PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
EAGER MARSHALLS VOTERS AWAIT RESULTS
By Giff Johnson
For Marianas Variety
MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Nov. 19) –Marshall Islanders turned out for Monday’s national election in what appeared to be record numbers, with some voters waiting in line more than five hours to cast their votes.
Preliminary results for all islands are not expected to be complete until Thursday. And even once the on-island votes are counted, islanders will have to wait in suspense until 14 days after the election — Dec. 1 — for the several thousand postal absentee ballots, mostly from Marshall Islanders living in America, to be counted.
While most polling stations here in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, opened a few minutes later than the announced 7 a.m. start, voting continued well past the 7 p.m. deadline as hundreds of voters were still in line — and Chief Electoral Officer Hemly Benjamin had announced over the weekend that provided people were in line before the 7 p.m. cutoff, they’d be able to vote.
The voting was slow because the voting in this central Pacific nation of 55,000 people is done manually.
Monday’s national election is a test for the four-year-old government of President Kessai Note, which recently approved a new 20-year extension of funding under the Compact of Free Association with the United States. Opposition leaders have strongly criticized the Compact deal as unfair to Marshall Islanders and have urged voters to return the opposition to government so they can renegotiate the Compact with the U.S. for better terms.
While the political campaign of the past three weeks has been hot and heavy, Monday’s vote turned out to be mainly about perseverance from the voters’ perspective.
Voter Ben Chutaro said he got into line at 5 p.m. and didn’t drop his vote into the ballot box until 9:30 p.m. Kevin Keju said he’d gotten into line after 5 p.m. and was still waiting behind about 60 voters at 10 p.m.
Voters were voting for candidates from 24 different atolls and single islands, and Mejit Island — with its 1,900 voters — proved to be the slowest of all polling stations, with voting continuing until midnight.
Nevertheless, despite the delays, there were few complaints from islanders who are used to the slow, manual system of voting and tabulating that has marked elections here since the country gained independence in 1979. All voting was peaceful and there was much good-natured socializing among voters as they waited patiently at the polling stations.
Internal Affairs Secretary Antari Elbon, whose ministry oversees the electoral office, said the intention had been to purchase five laptop computers that would have used a quickly searchable data base of voters — to avoid the time consuming method currently in use.
"We couldn’t get the purchase order approved in time (to get the new computers)," he said.
November 19, 2003
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