San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Elections Officials Woo Voters with Handicaps

A thick spongy pen, a butterfly clip and a magnifying glass.

These tools will be available at every voting booth during an Oct. 7 national referendum to help voters with muscular, motor and vision problems. They are just part of a quest by elections officials to ensure that suffrage is truly universal, as the country decides whether to approve the controversial Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

Prisoners, people with disabilities and indigenous and elderly citizens are the target groups for the program Leveling Conditions for Exercising the Vote, administered by the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE).

“The objective of this program is to include the entire population – giving them tools to exercise the right to vote under equal conditions,” said director Ana Hazel Villar.

“We are including people who traditionally have had more difficulty voting.”

Considering the context – a heated debate and tight polls – this task has perhaps never been so important or so closely monitored.

A Little Extra Help

When an elderly or disabled person votes, he or she can ask for “a technical support envelope,” which contains a thick, padded pen for those with poor grip; a flashlight and magnifying glass for those with poor vision; a clip to attach the ballot to the desk so that it doesn’t slip; or an alternative ballot translating the options (“yes” and “no”) into Braille.

Because not all blind people in Costa Rica know Braille, there are other options – a public or semi-public vote.

Oscar López, a legally blind legislator for the Access Without Exclusion Party (PACE), said he would cast a public vote. He will tell elections officials at the voting booth his choice, and they will mark the paper for him.

Another option would be to take a friend or family member into the booth.

But López said,“You will never see in Costa Rica total access to the vote until we implement electronic voting.”He imagines a machine that would say the options out loud for people who have trouble seeing.He also said that although the Tribunal has tried to choose buildings with easy access, some voting stations still have stairs or inclines that spell trouble for people in wheelchairs or with motor problems.

The Municipality of San José recently promised to spend ¢25 million ($48,267) to make 12 schools that will be used as voting booths Oct. 7 more accessible to the elderly and people with disabilities. This is part of a pilot project by the Tribunal, which plans to create alliances with municipalities throughout the country and push for similar changes in all voting booths by the time the next presidential elections are held in early 2010.

“The idea is basically to construct handrails, build ramps, fix sidewalks outside and inside the schools… enlarge doors and gates,” Villar said last week at a press conference announcing the project.

Some voters will be able to seek help from high school students and Boy and Girl scouts, stationed at some voting booths in their blue and white uniforms and “Guide” pins. These teenagers, trained by their teachers or by elections officials, will help voters find the proper booth and – if necessary – mark an “X” on the ballot.

Earlier this month, elections officials hosted the first in a series of workshops to train Boy and Girl Scouts throughout the country for this job. The scouts acted out scenes with wheelchairs, walking sticks, dark glasses and crutches – practicing to help people with handicaps.

“The training isn’t only for the elections, but for all of their lives,” said Rocío Montero, a Tribunal official who heads the training program.

Some 1,700 students worked as guides in the December 2006 municipal elections for about 100 polling booths. Montero hopes to cover 200 booths this year – still only about 4% of the total. But because it’s a voluntary program, she said, recruitment is a challenge.

The Tribunal’s coordinator of electoral programs, Hector Fernández, identified another shortcoming. There is no mechanism to identify and transport voters unable to get to the polls themselves.

“Nor is there a voting system that would allow people to vote outside the voting booth,” he lamented. Costa Rica does not allow for absentee voting, though a Legislative Assembly commission hopes to change this by the next presidential election in 2010.

For now, elections officials have made some accommodations for the bedridden.

They put voting booths in 32 nursing homes and registered voters there.

Campaigning at the Jails

Costa Rica is one of few Latin American countries where prisoners can vote, said Civil Registry Director Marisol Castro. But until 2002, when elections officials starting putting voting booths in the prisons, a large segment was effectively disenfranchised.

Now jails have become fair game for CAFTA campaigns.

During an Aug. 15 visit to the Buen Pastor Women’s Prison south of San José in honor of Mother’s Day, President Oscar Arias touted the free-trade treaty – as he does at nearly every government event these days.

“I said I wasn’t going to talk about (CAFTA) on Mother’s Day,” he said, and then proceeded to do just that.

Luis Alberto Salom, a legislator from the anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC), has been making rounds at prisons. He spoke last month at Buen Pastor and at San Sebastián prison in San José.

“This is a highly complicated treaty,” Salom said to about 30 men at San Sabastián, after shaking each one’s hand. “I bring the reasons why we are against it.”

Meanwhile, elections officials are working to ensure that prisoners are included in the electoral registry. In May, elections officials visited prisons to add newcomers to the jails’ electoral registries. About 15 prisons now have voting booths.

But there’s a loophole that disenfranchises a good chunk of people. The electoral registry, which was finalized June 30, assigns people to voting booths based on where they live.

People who are arrested after June 30 and stay in jail until after Oct. 7 are not included in the prison registry, and so do not get to vote unless the prison allows them to leave. On the flipside, people who leave jail after June 30 must return to the prison where they are registered if they wish to vote.

Very few do, said Mariano Barrantes, director of the San Sebastián prison, which holds about 700 men. Because there is high turnover at the jail – some 200 people come and another 200 people leave each month – only about 16% of prisoners during the February 2006 Presidential elections were actually inscribed in the prison registry and could vote there. Barrantes expects similar numbers for the Oct. 7 referendum.

Another challenge for elections officials is making sure prisoners gain access to information about CAFTA. Villar said she plans to send or bring documents to the prisons describing the treaty and the referendum. She also wants to put in each prison’s library a copy of a report on CAFTA being prepared by the State of the Nation program (TT,Aug. 10).

Jorge Jiménez, a San Sebastián prisoner who attended Salom’s talk and planned to vote for CAFTA, said the more information, the better. “People aren’t capable (of deciding) because they aren’t entirely informed,” he said, adding that the Legislative Assembly should decide CAFTA. “We put legislators in the Assembly so that they could govern the country.”

Jorge Castillo, another prisoner at San Sebastián, is confident about his anti-CAFTA vote after reading three books on globalization and watching the news every day from the jail.

“The problem is that the treaty is not a fair treaty,” said Castillo, who has spent nearly four years in the prison. “A bigger government is conditioning a smaller government, and it’s going to be a Pandora’s box. For every three queens come 200 frogs.”

Indigenous Communities

Understanding CAFTA and getting to the polls is also a challenge for those who live in the 24 indigenous territories in Costa Rica. Indigenous communities have limited access to technology and computers, and many do not speak or read Spanish.

“We have this great challenge of how the indigenous people will understand (CAFTA),” said Odir Blanco, director of the National Commission of Indigenous Affairs (CONAI). “(They) are in a position that they need information.”

Elections officials are planning to visit the indigenous territories in September and meet with indigenous teachers and community leaders to explain CAFTA, the referendum and the State of the Nation report.

Ideally, these leaders would then pass this information on to their communities using one of the eight indigenous languages in Costa Rica.

Blanco says there are other hurdles. Three or four indigenous communities are so geographically isolated that it would take days to walk to the nearest polling booth. He is urging elections officials to send voting materials to these communities by helicopter.

A second problem, Blanco says, is that much of the indigenous population has not joined the electoral registry.

“Unfortunately there are Costa Ricans…who don’t even exist according to the padron,” he said, adding that the commission is launching a national campaign to register indigenous voters for future elections and referendums.

“We trust and are very optimistic that the government will use all the mechanisms to guarantee that indigenous people can fully participate, according to their right as a Costa Rican citizen,” Blanco said.

On the one hand, ensuring full suffrage is about constitutional entitlement. On the other, it’s about expanding the battlefield in the increasingly heated conflict over Costa Rica’s future.

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