San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Political Apathy Creates Poll Worker Scare

Political apathy isn’t just making for less exciting rallies and fewer party flags on rooftops, this week it also threatened the functioning of polling places around the country for Sunday’s election. The Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) was forced to enlist the help of thousands of emergency poll workers, including astronaut Franklin Chang, to staff and count votes at the country’s 6,163 polling places.

Poll workers are usually provided by political parties. But this year, 15,000 of the 44,000 people registered by parties to participate neglected to show up to receive training and be sworn in by the Tribunal. These workers, who are not paid, are responsible not only for staffing the polls Sunday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., but also counting the votes and determining which ballots are valid.

In search of people to do these jobs, the Tribunal made a call Monday to Costa Ricans to volunteer their services; it set up an 800 number to receive offers. Thousands of Costa Ricans answered the call, including Chang, who announced his new plasma laboratory this week (see separate story), Ombudsman’s Lisbeth Quesada, the rectors of the four public universities and renowned sculptor Jorge Jiménez.

Despite the setback, Tribunal president Oscar Fonseca assures all polling places will be open Sunday. Officials hope to have all workers assigned by today.

Although the Tribunal looked for volunteers to work the polls, technically service is obligatory, much like jury duty in the United States, explained Héctor Fernández, the institution’s electoral program coordinator.

“When the telegram arrives, you have to go, or face a fine. I always tell people, there is no obligatory military service here, but there is a time in which we do have to give our service to the homeland, and that is during the elections,” Fernández told The Tico Times.

Fonseca said they don’t want to use police to obligate people to work in polling places, but it could happen, particularly in rural communities, according to the daily La Nación. People who have been trained and sworn in to work Election Day but fail to show up at their assigned poll face a fine of up to ¢800,000 ($1,600).

Why the Shortage?

Fonseca says political parties, not the Tribunal, are to blame for the last-minute scramble for workers. Legislators who created the electoral code 50 years ago expected parties to be more interested in having their people at the polling places, he told La Nación.

The polls are operated by a minimum of three people, and a maximum of six, all from different parties. Parties had until Dec. 21 to present a list of poll workers to the Tribunal.

But though they are allowed to present one worker and one substitute to all 6,163 polling places, not all parties do so. Only the National Liberation Party (PLN) presented workers for 100% of the polls, other parties presented 90%, 80%, or none at all.

Parties are also allowed to place observers in every polling place. Parties, smaller ones in particular, are often more interested in naming observers than poll workers, Fernández explained. Party observers aren’t involved in counting ballots, or deciding if a vote is valid, but they can contest any decision made by the poll workers and present an appeal to the Tribunal. Smaller parties place a greater value on this oversight. Among all the parties, 44,016 people were named as poll workers, and nearly 60,000 people were named as observers.

Preliminary election results come from the poll workers’ tallies, and victors will be proclaimed at about 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

However, the results will be ratified Tuesday by the Tribunal’s five magistrates through a definitive counting and confirmation process. Again, observers from each party are present during this process.

“With all of these levels, it means each party doesn’t worry too much about finding the people to work and represent them at each polling place,” Fernández said.

Furthermore, in elections past, when Costa Rica was defined by two large parties, there was more organization and dedication within the parties. As the system has evolved to included multiple parties, that same organization has not emerged, he said.

With a total of 1,000 full-time Tribunal employees, and an additional 600 more during the election season, the institution does not have the staff to run the polls themselves, Fernández said. But Fonseca acknowledged that in 2010, if the lack of volunteerism continues, they might have to make changes and name and pay poll workers.


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