Pollworkers in CuAmBA, Mozambique

When it comes to voting, the show must go on…

Organizing elections in Mozambique

The Republican party has decided to boycott voter registration. There is a national shortage of ink for printer cartridges, so that registration cards cannot be printed. Would-be voters have been dismayed to find that many of the civil servants expected to register them are ignorant of electoral law, rejecting drivers licenses and birth certificates as valid forms of ID. Electricity is unreliable, computers crash constantly.

Just imagine holding elections in this scenario, borrowing only a sampling of the hurdles encountered during Mozambique’s most recent voter registration drive, which concludes on Tuesday. Remarkably, as of last week, the Technical Secretariat for Electoral Administration (STAE), estimated that 2/3 of eligible voters had registered with a week to go.

To people who follow current events in Mozambique, the political spats and equipment failures that have hampered the registration process will come as no surprise. From the outset, many people have doubted the wisdom of introducing biometric registration and computerized voter rolls in a country where the elections have been consistently plagued by logistical problems. But as Americans know well—from hanging chads and Diebold machines to the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act—problems persist even in places with longstanding records of accurate (if not fair) elections.

What’s striking, then, is the range of strategies deployed by ordinary Mozambicans, both electoral staff and potential voters, to move the registration process forward in the midst of so many obstacles. Consider these examples, culled from election bulletins distributed by the journalist Joseph Hanlon.

Faced with long queues caused by broken computers and malfunctioning printers, people in Dondo and Quelimane took to using stones to mark their spots in line, coming early in the morning, and returning hours later to register.

Waiting to vote for mayor in Cuamba, December 2012

Long waits are poison to the electoral process—the idea that registration requires people who make their living as farmers to waste half a day in line could discourage them from voting altogether. So as some people abandoned queues to return to their fields, registration workers in the town of Alto Molocue improvised a solution: they began issuing numbered tickets to people who were waiting in line, as you would in a grocery store deli.

In Nampula, Mozambique’s third largest city, the electricity bill went unpaid at a public primary school where voter registration was underway. When the power was cut off, registration workers offered a neighbor $10 a week to charge their computer batteries, but they only had enough money for the first week, and eventually, “the family finally decided to stop giving free electricity to [the government].” Officials noted the same problem at other schools around the country, prompting a sheepish public statement from STAE’s director, Felisberto Naife:

We are paying for electricity in the schools where we have registration posts, but is some schools with enormous debts to EDM [Mozambique’s electrical utility], even where we have tried to pay, the schools continue without electricity.

At registration stations in Chimoio, replacements for faulty printers arrived with empty cartridges, leading staff to undertake the tedious work of removing ink from the old, full cartridges, and pouring it into the empty cartridges that matched the new, working printers. Elsewhere, fingerprint scanners overheated so often that registration workers took to using them for an hour, then unplugging them for an hour to allow them to cool down.

All of these improvised measures, of course, suggest widespread mismanagement by the high-level officials charged with overseeing the registration drive: why wasn’t the equipment vetted and tested in advance? Why didn’t more staff receive training on computerized registration and tech troubleshooting? Informal workarounds are no substitute for planning and sound management; some people were undoubtedly unable to register because of delays caused by technical problems that might have been averted. Nevertheless, these stories of DIY problem solving are testament to the determination and investment of Mozambican voters and civil servants in the daunting process of building an effective democracy. And that is a good thing indeed.