Juba, Sudan—One of the most inspiring and humbling parts of observing the referendum on southern Sudan’s self-determination was being in the room at a referendum center as votes were counted the night polling ended.
At the center where I observed, Lologo Center in Juba, five Sudanese poll workers, five Sudanese domestic observers, and four USAID staff members gathered in one of the two rooms of a primary school where all week the poll workers were on duty from 8 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. as their fellow citizens came to vote. After working all day on the last polling day, January 15, the poll workers continued directly to counting the vote, despite that they had little to eat or drink all day.
Once the 14 of us were assembled in the room, a policeman posted outside to guard the vote-counting process shut the heavy metal classroom door so that no one else could enter, screeching the sliding door lock into place.
First the chairman of the referendum center, a secondary school teacher named Primo Celerino Monai, announced the number of registered voters at that location—2,596—and the cumulative number of votes cast according to the daily log, 2,536—a 98 percent turnout. A poll worker took out seven envelopes that contained spoiled ballots from each of the seven days of voting, and opened each envelope, emptying the spoiled ballots onto a table in the center of the room. There were a total of 5. One of the poll workers then retrieved a tarp from the USAID-funded polling kit that contains supplies needed at the referendum center, including scissors, tape, a calculator, and battery-operated lanterns that were necessary because as is common in southern Sudan, there was no electricity at this center, and it soon became dark.
The poll workers spread the tarp over a large table in the center of the room. One poll worker placed the translucent box that contained the ballots on the table, cut the plastic ties that had locked the box all week, removed the lid, and emptied all the ballots onto the table. The five poll workers then bundled all the ballots into stacks of 50 for ease of counting, and once that was complete, counted to make sure the bundled ballots equaled the number of ballots cast as recorded each day in the center’s journal.
Occasionally during the course of the vote count, Mr. Monai read through the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) polling and counting manual provided to the more than 14,000 poll workers trained with the assistance of USAID partner the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which explains step by step how to proceed with all the procedures of polling, including the vote count.
The poll workers wrote signs that read “Unity,” “Secession,” “Unmarked,” and “Invalid,” and taped them to the edge of the table nearest to us observers so they could pile the ballots into each category after opening and reading them.
One of the poll workers then stood in front of us and one by one, picked up a paper ballot, showed us whether or not the ballot had the required red stamp of the SSRC, the Sudanese body in charge of the referendum process, and then turning over the form, showed us the ink thumbprint that indicated whether the voter chose unity (written in Arabic and English, and indicated visually by two clasped hands) or secession (indicated visually by a single open palm). A few ballots were unmarked, and a few were invalid, either because the voter’s thumbprint was apparent on both unity and secession, or because the ballot lacked the required red SSRC stamp.
As the reading out of votes began in the solemn room, lit only by three battery-operated lamps on the table, the poll worker announced as he held up each ballot one by one for us to see: “The stamp is valid”—showing us the stamp and then turning the ballot over –“and the vote is secession.” Five hours later, when the poll workers had opened all the ballots, the final count was 2,483 votes for secession, 19 votes for unity, 19 invalid, and 15 unmarked.
The transparency of the process and the sense of duty and professionalism the poll workers displayed was admirable. Each of us in the room could see every ballot and every stage of the counting process.
The enormity of what those dedicated and exhausted poll workers were doing was lost on none of us—it was nothing short of transmitting the voice of the people of southern Sudan, after decades of war and hardship, through the ballot box as they decided their future course as a people.
For those of us USAID staff members in the room that night, and all of us throughout Sudan supporting the USAID Mission during this referendum period, it was an experience we were honored to witness and will never forget.