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Southern Sudan Referendum 2011: Day 1 in Dallas

10 January 2011

Despite bad weather, turnout for the Southern Sudan Referendum at the Dallas, Texas voting center was strong on the first day: of 1083 registered voters, 586 voted on Sunday, January 9. There were four observers including me, others included: Deng Deng Nhial, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Government of Southern Sudan Mission to the USA; and Veronica Ajak and Peter Majok here on behalf of the SPLM. Here’s a look at how the day went, as captured in a selection of tweets from the polling center, with some additional context and photographs.

The prayer concluded with The Lord’s Prayer, in Arabic (a first for me to hear that). The people were excited but civil. Ten minutes before the polls opened, there were already more than 100 people in an adjacent warehouse, waiting in lines of chairs to have their turn to cast a ballot. There were many more men than women, but the first two in line were women.

Though it was a secret ballot, I’m 99.9% certain what he voted for. Once he was done, the first two women in line were invited to cast their votes, one at each of the polling stations. The first woman (and first non-polling staff voter) to vote had come from Amarillo, TX with small children (for those who don’t know, Amarillo is 367 miles from Dallas). She left her home area in Junub in 1983, when she was only 4 years old. She moved to Khartoum, then Egypt, and finally to Amarillo, TX, USA. She was very solemn throughout the process. When I asked her after voting whether she had plans to return to Sudan, she said that she would stay here in the U.S. for her kids. It was a common response among the Sudanese I talked to: their children are American and have never been to Sudan; they don’t want to disrupt their upbringing by taking them to a place (especially from a place that a lot of people try desperately to gain entry to).

I asked why there were so few women compared to men. One voter — who is also a “Secretariat” in the local Sudanese Community Association — said that there are many more Sudanese men in the US than women. He said, “There are many Lost Boys, and only a few Lost Girls.” I asked him why there were so few registered in the U.S. (for example, there are an estimated 5,000 Sudanese in the Dallas area, but only 1,083 registered to vote, presumably from across Texas). He said that though there is a large population, many of them are children, obviously ineligible to vote. He said that we see very few women because if there are families with two parents at home, the men were coming to vote on Sunday and the women would come during the week when the children were at school (or, when it would be less crowded and the wait wouldn’t be nearly as long).

I was impressed, though not surprised by the great care given to pregnant women and the elderly. These folks were given passage to skip the queue and when speaking with polling staff, were brought chairs to sit on.

An hour and a half into voting, I walked out to the waiting area — an adjacent warehouse where polling staff had set up rows of chairs for voters waiting to cast ballots. Voters outnumbered the >80 chairs available to them. But everyone still seemed to be civil as they patiently waited. When two buses arrived carrying ~80 voters from Houston, they were instructed by the police officers assigned to this special detail to keep the voters in the buses until more room was available inside the warehouse.

When people had their chance to vote, many would take the opportunity to make a statement, sing a song, or say a prayer. Here are a few quotes I wrote down:

“My father fought the war with the British colonialists and I have now fought the war with the Arabs.” -older male voter

“Separation.” (said with a broad smile) -older male voter

[kissing his ballot before dropping it in the box] “God Bless. Thank you guys.” -young male voter

“Process of elimination!” -young male voter

And, if to eliminate my earlier concern about how weather might affect turnout, one voter said:

“I say if there was a tornado, I have to be here.” -older male voter

It’s a good thing. It started to snow and get really cold. I wondered what it must have been like in Nebraska, where they had three times as many voters and whose polling location didn’t include an adjacent warehouse. I’m told by an observer colleague that more than 1300 voters voted yesterday and they still had one hundred voters waiting in a line outside in the cold after the official poll closing time.

There were only two mildly uncivil occurrences yesterday. The first was a man complaining about people jumping the queue. It took a few people to explain to him that there were two different polling booths, each assigned their own separate register of voters. Once a few different community members (and some polling staff who have varying positions of importance in the local Sudanese community) spoke with him, he calmed down and waited his turn.

The second was a young man dressed in fatigues who was expelled from the waiting area. After he voted, he went into the waiting area and tried to cut a Sudanese flag in half with scissors. The polling center chairperson told him he had to leave and he refused. He said:

“There is no way we are going back to Khartoum. That is why I am wearing this [pointing to his camouflage outfit].”

By 5pm, 551 people had voted and there were fewer than 10 people waiting in line. Once things started to calm down, volunteers who had stayed the entire day helping to explain things to the voters in the waiting area managed to cast their votes as did any remaining poll workers who had yet to cast their votes. I was particularly impressed that their clleagues would continue to give them the full instructions they had given to all of the other voters throughout the day.

Here are a few photos of some of the great things people wore for the referendum:


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