Phone text messaging aims to boost participation in Haitian elections

19 Jun 2009

Pierre-Antoine Archange, UNDP Programme Manager for Democratic Governance, with a poster displaying hotlines and SMS numbers to encourage voter participation
(Photo: UNDP)
Phone text messages, radio and TV campaigns are being used to raise voter turnout in Haiti’s Sunday Senate elections.  The initiative is part of a strategy developed by the Haitian government, working with the UN, to improve voter turnout. Only 12 percent of nearly 4 million registered voters participated in the first round of elections in April. Sunday’s poll is the second round and one third of the seats are up for election.

“We face a difficult challenge, which I believe is a cultural one,” said Pierre-Antoine Archange, United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) programme manager for democratic governance – who is Haitian. “Historically, Haitians have never been too inspired to renew the Senate; but they do get excited when it comes to voting for president. So now we are spreading the word, asking people to vote, trying to show that without a properly functioning Senate the country cannot be governed properly.”

One lesson learned from the previous polls was to inform the public earlier and more effectively.  After a recent partnership with a mobile telephone company, crucial information is reaching Haitians via text message. Now, eligible voters can send a phone message to a toll-free number and receive information about their voting center’s location.

“For the first round, the lists of voting polls were released only a few days before voting day," Archange acknowledged.  “Many people did not know where to vote. This time the lists were posted months ago in the 144 electoral offices throughout the country. In addition, posters, TV and radio messages are also motivating people to vote.” These changes are expected to increase voter turnout – but not dramatically. “Massive participation in Senate elections will take time; but we do expect some improvement this round,” Archange added.

Logistical constraints also had to be solved. During the first round of elections in April, there was no public transportation, which prevented millions of Haitians from voting. This time, public transportation to and from election centers will be functioning properly.

Archange has seen huge advances in Haiti’s electoral process. “I remember that the first round of the 2005 presidential elections was practically entirely managed by the international community," he said. "For the second round of that same election, in 2006, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council was taking more charge of the process. Since then they have been taking more responsibilities − and more effectively. UNDP plays a crucial role in management and coordination, and it is clear to us that, every day, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council is improving its capacity to organize elections, being more involved and taking major decisions.”

Now the Council has been managing staff involved in elections, hiring them through a public competitive process −at the regional and municipal levels.

Resources:

UNDP in Haiti: http://www.ht.undp.org/

UNDP’s work on Democratic Governance: http://www.undp.org/governance/