December 30, 2013

Election fraud in Honduras

Juan Orlando Hernández, President-elect of Honduras

Elections are over. Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH, as he is known in Honduras) is officially the next president of Honduras, winning about 34% of the vote. He will take office January 27, 2014. The election process was declared free and transparent by international observer organizations. No vote recounts will be done by the TSE (Honduras' election authority) despite numerous and some very valid claims of errors and even fraud. TSE says that their only obligation is to certify the actas (explained later) not the ballots. The international auditor says the same. Despite election observer organization positive reports to the contrary, organizations such as OAS provided long lists of changes that are necessary and even the TSE has campaigned for changes to the election law.

Candidates showed proof on television and online of serious errors if not downright fraud both within the polling places as well as within the TSE. Often the claims of errors could be confirmed by viewing the scanned documents on the TSE website. I saw and verified enough to convince me that some of the diputado (congressman) races deserved a fresh count of the ballots.

The election process

Registered voter lists
The basic election process is to confirm voter identity (ID card) and ensure that the voter is registered at that voting table by comparing against voter rolls complete with color photos of the citizens. The ballots are certified by the poll workers.

Voters move to a private table to mark 'x's' on ballots which include names, party designations, and color photos of the candidates (separate presidential, congress, municipal ballots) and deposit them in the appropriate ballot box. The voter's pinky is inked so that he cannot vote again.

The biggest fallacy in the system is that the legitimacy of the election results relies on the independence and honesty of the poll workers. Each voting table is supposed to have a poll representative and a substitute from each party (eight parties this year) to ensure honesty in the count, though that doesn't happen in most cases in much of the country. Rather than 16 or even 8 poll workers, many of the actas that I viewed online were signed by four or even fewer poll workers. Polling places may start out the day with representatives from each party, but often some leave before the actual count is done. Additionally, political parties and individuals are known to traffic in polling credentials (which are issued in blank to the parties, not the individuals), selling their badges to the highest bidder. Channel 10 news interviewed one poll worker who proudly stated that he was a Nacionalista though he couldn't explain why he was wearing a badge from another party. At the location where J voted, the LIBRE party workers loudly stated that they would only verify known LIBRE party voters. In a small town, every knows who has what party loyalty.

Presidential ballot
At the end of election day, the ballot boxes are opened and the ballots are counted by the poll workers using an official count sheet, making a tick mark in the appropriate column each time that candidate's name is called out. Supposedly, in addition to the 16 party workers, any citizen can watch the recording of the count but in reality, that doesn't always happen either, especially when poll workers delay the counting for hours or simply refuse to allow watchers. Then the totals from the count sheets are recorded on an acta (official certificate) along with a count of all unused and invalid ballots and the acta is signed by all the poll workers.

This year, most actas were scanned and sent electronically to the TSE. You might think that most actas would be finalized within an hour or two of the polls closing since most voting tables included a total maximum of about 360 possible voters. However, only about 24% of the actas were sent immediately after the polls closed with many not received until several hours or a day or more after the polls closed; some were not received for a week or more. TSE contract workers then input the numbers from the scanned actas into the TSE computer system, from which the results are reported. Copies of the count sheets and actas were also supposed to be provided to the political parties. Original documents are sent in a sealed box to the TSE.

Ballot boxes and poll workers in background
In theory, all of that sounds like enough independent controls to ensure a fair election. The problem is that in Honduras, the number of ways these controls can be and are thwarted is positively endless. The internet is full of examples, from everything you could think of to subvert an honest election to acts so flagrant the average person couldn't even imagine them.

Incidentally, the entire election process cost somewhere around L.1.5 billion (about 100% over budget) and I don't think that this figure includes the cost of the military who are custodians of the election materials and provide security at the polling places. I can't help but believe for that amount of money, a better system could be developed.

Tons of complaints

Candidates demonstrated numerous documents showing examples of voting tables where the count sheet showed, for example, 81 votes for a particular candidate, but the acta showed only one vote (indicating error or fraud at the polling place). Other examples were where the acta showed, for example, 68 votes but the TSE official transcribed count showed zero votes for that candidate (indicating error or fraud within the TSE). Most actas contained around 200 or fewer valid votes, so these errors had a significant impact per voting table. Several online videos document numerous transcription errors that occurred within the TSE (Here is one and here is another). Oddly, every error I saw was in favor of JOH and against the other leading candidates.

There is no question that the TSE software program is extremely poorly designed since the "total votes" doesn't have to equal the real total of the individual votes recorded! Surely one basic control would be to flag the acta for further review when 2 + 2 doesn't equal 4! Even more ridiculous, I found out later that the votes input to the TSE system can be more than the total ballots issued to that voting table. This system was designed for corruption!

Many candidates brought forth such examples, but the TSE still refused to do an overall audit or a recount, only correcting errors if the candidate brought the specific error to their attention. Amazingly, TSE claims that the election law does not require them to count the ballots and that fraud in the polling places is the responsibility of the political parties, not the TSE. The international auditor also only "audited" the transcription of the actas. Any auditor knows that you don't audit the final report to the intermediary reports; standard auditing procedure is to compare the original documents (ballots in this case), or at least some reasonable percentage of them, through the system to the final reports. The auditor stated that 10,000 TSE transcription errors and other anomalies were noted and corrected, but he declared the final results "correct" without anything that could be considered a real audit. The auditor did, however, state in a television interview that if their recommendations for improvements in the system were not corrected, they might not be returning to audit the next election.

Sure, one voting table here and there is not going to make a difference, but one particular congressional race was ultimately won by only 140 votes. The losing candidate had many examples of these type of 'errors', a total of more than 300 votes, more than enough to make him the winner, but according to him, the TSE inexplicably added 300 votes to his opposing candidate's count in the middle of the night on a Saturday when "the system was down". One presidential candidate also said that the TSE system "went down" for three hours after which his party lost thousands of votes while thousands were added to another party.

The interesting thing about Honduras' congressional races is that in the end, the candidates are basically competing against other candidates from their own party. (Too complicated to go into in this article.) In the congressional race mentioned above, the declared winner is a long-time congressman and is considered a legal and constitutional expert, whereas the losing candidate is a sports reporter new to politics. Clearly the former was his party's preference, so the reporter received no help from his party. I don't know who would make the better congressman, but based on the errors I saw, I believe the reporter was elected by the people, and that is what is supposed to count in a democracy.

Ultimately, the congressional races resulted in a big turnover of congressmen with many long-time diputados being ousted by the voters. In the current congress, Nacionalistas have a large enough majority that they don't need any votes from the other parties to pass laws and they have often railroaded laws through without sufficient time for discussion or even any time for diputados to read the draft laws they were voting on. In the new congress, starting on January 25, Nacionalistas will have only 48 congressmen, LIBREs (Mel Zelaya's new party) will have 37, Liberales (the other traditional party) 27, PAC, the new anti-corruption party, will have 13, and DC, UD, and PINU will have one each.

Presidential election

Though I was convinced that there was some fraud in the presidential race, it was won by such a large margin (around 250,000 votes of a total of 3,275,000) that it was hard to believe that fraud could account for that much difference. Hmmmm. That was until I read this article, Honduras' Flawed Election: The Case of El Paraíso.

What are the chances? Is El Paraíso the only harmonious municipality in all of Honduras? (click to enlarge images, click on the links below to view the scanned documents at the TSE website)

Voting table 2685
94% voter turnout, 100% of the vote going to JOH

Voting table 2688
94% voter turnout with 99.7% of the vote going to JOH
Voting table 2693
93% voter turnout, with 100% of the vote going to JOH
Voting table 2711,
97% turnout with 99% of the vote going to JOH
Three voting tables at Esc. Juan Guzmán
98% voter participation, 96% of the votes to JOH

Though it is never mentioned by the politicos, El Paraíso, Copán, has been long known as one of the narco-controlled areas in Honduras. See my 2008 articles, particularly the "King of the Pueblo" section in La Prensa exposé: Narcotrafficking in Honduras, part I and part III for some eye-opening information on El Paraíso and its narco mayor as well as other narco-controlled areas. Mayor Ardón's connection with the Sinoloa drug cartel was also highlighted in the Wilson Center study on organized crime in Central America which I wrote about in 2011 in Drug Trafficking in Honduras (Crime Part III). The Wilson report states:

"To varying degrees, international DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] and local transportistas have penetrated portions of the police, treasury, customs, military, attorney general’s offices, jails and court systems in Central America. They regularly finance pubic works and bankroll political campaigns."

I checked the figures given in the Truth-Out article against the TSE website, and sure enough, they were true. In fact, JOH won 88% of the valid votes in El Paraíso, Copán with 85% overall turnout. Many of the individual voting tables show 90%-100% of the vote going to JOH. Is that possible? I don't think so! I also don't think you will find a single person in Honduras who would believe these results. Hondurans were so divided among the top four candidates that even within individual families, their votes often canceled each other out, with many believing it was time for a change from the two-party system (voting for Mel Zelaya and his wife's LIBRE party or PAC, the anti-corruption party) with others sticking to their traditional party loyalties or believing the "devil you know may be better....". The other four parties aren't worthy of mention with even their own poll workers often not voting for their party's candidates. I do not understand why they exist.

Satisfaction with the current Nacionalista government won't explain these votes either. You would be hard pressed to find anyone of any party who is satisfied with the current Nacionalista administration or thinks that the country is any better off after this last four years. In fact, current President Pepe Lobo had a large lead in the vote for the "Worst Villain of 2013" in a Nacionalista-leaning newspaper poll – until an obviously organized campaign against another candidate occurred with that candidate receiving 5,000 votes all in one day, and similar massive votes on following days. El Heraldo supposedly had a sign in system where you could not vote more than once, but I tested it and you can vote as many times as you want. See, even the newspaper polls are rigged!

Voter turnout

Additionally, the voter turnout in El Paraíso is just not believable. I will go so far as to say it is impossible. Only two of the polling places in El Paraíso had less than 80% turnout and none had less than 75% in the presidential race. In the process of checking out various fraud claims on the TSE website, I probably looked at at least 50 actas from several different states. The vast majority of them were tables in which there were 300-360 or so registered voters and maybe 150-200 voted (50-60%), in line with the overall country totals and past election history. In El Paraíso polling places, voter turnout was often 90-98% of which often 85-98% voted for JOH. Not believable when JOH averaged only 34% in other parts of the country and even in his home state he averaged only around 55%. This was certainly suspicious enough to audit!

Interestingly, I looked at a few of the congressional races for some of these same polling places and not only were the votes distributed among the parties a bit more, but the turnout was more reasonable (50-60% range). There were exceptions to that, though. One example is Acta 2693 in Escuela Francisco Morazán which reported 103% voter turnout, and with a total of 56 congressional candidates to choose from, 100% of the votes went to the Nacionalista party. Not one person, including the party representatives, voted for a single candidate from another party. That link will not work unless you select the third 'Esc. Francisco Morazán' and the second 'Acta 2693' which is another anomaly I can't explain. The TSE reporting of the congressional races is very cumbersome and impossible to track through the system to the final totals, not to mention that both Escuela Francisco Morazán and Acta 2693 were each listed three times on the website. Since JOH also received 100% of the vote in that voting table, my guess is that this polling place was never opened and that the poll workers filled out all the ballots. This would be easy enough to verify with the registered voters, if they weren't afraid to talk and if the TSE wasn't afraid to investigate. If only they hadn't been quite so incredibly and blatantly greedy, it probably never would have come to light.

Those high percentage turnout amounts are actually impossible since it is estimated that at least 10-20% of "registered voters" don't exist in Honduras; they are either dead or living in other countries. This percentage might even be much higher since the voter rolls seem to include everyone who has ever been issued an ID card in Honduras even if they haven't lived here or renewed their cards for 15-20 years. An estimated one million Hondurans live in the US alone. The TSE was supposed to have purged the voter rolls since the 2009 election, but El Jefe was surprised to see color photos of at least 10 of his deceased or long absent relatives on the official rolls, just as they were in 2009. He doesn't know if they 'voted' or not. It's amazing that the auditor stated that only 20 such cases of the dead voting or the live not being allowed to vote because they were 'dead' on the rolls were discovered in the whole country. How could he possibly know that?

Why JOH?

Why would narcos prefer this candidate? How many other narco-controlled areas or party controlled voting tables were there in the Honduras election? Enough to elect a president? We'll never know.

It's frightening to think that narcotraffickers and organized crime helped to elect the President of Honduras. To those election watchers like the USA, OAS, EU, and Carter Foundation, I'd like to see you send observers to El Paraíso next time. More than that, I'd like to see these international organizations stop certifying results based on 50-100 poll observers watching 5,000+ voting tables, in some cases for only a few minutes before they moved on to a different location. Giving such esteemed blessings to a poor system filled with corruption does nothing to further honest elections or promote democracy. When they say it was a "free and fair" election, they mean that they didn't see soldiers with guns pointed at voters heads. Yes, in that respect, it was a free election. But was it fair? That is an entirely different question. I do have to say that the US Ambassador's official statement was quite a bit less glowing than what was reported in the Honduran news.

My conclusions

My conclusions are that yes, there was corruption in the elections. Yes, the system is designed to allow for corruption. No, I don't know how much it affected the end results. And no, nothing will ever be done about it.

The elections are over and done with. The results are set in stone and aren't going to change. Results have been certified by the TSE and a case brought by Mel Zelaya to the Supreme Court has been rejected. The US has spoken! The OAS has officially congratulated the president-elect. The EU has blessed the results! Jimmy Carter has said it is so! We have to move on.

Anyone still complaining is considered a sore loser, unpatriotic, and/or undemocratic. It's thought that to prove any fraud at this point would only make Honduras look bad in the international media so it's best to keep quiet. It's hard enough to fight your own government corruption (impossible really); how can you fight the proclamations of the US, OAS, and EU? As we always do, we've moved on to new corruption scandals and new outrage at the recently passed tax law and the reincorporation of dirty police back into the system after supposed 'purification'. After all, the election was five weeks ago and you can only stay riled up about so many things at one time!

JOH is king. Long live the king!


Some related articles that I found interesting:

HondurasWeekly: Fraud: Part of the Political Game

HondurasWeekly: The Weisbrot Piece
(bottom of the page)

CS Monitor: Honduras recount: Can a free and fair election also be fraudulent?

COHA: International Election Monitors in Honduras: Do They Ensure Clean Elections or Whitewash Fraud?

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