[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Luisa Solano, Researcher at the Department of Political Studies of the Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo Económico y Social (FUSADES).]
The dynamics of the electoral system in El Salvador underwent significant transformations before the legislative and municipal elections in March 2012. The first change, established by the Constitutional Chamber in July 2010, dismissed closed and locked candidates’ lists, which was the traditional way of voting and had been used for over 50 years. It replaced this with a system of closed but unlocked lists, what allowed the voter to order the list of candidates in one party by the so-called preferential vote. The new normative was established 20 months before the election, but the parliamentary groups in the Legislative Assembly resisted to legislate it until two months before the election of new authorities, when the Legislature finally approved the legal framework that would apply in the elections of March 2012.
The second element of change for the 2012 elections was the implementation of residential voting in 185 of the 262 municipalities, covering 48% of citizens allowed to vote. This tool was applied gradually in 2006 (7 municipalities) and 2009 (23 municipalities), but it was not until 2012 that it was significantly extended. One of the positive effects of residential voting is the segmentation of preferences of the electorate. In this sense, although it has not been proven that the residential vote has a direct correlation with the level of participation; it is considered as a tool that encourages citizens’ approach to the polls.
Given the situation described, and considering the short time in which the legal basis was adopted, a major challenge was to inform the elector on the new rules that would be applied during the elections of 2012.
In this sense, FUSADES had a decade of studies and proposals to strengthen the system of representation and to build a qualified institutional democracy. FUSADES has promoted a comprehensive political reform through research, debates in public forums with experts, and legal reform initiatives, which have helped to raise the level of discussion. With this background in the field, FUSADES’ Department of Political Studies, designed and implemented a project of civic education and research of the impact of the reform in order to collaborate in the voting exercise, understand the new way of voting, and analyse the election results.
At the same time, FUSADES was convened by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to be part of a consortium of organisations aimed at empowering citizens with information. Thus, FUSADES worked on the design and implementation of the civic education campaign in partnership with two youth organisations of national prestige: CREO and TECHO.
Objectives of the initiative
The objective of the education campaign was to “educate the public on the valid forms of vote with emphasis on youth and vulnerable communities.” The project also included a component of guidance on “where to vote”, considering the approach of the polls to the voters that the new reform implied. In particular, the campaign sought to facilitate the exercise of suffrage, promote citizen participation and transparency in the electoral process. This was promoted through internet broadcasting, universities and poor communities.
Design and implementation of the campaign
Three spaces were created to implement the campaign:
- A virtual platform, communicated through traditional media and social networks,
- A direct approach to major universities in the country, in coordination with CREO, who spread the message through the youth network that supports the organization, and
- A direct approach to vulnerable communities, in coordination with TECHO.
Specific activities were designed for each of these three areas of work.
- A website was developed under the first component, which concentrated the information regarding the campaign (the same site was used for the civic education campaign in 2015). The site also contains video tutorials on how and where to vote. To promote the site and the information it contained, radio spots were produced, along with messages in marquees and billboards in the streets, and social networks of participating organizations were actively used.
- In order to work with universities, volunteers were recruited to join the project as replicators of knowledge, who were trained in a two-day workshop. Visits to universities were also scheduled in coordination with their authorities. The work methodology consisted on placing stands in common areas of the university, such as the bar or parking, and explain the valid forms of vote through educational materials, boards and leaflets. Twice it was possible to conduct a more formal exposure in university classrooms.
- Regarding the visits to communities, meetings were held with leaders of each community to coordinate a schedule to conduct trainings, with the support of volunteers previously trained by TECHO. Participatory talks about the importance of voting were conducted at each visit, which aimed at informing on valid forms of voting and helping participants to clarify their doubts regarding the process. A mock vote with ballots was also performed. All this was accompanied by educational materials such as posters, brochures, descriptive material and boards, which were left in communal houses and shops of the community, or directly house by house.
Among the results achieved by the virtual platform component, the campaign placed 25 marquees and 6 billboards in the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador, 1759 radio spots in the major radio stations in the country, and constant appearances in the advertising space of Facebook. More than 3,800 views of explanatory videos were recorded, and they were shared over 200 times on Facebook and Twitter. As for the work in universities, 20 educational centers were visited, with the support of 32 volunteers. More than 1,900 students were directly reached. Finally, 12 communities were visited with the support of 36 volunteers, surpassing the number of municipalities originally anticipated. The campaign reached 375 Salvadoran families, training a total of 2,291 people in 7 departments.
Another important result was the further development of academic research on the impact of preferential voting and residential vote based on the results of the elections of 2012. The study included conducting focus groups with key stakeholders, an opinion poll to measure public perception of the electoral process and a quantitative and qualitative analysis based on official information from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
Lessons and new challenges
The project’s success was based on the synergy achieved between the civil society organizations. Informing and educating citizens about the electoral event of 2012 was a unifying element that allowed to achieve the goals, despite the difficulties experienced during the campaign, such as limited runtime.
A challenge ahead concerns the sustainability of such alliances in order to promote the adoption of pending reforms, such as the separation of functions of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the implementation of effective controls that increase the transparency of political parties’ funding, the discussion of a possible transition to the system of electoral districts, and the strengthening of mechanisms to access public information, among others.
It should be clarified that for recent legislative elections in March 2015, open lists and cross-voting were implemented, also established by the Constitutional Chamber, which forces a post-election analysis on the impact of the reform, disadvantages of counting and processing of results, and the amendments to be made to overcome the identified weaknesses.
Finally, it is important to remember that democracy is not confined to elections. While these are the basis of the system of democratic representation, participation of the population should be reflected not only in their right to vote. The figure of controllers can also be an instrument to involve the citizenship in the demand for timely information to monitor the exercise of power, transparency of government institutions and effectiveness of public administration.