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Friday, Jul. 21, 2000

In some perverse way, the history of election fraud is also a story of human creativity. We are all familiar with certain tried and true methods of rigging elections: intimidating voters, stuffing ballot boxes or instigating a mass turnout of the dead. But there is always room for innovation -- as Haiti's controversial recent elections show.

The senate races were perhaps the most problematic aspect of these profoundly flawed elections. In a dramatic sweep, eighteen of the nineteen senate seats at stake in the elections went to candidates of the Lavalas Family, the political party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Indeed, one lucky candidate received an astounding -- and improbable -- 92 percent of the vote.

In democratic countries, landslides of such proportions are rare. A closer look at the Haitian elections shows why this smashing victory was too good to be true.

Inflating the Numbers

year's elections. In each of the country's nine departments, therefore, two of the three existing seats were to be filled, except for one department in which all three were available.

Haiti's electoral law establishes two rounds of balloting for senate races. The first round is intended to narrow the field to those candidates with large voter support. Haiti's numerous small parties -- some so tiny that they are thought to consist of only the candidate and his closest friends -- make such a method particularly appropriate. The Haitian Al Gore would be competing against not one vote-splitting Ralph Nader, but a dozen of them. Indeed, a total of 145 candidates ran for the nineteen senate seats, an average of sixteen in each of the nine departments.

In such circumstances, first-round election victories are difficult to attain. That is because under Haitian law, a candidate must obtain an absolute majority -- over 50 percent of the valid votes -- to win in the first round. Any seat that is not won by an absolute majority goes to a second-round election that pits only the leading candidates against each other.

Amazingly, however, Haitian election officials tallying this year's results reported that all nineteen of the senate races were decided in the first round. Thus, officials claimed, there was no need for any senate runoff elections.

This is truly hard to believe, especially when the senate races are compared to those of the other constituent body of the Haitian parliament, the chamber of deputies. Those parallel elections -- governed by exactly the same rules and similarly swarming with candidates -- led to wildly different, and much more plausible results. Only about a third of the eighty-three deputy races were decided in the first round. The remaining races were resolved on July 9th, in the second-round runoffs. With the same voters and parties involved, why were the senate election results so radically different?

Uncovering the Fraud

The election monitoring team of the Organization of American States was quick to find the explanation for this deluge of first-round senate victories. The team compared the absolute number of votes won by each candidate to the percentage of the vote that each was awarded. From this comparison, it deduced that not all of the votes were counted.

Instead, in each department, the Haitian electoral council had counted only votes for the top four contenders. (In the one department that had three open seats, the top six contenders' votes were counted.) The votes accruing to all other candidates were simply ignored. This bizarre method of counting grossly inflated the percentages accorded the two leading contenders in each department -- boosting many over the 50 percent-plus-one threshold necessary to avoid a runoff.

For example, there should have been a runoff in the North East Department, where the leading candidates for the two seats garnered 49.7 and 46.4 percent of the vote, respectively. But by counting only the votes cast for the top four candidates -- and thereby ignoring eight other candidates' votes -- the electoral council bumped up the leading candidates' percentages more than twenty points.

Defending the Indefensible

its novel counting method. It asserted that the electoral law and related provisions of the Haitian Constitution were written to cover the situation of one senatorial race per department, without providing clear guidance when two or more senate seats are at stake.

But that's simply wrong. Granted, the Constitution does prescribe that senators be elected for staggered terms of six years each, so that ideally only one senator is elected per department in any given election. But the drafters of the 1987 Constitution knew that the very first time the new rules were followed, all of the senate seats would be filled, meaning that there would be multiple seats at stake in all departments. Similarly, the drafters of the 1999 electoral law knew that this year's election would have to fill multiple seats in all departments. Indeed, the law mandates a complicated set of procedures to address that very situation.

Moreover, the electoral law contains a careful description of the runoff procedures to be followed in the event that neither of the leading candidates in a given department garners an absolute majority. This provision is irrelevant if the electoral council's bizarre calculation method is used. Using that method, the leading candidate in every department is mathematically bound to win in the first round (and, as the overall results suggest, the second leading candidate is also extremely likely to win).

Democracy is rarely a matter of winning everything. In Haiti, where democracy is still struggling to take hold, the effort made to award everything to a single party -- via blatantly unfair electoral manipulations -- is a disturbing portent for the future.

Joanne Mariner, a Yale Law school graduate, is Deputy Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch ( She recently returned from an eleven-day mission to Haiti.

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