The Record Low Voter Participation in Haiti’s 2016 Election

by Catherine
Charlemagne (Haiti Liberte)

After polls
closed on the evening of Nov. 20, 2016, all the actors involved in Haiti’s
presidential and legislative elections that day profusely complimented the
authorities who organized them. Later, however, some of the candidates began
contesting results that were not favorable to them.

            In any case, after all the praises
sung for the government and the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) and the doubt
that arose a few days later, we decided to take a closer look at why so few
Haitians actually took part in the vote or were even interested in these

            It is not enough to simply trumpet
that elections were conducted well and didn’t have massive fraud and
irregularities for a polling to be representative. What gives full weight and
legitimacy to any election is the electorate’s turnout. In these general
elections, the CEP had assessed the Haitian electorate at about 6.2 million
potential voters. Unfortunately, Haitian electoral law does not provide for a
threshold of participation for an election to be validated or canceled.

            This is an anomaly that the
electoral authorities or the legislature should quickly correct so we don’t
have a candidate elected with an extremely low turnout, like today. If there
was a minimum threshold of obtaining 10% or 15% of the electorate for a
candidate’s election to be validated, then a candidate would have to receive
the percentage stipulated by the electoral law, or else his/her election would
be simply annulled, even if s/he came in first.

            For example, according to current
preliminary results, the PHTK’s presidential candidate Jovenel Moïse received
about 595,000 votes, which amounts, according to the CEP, to 55.67% of those
who voted. But only about 21% of the electorate got to the polls. So Jovenel
only received about 11.7% of the electorate’s votes. With a 15% threshold, he
would have his “victory” annulled.*

            Direct universal suffrage often
requires some precautionary rules in order to legitimize those elected. The
Nov. 20 vote apparently ran smoothly apart from a few irregularities noted here
and there. But it does not appear that
the interim government of President Jocelerme Privert  or the CEP acted dishonestly or tried to
favor any given candidate, at least up to the counting stage at the now highly
scrutinized and contested Vote Tabulation Center (CTV).

            There is not yet any solid evidence
or“smoking gun” which can clearly demonstrate there was fraud or favoritism
despite all the efforts of those challenging the results. Hence, all the
difficulties of the runners-up Jean-Charles Moïse of the Platform Pitit
Dessalines, Maryse Narcisse of Fanmi Lavalas, and Jude Célestin of LAPEH to
convince election judges and the larger public of their cries of foul at the

            On the other hand, there is one
undisputed and indisputable fact: voter participation was one of the lowest in
history for a presidential election in Haiti or in the Western Hemisphere.

            Very early on Nov. 20, it was clear
there was no enthusiasm among voters to go to the polls. In the Port-au-Prince
metropolitan area, very few voters were found at various voting centers which
historically were packed. But one had to withhold judgement, because at other
voting centers there were sometimes surprisingly long lines of voters queued

            By midday, however, it was the same
observation: there were no big crowds. Apparently the calls from the most
prominent candidates asking the population to turn out in mass to vote (for
them) were not heard. Moreover, all the organizations and electoral observation
missions that had deployed observers in all of Haiti’s ten departments made the
same observation: there were not very many people at the voting centers.

            The observers did not say there were
no voters. They observed that people came in dribs and drabs: a small group
here, a few people there. During the day, CEP members deployed in some regions
announced high participation rates between 50% and 60%. But reality was quite
different. Even before the official figures, some election observation groups
gave figures of 23% to 24% nationwide participation. Perhaps the most reliable
Haitian observer mission, the Electoral Observation Coalition (COE) gave a
precise figure of 21.69%.

            Finally, CEP officials gave their
the official (if imprecise) figures of between 20% and 23%, more or less in
line with those of the observers. Participation was very low in areas which
experienced rain and other bad weather, and in areas still recovering from
Hurricane Matthew in October.

            Some who wanted to exercise their
right to vote were prevented from doing so because they did not get a
replacement identification card (CIN) after losing theirs during the hurricane
and torrential rains that flooded entire regions of the country.

            This low rate of voter participation
is also due to the failure of the previous elected government to hold elections
on schedule or in a reasonably timely manner.

            Citizens also question the
usefulness of voting, doubting that it will do anything to improve their lives,
region, or country. Politicians who turn electoral promises into political lies
are the accomplices of these disillusioned citizens who see no point in going
to the polls.

            Finally, we must take into account
that. for many Haitians, this electoral process lasted too long. They became
discouraged by so many conflicts, crises, and miseries.

            The CEP also shares responsibility
for this low rate of participation. Its motivation and communication campaigns
did not measure up to what was at stake. It started its communication campaign
too late, and the messages were not very convincing. CEP advertisements were
more like the candidates’ political spots than an institutional message.

            Moreover, since voting is not
mandatory and Haitian law does not provide for a minimum threshold to validate
a ballot, the Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American
States recommends and encourages the Haitian government and political actors to
take appropriate measures to encourage people to participate in elections. The
Mission expressed its concern about the low level of voter participation on
Nov. 20.

            The low participation was not only
in the greater South or in the North. The West department and the Port-au-Prince
region did not set a good example. In the past, the popular quarters of this
megalopolis turn out many voters. But even the candidates of the parties
ideologically and traditionally close to these poor voters did not do any
better in motivating them than other more recent political formations which are
less anchored in the masses.

            These are some of the places to look
for an explanation for the election’s feeble turnout and disappointing results.

* It must be
noted that the CEP’s calculations are confusing and mysterious. It claims, with
a strange lack of precision, a participation rate of between 20% and 23%.
Haitian election observers put participation at 21.69%. Out of 6,189,253
voters, this would mean a participation of 1,342,449 voters. However, according
to its preliminary results, the CEP says only 1,127,766 ballots were cast. This
leaves a discrepancy of 214,683 votes. Where did those votes go? Or was
participation much lower than 21.69% ? If we accept the CEP’s count of
1,127,766 votes, there was only 18.22% participation of the electorate.

(This is an edited translation of the 136th
installment of Catherine Charlemagne’s weekly French analysis in Haïti Liberté
entitled “Haiti, the chronicle of an electoral crisis.”)