TOFOL, Kosrae - FSM Election officials and Department of Justice personnel are investigating what they describe as "significant voting irregularities" in last month's congressional vote held in Chuuk.
In a letter dated March 24, addressed to President Joseph J. Urusemal and sent to Vice President Redley Killion, Speaker Peter Christian, Chief Justice Andon Amaraich, Governors Rensley Sigrah, Robert Ruecho, Johnny David, Ansito Walter, and each of the State Election Commissioners, National Election Director Bernell Edward stated that he could not certify election results coming out of District One, in the Upper Mortlocks region.
"Due to significant voting irregularities discovered in the…box for the Upper Mortlocks by elections officials and representatives of the FSM Department of Justice working under my direction, I have decided that this box cannot be included in the official election results for Chuuk State Election District One," wrote Edwards.
According to Edwards, there was "a large discrepancy" between the number of signatures on the voter list for the district and the number of ballots in the ballot box. There were approximately 205 signatures on the list of people who showed up to vote on March 8, yet inside the ballot box were found 676 cast candidate ballots.
Election officials would not indicate for which candidate(s) the 471 ballots were cast.
Election District One consists of candidates Henry Asugar, the incumbent, and challengers Lande Simor and Peter Sitan.
A tabulation of unofficial election results - not including the tampered ballot box from the Upper Mortlocks and absentee and other outside voting districts - in mid March showed Simor with 428 total votes, Asugar with 2,049, and Sitan with 2,124 votes.
With the number of voters in the Upper Mortlocks able to potentially sway the election in either Asugar's or Sitan's favor, Edwards stated that he is "currently considering whether to authorize a re-vote of this box."
A source at the FSM Department of Justice (DoJ), wishing to remain anonymous while investigations are pending, stated that "tensions in the Mortlocks are running high" as the uncertainty and speculations wear on, and that Edwards and DoJ officials in Chuuk need to be wary of appearing to favor any one candidate over another.
There have been reports of "lame accusations" of the DoJ running elections in Chuuk, perhaps an indication of the mounting tensions.
Although the source at the DoJ said that they were still trying to determine what the best recourse is - a recount, revote or some other means of rectification - it would ultimately be up to Edwards.
"My decision regarding a re-vote will be forthcoming," stated Edwards in his letter to the President.
The DoJ source said that if a revote were to occur and swayed the vote in either Asugar or Sitan's favor, the other candidate would have the recourse to appeal the decision of the voters, based on the current irregularities.
When might a revote take place? "As soon as possible," stated the DoJ source, noting in particular the need to do so before a new FSM Congress could be seated for session.
As for any motives behind the irregularities, so far none have been revealed.
Although calls to both the FSM AG's office in Palikir and Department of Justice officials currently in Chuuk were met with some hesitancy to reveal details as to which individuals might be involved in the ballot stuffing, one well-placed source within the National Election Office said that the election board working in District One of Chuuk might have had some involvement.
"Only the election board members have the key (to the ballot box). Who else could have done it?" the source stated by way of phone.
Information coming to the Alliance office suggested that - despite the one vote per envelope procedure required by the March 6 Stipulated Order of the FSM Supreme Court - one of the envelopes within the District One box contained over 30 votes.
Examination of one of the typical ballot boxes reveals that the openings to the boxes are not big enough for such a bulging envelope to fit through. The informant also said that the boxes are generally locked with the key left inside before voting begins, just to avoid such fraudulent occurrences.
"Given the size of the envelope," said Edward, "it could not have been placed in the ballot box without opening the inner chamber."
The ballot box in question also contained approximately 217 blank envelopes containing candidate ballots, cast by voters who do not appear on the official voter list for the Upper Mortlocks.
In Faichuk, the ballot box for District Four also showed some "significant irregularities." These irregularities included 50 duplicate signatures on the voter list, a certain number of signatures that "appear to be false," and approximately 98 blank envelopes with votes cast by individuals who do not appear on the official voter list.
Candidates Tiwiter Aritos, the incumbent, and Willie (W-3) Williander, the challenger, garnered 1,702 and 1,718 votes, respectively, according to the unofficial election results issued by the National Election Office in mid-March.
"However," stated Edward in his letter of March 24, "because I have decided that the exclusion of this box from the official results would not have a determinative effect on the outcome of the election for Chuuk State Election District Four, I am certifying the winning candidate for this district."
Absentee and outside voting numbers ultimately gave incumbent Aritos 3,997 votes, or 51% of the vote to remain as Chuuk Congressman for the two-year seat in Election District 4, or Faichuk.
During its recently concluded 13th regular session, many FSM Congress members spoke to the need for a prompt and thorough review of national election procedures in order to avoid the problems experienced in the March 8 election in Chuuk.