Haiti vote materials found in dump

New protests over alleged fraud

By Andrew Selsky
Associated Press / February 16, 2006

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The UN mission in Haiti said late yesterday that the discovery of voting bags, marked ballots, and other election materials in a garbage dump was an ''apparent grave breach of the electoral process."

Haiti's interim government and electoral council, meanwhile, were discussing a plan to declare front-runner René Préval the winner of the disputed presidential elections by subtracting blank votes from the total count, officials close to the talks said.

Associated Press journalists saw thousands of ballots, some marked for Préval, deep in the garbage dump along with a vote tally sheet and four bags meant to carry returns from the Feb. 7 election. Discovery of the ballots was initially reported by Haitian TV late Tuesday.

In a statement, the UN expressed ''deep concern at the media reports of ballot papers being deposited and burnt on the northern outskirts of Port-au-Prince," and said it ''urges the Haitian authorities to investigate fully and prosecute anyone found guilty of this apparent grave breach of the electoral process."

Earlier in the day, UN police rushed to recover the election materials from the stinking, fly-infested dump.

The plan being discussed by government and electoral officials centers on some 85,000 blank votes cast in the election, a member of the interim government and a diplomat said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Préval, who is just shy of the 50 percent margin needed for outright victory, would attain a majority and avoid a runoff vote next month if the blank votes were subtracted from the total count. The blank votes represent 4 percent of the estimated 2.2 million ballots cast.

Another scenario being discussed calls for dividing the blank votes proportionately among the 33 candidates based on the number of votes they received, the diplomat said.

The diplomat said one obstacle to the plan could be a Haitian electoral decree that allows for blank votes to be counted. The legality of the plan was being discussed by the officials.

Préval contended Tuesday that ''massive fraud or gross errors" had been committed, and vowed to challenge the results if officials insist on holding a March runoff.

Journalists who went to the garbage dump found the voting bags among the thousands of ballots, some blank. Three of the bags were signed by presidents of local election bureaus.

Préval backers -- who have held massive demonstrations, erected barricades, and stormed into a luxury hotel this week to protest alleged fraud -- said election officials were attempting to annul votes for him to force a runoff.

Hundreds of people have been carrying away the election materials, some to brandish at street protests.

The interim government said an investigation has been launched.

''We are looking closely at specimens of the ballots found at the dump, to check whether these are real ballots," said Michel Brunache, chief of staff to interim President Boniface Alexandre.