The October 2 plebiscite in Colombia was not only a surprise because of the result against the peace accord between the Government and the Farc, but also due to the speed with which the Colombian National Civil Registry delivered partial results.
According to words of the Manager himself, Juan Carlos Galindo Vácha, 55 minutes after the polls closed, bulletin 11 was issued with 97.88% of the votes tallied.
This being said, and in the hopes of generating a constructive debate that leads to better elections in the region, it is important to clear some points of the Colombian electoral system that affect how results are broadcast.
Plebiscite – Yes vs No. The referendum that took place in Colombia was the simplest kind of election there is. Voters marked one of two available options on a ballot: Yes or No. Counting the votes in such events presents no major problems. However, in more complex elections, manual vote counts start showing their limits.
Its enough to remember what happened during the March 2010 legislative elections, when it took several days to find out who had won the seats, and months for them to be formally assigned. The same has happened in regional and municipal elections.
Closing the polls at a fixed time. Differently from other countries where the voting is extended as long as there are voters in line, in Colombia polls close at 4 pm. Additionally, while some nations have to wait until all polls close, Colombia can start publishing partial results online just a few hours into the voting.
Official results vs pre-count
The announcements made on election night correspond to a non-official count. This pre-count is informative in nature, and has no validity against the official tally that is published weeks later.
As the Registry Office website warns: Agreement Nr 019 of the year 1994 of the CNE (National Electoral Council): “… bulletins made public by the Registry Office have a mere informative quality and shall never be considered as electoral documents that define an election…”
The Registry Office’s website showed the pre-count in real time, as partial results were being received by the authorities.
This broadcast of results definitively adds transparency to the process. In other countries in the region, such as Venezuela, the authorities share results with political figures so they can compare them to their estimates before they are made public. This significantly delays their broadcast, diminishing their credibility and giving politicians an undeserved sense of prominence.
Although the celerity of these results may lead some to be in favour of manual counts, something important is worth noting: In spite of the simplicity of this election, the number of null votes (170,946) and blank ballots (86,243) is almost five times larger than the difference between the Yes and the No options (53,994). There is no reasons to think there was any misconduct by the electoral workers who processed the votes; however, they should not have the authority to decide an election. The precision of results is one of the best arguments by those who promote technology to register votes.