Two hands clasped together, or one hand alone?  This is the choice that southern Sudanese voters will face in less than one week, when they choose either to remain part of a unified Sudan or to secede and form an independent country.

Several democratic milestones have paved the way for Sudan to reach this point: a peace agreement that ended 22 years of civil war, the first national census in 15 years, and the first multi-party elections in 24 years.  While these achievements were not without hurdles, the country is nevertheless still on track for its historic referendum on January 9 to 15, 2011.

The next step in the peace process invokes complex and controversial issues: self-determination and government cooperation, the re-integration of soldiers into civilian life, and a decision on the fate of Sudan’s profitable oil fields, just to name a few.

But for the vote to be successful, the smaller, tangible pieces also need to be in place.  Poll stations need to be well-equipped and orderly, with the right materials in the right places in the right quantities.  And perhaps most importantly, the frontline poll workers need to know how to use the materials to carry off a successful and fair vote.

For established and peaceful democracies, these voting logistics are a given.  But in a region that is still recovering from war and that has poor transportation, education, and communication infrastructures, details matter.

In recognition of this fact, on December 23, 2010, USAID and the United Nations delivered polling kits and ballots to assist the official Sudanese commission carrying out the referendum.  This delivery followed earlier support to the voter registration process.  USAID’s polling kits included critical materials for running a polling site, such as indelible ink, thumbprint pads, ballot box seals, and banners.

The ballots ask voters to place a thumbprint next to their choice—unity or secession, shown in English and Arabic text as well as pictures for voters who may speak one of the country’s more than 125 other languages.  In addition, thanks to USAID and its partners in Sudan, over 14,000 poll workers will have been trained in polling and counting procedures by the time the referendum takes place.

USAID’s attention to the details of a successful vote complements its broader activities to support peace, security, and good governance throughout Sudan.