbain, where we’d decided we were going to watch poll opening. It was our most remote polling station and, by dint of that remoteness, our coolest. Maybe it was the principal’s benediction asking that we be sent back there when we were needed – don’t want to do anything to rattle a man’s faith.

Folks were lined up way out by the time we arrive, an hour before poll start. Some of them had been there since six. The rules didn’t have a cut off for how late you could vote – as long as you were in line by the time polling closed, you could stay there until you’d gotten the chance to cast your ballot. But the whole village, and by the look of it, some of the surrounding villages, weren’t going to take a chance on missing out. (This, by the way, was a pattern we consistently saw at all the polling stations: everyone showed up at opening, and by the time they reached the front of the line, they’d been waiting in the heat for six or seven hours. The polling stations we visited in late afternoon were practically deserted – in our half hour at Messiah, our last station, not a single voter showed up.)

Anyhow. Back in Mongbain, they were clearly improvising. The cardboard security screens that were supposed to be delivered with the voting materials never arrived, so the Presiding Officer improvised out of available materials. Kudos there – at some of the other stations we saw, they simply set a desk down in the corner and counted on nobody watching.

Improvised voting booth

The start of the vote was a beautiful thing to watch. It was a dance of sorts, with the polling workers stepping through their rehearsed paces: hold up the empty ballot box for all to see, place the lid and read off the numbers of the seals. Arrange the blank ballot books, and set the jar of blue ink for marking voters’ fingers. Places, everyone, then call for the queue controller to let through the first person. There was sort of a hush – they’d rehearsed it, but this time, we all knew, it was for real.

Outside the deathly serious flow of the polling place itself, the atmosphere was vaguely festive. Kids playing peekaboo around the corner with the white people, neighbors setting themselves down on the ground, or on stumps, to gossip and play with kids. Folks were settling in for the long haul. And it was going to be a long haul. I figured they’d probably speed up a bit from the roughly four minutes it took them to get the first voter through, but I didn’t envy the guys at the back of the line this morning.

After doing our “opening to 30 minutes of observation” at Mongbain, we said our goodbyes and headed back towards Ganta to observe the more urban polling stations on our itinerary. Protocol was that we were to fill out a checklist of our observations: how many party observers were present, whether the numbers of the seals were recorded in the appropriate place, whether the site was free of campaign material etc. We had a clipboard for this, and a stack of sheets for poll openings, closings and observations through the day. Once we had made these observations, we were supposed to copy them to an electronic version of the form on our Carter Center-issued smartphones, and relay them back to Ops at the earliest convenience. Imagine trying to enter responses to about 40 questions on a tiny touch screen while bouncing down an almost impassable road in rural Nimba. We pretty quickly decided that I, the guy who had never in my life gotten carsick, would get to do that enviable task.

The rest of the day was a blur of places, people, and checklists. Some times the polling stations were calm and orderly, sometimes less so. Usually, the Presiding Officer looked like he knew what he was doing. Very frequently he actually did. Sometimes… uh, not so much. The crowds: at Yini School, they waited good-naturedly, lamenting the fact that the line was moving so slowly; at Gbayee, they swarmed angrily, pushing at each other and shouting down the Queue Controller who’d been charged with keeping order in line.

Our job, we reminded ourselves (and others) was to observe; we were prohibited from helping or intervening in any way – all we could do is watch, listen and encourage voters to “use official channels to exercise their rights.”

At the YMCA – yes, Ganta has a YMCA, of sorts – a man came at us angrily. He wasn’t angry at us, but he was furious. He complained that one of the poll workers had told his mother that she was supposed to “vote for Old Ma” (Sirleaf) – or at least, that what she thought he told her. She was illiterate, but knew enough about voting to tell her son what had happened, and he wanted blood. We explained that we were eager to hear what he had to say, but that we were just observers, and repeated the “use official channels” line (though we did take the liberty of pointing out that, if he wasn’t comfortable filing the complaint with the Presiding Officer here, he could do it at any of the other polling stations).

Steve casts his vote

It was frustrating, seeing things done wrong, or inefficiently, and not being able to step in and say “You know, this would go a lot more smoothly if you….” But that was the nature of our role, central to the agreement that let us be there in the first place. We could ask the Presiding Officer questions – how many people had voted and the like. But we couldn’t approach him with problems or complaints. That was the job of the Liberians.

Mostly, the stuff we saw wasn’t intentional – really, I don’t think any of it was. It was just symptomatic of folks stepping through a complicated dance of a process that they’d never experienced before, and things were bound to go wrong. Still – maddening.

Anyhow, the day was a blur until suddenly, somehow, it was 6:00. We’d covered 14 polling stations and who knows how many miles in 10 hours of traversing Nimba County. We counted down the final seconds at Messiah Christian Academy. Liberia had voted. But our day wasn’t done yet. No, not nearly. Now the votes had to be counted.

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