Election nights are typically tense affairs, with the candidates and public waiting until the wee hours of the morning to discover the victors. But those tracking Panama’s presi- dential election on 3 May 2009 didn’t have to stew for long. Just two and a half hours after the polls closed, the president and presiding magistrate of the country’s Electoral Tribunal made the traditional phone call to the winner, Ricardo Martinelli. No previous election in Panama had
been concluded so quickly.
No matter that some polling stations
were located deep in the jungle, far from
the nearest landline. An impressive blend
of database, Internet and mobile telephone technologies combined to generate
minute-by-minute updates of completed
electoral counts, which were then displayed on giant screens at the press center.
“The polls closed at 4 p.m., and at
4: 34 p.m. we started to get results in
from small rural communities,” says
magistrate Eduardo Valdés-Escoffery,
vice president of the Electoral Tribunal.
“At 6 p.m. the margin between the two
main candidates was so wide that it was
clear who was going to be the eventual
winner. At 6: 30 p.m., we could announce
the unofficial results.”
The number of hours it
took to deliver
results in the
The portion of
who turned out
for the election
Beginning in 1983, Panama was under
the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega,
until a U.S. invasion deposed the de facto
leader early in 1990. Eager to shrug off
the shadow of Mr. Noriega’s regime,
Panama installed a newly empowered
Electoral Tribunal untainted by the fraud
that had kept the dictator and his
cohorts in power.
The tribunal has gone on to become
one of the most trusted public bodies in
Latin America, and the elections it runs
are held up as global case studies in fair
and free universal suffrage.
Almost from the start, that electoral
process has relied heavily on technology.
Determined to avoid even the
faintest hint of fraud, the tribunal
created a vast electoral database.
Supplemented by biometric data such
as fingerprints and photo-recognition
software, it helps ensure each citizen
only votes once for specific vacancies
and candidates relevant to their
To keep everything in order, the
country strictly enforces its policies. For
example, it’s mandatory for deaths to be
registered before friends and family can
hold the burial ceremony. And children
cannot be enrolled in school without
possessing a birth certificate.
Citizens’ births and deaths are
captured at computer terminals located
not only at the Electoral Tribunal’s
offices throughout the country, but also
at the largest public and private hospitals.
The biggest supermarket chains are
connected, too, issuing birth and death
Given the emphasis on electronic
information, remote regions are slowly
being provided with wireless communication technologies.
In short, the Electoral Tribunal’s
database captures key milestones in the
lives of Panama’s citizens, empowering
them to vote—and helping keep those
votes part of an equitable electoral
To accomplish such a goal, the
project team had to secure trustworthy
communication channels through
which election results could be transmitted. There also had to be open and
transparent processes in which those
results could be speedily tabulated and
The technology used in the 2004
presidential election worked well—
but for the 2009 election, Electoral
Tribunal officials wanted something
bigger, better and glitzier.
It was quite a setup. The plan called
for a 19-foot-by-25-foot (6-meter-by-8-
meter) monitor bracketed by four