“In Colombia, elections are stolen,” said the Director of Colombia’s National Registrar’s Office, Carlos Ariel Sanchez Torres, in 2007.
Colombia indeed suffers from several problems in its democracy that increase electoral fraud and disturb the electoral process, affecting the outcome of elections. The Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) documents more than 50 types of electoral fraud, such as the “pregnant ballot box” — a practice that involves extra ballots being inserted for one candidate or party — some of which can be prevented or reduced if people are present to check and control the electoral process. On Election Day in Colombia, witnesses from the various political parties, official vote counters, and oversight commissions are all expected to be present at each voting station throughout the country. Additionally, the MOE trains volunteer observers in matters pertaining to the Colombian electoral system and electoral crime, including methods and techniques to track irregularities in the electoral process.
Observers alone, however, cannot track and denounce all electoral fraud, and need the support of the legal authorities. One of the major problems in Colombia is identity fraud, and dealing with this requires first that there be an updated population and electoral census. In previous years, the database has been dramatically out of date, leading to situations, publicized in the news media, in which dead Colombian citizens voted and participated in local or national elections.
In 2005, the National Registrar’s Office, in charge of the national civil registry and the technical setup of the electoral process, started to bring Colombia’s electoral database up to date, and since 2010, electoral authorities assure that it is impossible to use a dead citizen’s identity to vote. More than 6 million names were removed from the voter registry between 2005 and 2013, including the recently deceased and people whose names had been double-registered. The new automatic system also ensures that Colombians are added to the list as soon as they turn 18, the legal voting age in the country.
Even if the National Registry succeeded in updating the electoral census, the population census is still not reliable. It is practically impossible to track all births and deaths in the country, due to factors such as geographic isolation and large populations of displaced persons.
An updated electoral census helps reduce electoral fraud, but elections can be improved further with an identity verification system. With that in mind, the Registry Administration established the “biometric” method, which uses fingerprint scanning to test voter identity. This system is used mostly in Latina America — Bolivia and Venezuela, for example — and Africa — Gabon, Togo, Liberia, Senegal — in countries where democracy can be unstable, but some developed nations have also started using this new technology in their election processes.
The biometric method was implemented for the first time in Colombia in 2011, and given its initial success and continued necessity, a regulation was passed later that year converting biometric testing into a legal imperative in future elections.
According to the law, the administration should install a biometric system in every polling station ahead of the 2014 congressional and presidential elections. It now seems increasingly unlikely that this objective will be reached, due to the sparcity of electricity in various regions. Minister of Finance Mauricio Cardenas has assured that the resources for the 2014 election are guaranteed, but it is likely that only 70% of the country will be covered by the biometric program.
Other forms of fraud can’t be detected via fingerprint scanner. Colombian citizens are allowed to change their assigned polling station according to their “interests”: typically, their place of residence and place of work. Candidates or other actors seeking to influence or coerce voters can demand, as proof, that the citizens they are targeting change their polling location from one station to another, thus concentrating this forced vote in one or several poll stations of his choosing. By cross-checking the expected number of voters with the results, as reported by party witnesses, it’s possible to monitor the success of a forced vote or bribery campaign, for example. Employers are often involved in pressuring employees to change their legal voting stations, and because the change itself is legal, the fraud being committed is much more difficult to prove and to condemn.
This tactic can be put to several uses. Whether to dilute the impact of a certain sector’s vote in one location or boost it in another, corrupt candidates or other illegal actors can use fear or money to manipulate the vote, skewing the express will of the local population in a given municipality.
The MOE tries to prevent this type of fraud, not covered by a basic voter-ID check, by analyzing the electoral registration in the country, taking into account the figures for previous years and comparing them to the 2014 registration numbers and the regular changes in the population. In cases where registration showed a significantly greater shift than the actual population, the MOE alerts the state in question as to the risk of fraud. It’s often difficult to check the validity of registration increased, so it falls to each of the notified states to assess the local situations and explain the irregular growth.
The reliability of the electoral process continues to improve, but Colombia needs more than biometric technology to ensure comprehensive election tracking. While organizations like MOE can help authorities monitor and control the electoral process, the country suffers from a diseased and corrupt political system, that requires a shift in the democratic culture, aside from preventative measures to guard against fraud.
About: The Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) is a platform of civic organizations, independent of state entities, political parties and private interest groups. The Mission promotes the fulfillment of every citizen’s right to participate in the conformation, exercise and control of political power. In addition, the Mission has the objective of carrying out rigorous, objective and autonomous observation of all the phases of electoral processes in Colombia, which abide by the principles of transparency, authenticity and trustworthiness and which reflects the will of the citizenry.