El Salvador
Serving as an election observer
by Janna Hanke

From February 25 to March 6, I went to El Salvador to serve as an election observer for the March 4 national elections. As it is a young democracy—little more than 25 years old—the government invited election observers to ensure a democratic vote. The election observation was organized by a human rights organization in El Salvador called the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS). In total, we were 50 observers. The first days, all of us stayed in San Salvador. We learned about the current situation in El Salvador and were taught on how to observe elections.

One day, a group of us traveled to an island to visit a project of women who make bags and purses in order to finance themselves. It was very interesting to hear their stories and their thoughts. One of them worked beforehand in a sweatshop. Others hadn’t worked at all. They told us that their husbands didn’t want them to work. Eight years ago they started to learn how to machine-sew and make bags. Through the project they also learned about their rights as women. One of the women said that she didn’t know about her rights beforehand, but now she is able to stand up for her rights and teach her daughter and friends to do the same. To hear their stories was shocking, and at the same time inspiring. We’ll now sell their bags at our fair trade store in Cleveland, Ohio. 

We also got the chance to visit different historical sites. We visited Oscar Romero’s house, and we explored El Salvador’s beautiful landscape as well as its culinary variety.

In preparation for the Election Day, we underwent an intense, one-day training. It was confusing but also very interesting to learn about the way another country does its election.

On Election Day itself, all of us split up into groups of five or six and observed at different municipalities (counties). At 5 am, we had to be at the voting centers to watch the opening. Voting was possible from 7 am to 5 pm. During that time we went to different voting centers in the county. Our main task was to watch and take notes. One voting center I visited was on a basketball court: 15 voting tables, each with two voting booths, were squeezed onto the court leading problems with the secrecy of the vote. Most of the voting centers, however, were well equipped.

At 5 pm the voting ended and the counting started. It was quite complicated, as it was possible to split the vote. In San Salvador votes could be split up to 24 times, as there are 24 deputies. This led to some confusion and miscalculation. The whole counting process took on average around five to six hours. Thus, many of the election assistants were working more than 18 hours.

Besides some smaller mistakes, we were pleasantly surprised that no one in our group noticed any major irregularities. I had the feeling that the announcement alone that there would be election observers, and our presence that day, had an impact.

Looking back at the time in El Salvador, I developed new insights into the culture and politics of the country and met many interesting people. Hearing so many stories from Salvadorians and from other election observers and volunteers in El Salvador, I’m eager to return one day to explore further El Salvador and to visit other countries in Central America.