The Meaning of a Free Vote

Tim Wise

99.8% Vote Yes, 98% Voter Turnout
        A 60-year-old man walks all night from his remote mountain village, then stands ten hours in a blazing desert sun to cast the first secret ballot of his life. An old woman kisses the ballot box after delivering her vote; tears of joy stream down her face. "Now I can sleep in peace," she says. A woman in labor insists on being taken to the polls; she delivers her newborn in the field outside the polling station.
        A new nation was born this year in Africa. After a U.N.-sponsored referendum, the Provisional Government of Eritrea announced Eritrea's formal independence from Ethiopia on April 27. Throughout Eritrea, Eritreans greeted the announcement with the same passion they took to the ballot box, celebrating the final chapter in a 50-year struggle for sovereignty.
        According to the official returns, 99.8% of Eritrean voters responded "yes" to the question: "Do you want Eritrea to be a free, independent country?" Or, as one seven-year-old was quick to point out when I cited that figure, "No, not 99.8%; it was 99.805%." Clearly, everyone's ballot counted in this most lopsided vote.
        If I hadn't seen the process with my own eyes, such a result would have been hard to believe. But traveling the countryside as an official non-governmental observer from Grassroots International, I observed the voting at several different polling stations. Everywhere, the story was the same. Despite having three days to vote, virtually every able-bodied voter in the country's 1.1 million electorate braved long lines and a searing desert sun to vote on the first day of balloting. Overall turnout was estimated to be about 98%, including over 90% on the first day.

An Elaborate Process for Foregone Conclusion
        It may have been the most elaborate process in history every carried out to achieve a foregone conclusion. The independent Referendum Commission of Eritrea could easily have gone through the motions of democratic process. In a country arguably born as the poorest on earth, few could have faulted them. Instead, they made the referendum a national rite of passage, a sacred right for each Eritrean voter to tell the world -- peacefully and democratically -- their answer to the question no one asked for forty years.
        By 6:00 am Friday morning, the first day of polling, the village of Senafe, where I observed the voting, was a buzz of activity. Men and women lined the streets surrounding the polling station. Over the course of the day, voters patiently withstood the withering desert sun to cast their ballots. After voting, many could contain their elation no longer. Women cried and embraced the ballot box. Some ululated in the traditional celebratory manner. All smiled widely.
        As poll workers meticulously and repeatedly counted the ballots three evenings later, the final tally showed a result even more decisive than the national landslide: 2,928-1 in favor of independence. One U.S. observer from the U.N. told me afterward, he never would have believed such a result if he hadn't witnessed the process himself. Another U.N. observer told me she had never seen such a meticulous process.

A Lesson in Democracy for the Future
        Election workers had a great deal to be proud of. Mostly recent high school graduates born and raised in Ethiopian-occupied Asmara, many of these election workers were seeing rural Eritrea for the first time. It was an eye-opening experience for man who had never seen close-up the harsh conditions of rural life or the uncommon courage of their peasant compatriots.
        These young election workers served their country admirably. In the process, they gained valuable experiences in the democratic process itself. So did Eritrean voters, a fact that, after independence itself, may be the longest lasting and most important effect of the referendum. As the U.S. consul to Eritrea, Joseph O'Neill, told U.S. observers afterward, the Referendum Commission schooled everyone so well in the democratic process that it would be difficult for anyone to hold fraudulent elections in the future.

        Tim Wise is director of Grassroots International (48 Grove St., #103, Somerville, MA 02144). This article is reprinted with permission from Frontier, the magazine of Share Our Strength in Washington, D.C.

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