Inside a Zimbabwean Polling Station

On Saturday March 29th, 2008 I realised that whatever inspired Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” it was probably comparable to being locked in a room with Zimbabwean Electoral Commission (ZEC) officials trying to count to 410.

I would never have believed it possible until I lived through it first hand, that it could take from 7pm until midnight for six adults to count to 410 four times. This does not include the amount of time – a further three hours – that it took to once more count to 410 four times once ZEC allowed those doing the counting to begin to analyse the actual candidate vote count. There were 410 votes cast in this Bulawayo polling station in each of four simultaneous elections, for President, House of Assembly, Senate, and Local Government. As an accredited local observer, I was able to stay and observe the count. However, if I had known that I was in for eight hours of endurance perhaps I would have declined the opportunity. Five polling agents and various other independent observers were, together with myself, locked into the room with the polling boxes with no option of bailing out once the first box was opened. So there we were trapped, from 7 pm until 3 am, with nothing to do but observe people count – and count – and recount.

Counting...

The first task given to those counting was that they should check all the ballot papers in the presidential box for the stamp that is placed on each ballot as it is handed out. The presidential ballot box was duly tipped out on to the table, and then followed forty minutes of free for all, as five polling agents seemed to throw ballot papers in the air in a sundry fashion, checking for stamps before throwing them back into the communal pool. When the presiding officer eventually called an end to this totally random process, he then asked them to count the chaotic mound of ballots into bundles of ten. It occurred to me he might have saved forty minutes by suggesting that people count the ballots into bundles of ten and check for stamps at the same time. However I was hopeful that when the senatorial and other ballots were counted, it would have dawned on those counting that this was the best way to proceed. Oh foolish me!

The count of the presidential ballots resulted in a figure of 408, plus one Senatorial and one House of Assembly vote wrongly posted in the presidential box. The presidential votes were then placed back in the ballot box, and were laboriously locked in with double padlocks and the keys were secured. This process had taken one hour in all…

The senatorial box was then unlocked and emptied – and the same bun fight of randomly checking for stamps was repeated – followed by the same bundling into ten. One presidential ballot was found and senatorial ballots added up to 409. This was recounted three times without a change in the number.

... and Counting...

The senatorial votes were then replaced in their ballot box, which was laboriously double-padlocked. The presidential box was now retrieved, laboriously un-padlocked and tipped out again – in order for a complete recount from zero to 409, encompassing the one extra ballot paper.  This took several repeat counts before 409 was achieved to the satisfaction of all.

And so we went on – locking, unlocking, tipping, throwing around, counting, recounting, recounting, unlocking, recounting and locking. And relocking and unlocking and tipping. And recounting. And by 10 pm I was more engrossed in keeping my long scream of frustration internalised than in watching once more as five people failed to count to exactly 410.

... and Counting...

By midnight we all agreed – 410 ballots in each of the four boxes. Of one thing I am absolutely certain – no extra ballots were introduced into these boxes, and EXACTLY 410 ballots were in each box.

That of course is what the whole election process should be about – allowing everyone at the count to be assured that it is absolutely accurate. But the whole manner in which this had been achieved had been so laboriously overdone that most people in the room had glazed eyes and had ceased to be able to count beyond twenty several hours earlier.

... and Recounting...

Having experienced how long it can take six adults to count to 410, I for one am completely unsurprised that it has taken the ZEC more than three days to fail to announce the final results of the four Zimbabwe elections. Of course, I am also convinced that this delay is part of an elaborate ploy by the ZEC to throw people some information so that they cannot be accused of having not announced results, while they give the president and others the opportunity to decide what to do about the fact that the opposition has won, however narrow that win may turn out to be. Even the ZEC has surely had the time by now to add up polling station returns, having already announced the parliamentary outcomes at the local level, by midmorning on Sunday.

Zimbabwe is awash with rumours and it is hard to say what is really going on right now. It seems clear that the opposition has won a majority of seats in the House of Assembly and also the presidential vote. This is being confirmed by parallel tabulations.
It is also rumoured that Mugabe has considered various options, such as a coup, recognition of having lost, and a belated attempt to rig. Rumours also exist of talks with President Mbeki, aimed at a Mugabe exit. All will become clear before the weekend no doubt, for better or for worse. In the meantime, the snail’s pace drip, drip, drip of the ZEC results is to me entirely consistent with my Saturday Night Live experience of counting to 409, and 408, and 410, over and over and over again.