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Sudan Referendum votes in Dallas

17 January 2011

The last day of voting in the Southern Sudan Referendum at the Dallas polling center started out as it would end: lopsided. Before the polls opened at 9:00am, there were three voters in the waiting area and 11 election observers.

Saturday had the greatest number of observers. In addition to me, there was a representative from USAID, the United Nations, Middle Ground (an NGO in TX). There were also additional observers from the SPLM and Texas Sudanese Community Associations. An American activist who had worked with the Dallas Sudanese community in the mid-1990s also came to the polling center, but because she didn’t have clearance to act as a monitor, she was unable to witness the voting or counting.

Before a bus from Houston made it to the polling center after noon, 35 people had voted. By the end of the day though, Saturday’s voting was the second highest turnout. Here is a breakdown of ballots cast by day:

  • Sunday, January 9: 596
  • Monday, January 10: 61
  • Tuesday, January 11: 105
  • Wednesday, January 12: 48
  • Thursday, January 13: 51
  • Friday, January 14: 47
  • Saturday, January 15: 117

In total, 1057 voters –of the 1083 registered– came to the polls, an impressive turnout rate of 97.6%. I’ve never heard of an election with such high participation rates (even in Australia, where voting is compulsory).

I tried to learn as much as I could about the people who didn’t show up to vote. One woman had come up from Houston on Saturday with all the documents she used to register to vote (including her passport). She had lost her registration card and was hoping these documents would convince the polling staff to allow her to vote. Just as the rules required, she was turned away. Another woman came to the center with the registration card of her relative (as well as her own). She wanted to cast a vote for him because he was in jail. She too, was denied her request (she was, of course, allowed to cast her own vote). There were stories of others deployed in the US Army, sick and in hospital, or others who had lost their registration cards.

It was interesting to watch the poll workers when they had idle time. One poll worker would go through the registration books at his table and write a list of names and cities of people who had not yet shown up at the polls. Poll workers would discuss among themselves whether they knew anyone on the list (at least those in Dallas) and why they might not have already voted. The list was handed to the president of the Dallas Sudanese Community Association (also a poll worker), who then handed it to one of the “Domestic Observers,” saying something in Arabic. I can’t know for certain what he told him to do, but given the person he handed the list to had a phone in his hand, I can only suspect he was telling him to cal these people and get them in to vote. Prior to this, another poll worker was remarking that two voters were “kids” and they weren’t going to vote because they said they wanted to enjoy the [three-day] weekend. A voter who was on the list comes in later and the poll worker who was writing the list stands up, shakes her hand, and says half-joking: “We were looking for you!” In another case, one of the missing voters was a poll worker’s daughter. Someone remarked to him an hour and a half before the polls closed: “Your daughter has not shown up yet.” Apparently, she had misplaced her card. Not to worry, she managed to find it and was the second-to-last voter to cast a ballot.

Perhaps the most emotional part of the day came when an 18-year-old who travelled from Houston cast her vote. She was with friends, each wearing stylish “South Sudan” t-shirts. Pictures were taken of each young woman casting her ballot, but this particular young woman began to cry as she dropped her ballot in the box. She lost both of her parents to the war when she was just an infant. Though my first impression of her and her group of friends struck me as very Americanized — and thus likely detached from what the referendum will mean to millions in Southern Sudan — the vote was obviously meaningful to her in a way no election will be similarly meaningful to me or many of my fellow Americans.

Instructions for counting ballots on whiteboard in Dallas voting center

At about 4:30, the center’s manager started to write instructions for counting and reconciling registration against ballots issued against votes in the ballot box. The polls closed at 6:00pm (the last voter having arrived at 5:58pm, out of breath and thankful that she made it in time), and then the polling staff took a break, sharing a meal together, while Dallas Police officers watched over the zip-tied ballot boxes awaiting a count.

Starting at 7:15pm, each ballot was opened one by one at each of the two voting stations by the station chairperson, who held it up for observers to see while saying whether the vote was for unity or secession. There were a few instances of ballots where the chairperson had to rule on the intent of the vote:

The final vote count was:

  • Unity: 10
  • Secession: 1046
  • Invalid Ballots: 1
  • Unmarked Ballots: 0

For a play-by-play of the vote count, I tweeted anything that was noteworthy.

Following the vote count, an official announcement was made to the group of Sudanese local to the Dallas area that had come for what they expected to be a secession celebration. There were about 50 people in the room and as the announcement was made, the group cheered and sang. There was a small scuffle between two young men, one of whom had brought the Sudanese flag and a pair of scissors to rip it up. This young man was wearing quite a few necklaces, one of which had a bedazzled gun pendant. Eventually, elders managed to separate them and the one intent on tearing the flag to pieces did so, with help from others. The room began to sing (songs from the war, I’m told), someone turned over a large drink container and improvised drumming, and two women wearing waist bead/bell jewelry began to dance.

Reflecting on what I witnessed in Dallas, I find it hard to discount the importance of the diaspora’s vote in the referendum. Sure, the diaspora’s vote had no real probability of affecting the election’s outcome, especially since the world expected an overwhelming majority would vote for secession, making the election essentially non-competitive. Nonetheless, the election had a deeper meaning for many in the diaspora who voted. And I feel incredible gratitude for being able to witness that.

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