On the Ground in Kenya: Observing the Historic 2013 Elections

Kenya’s elections on March 4, 2013, took place in a climate of uncertainty as the country went to the polls for the first time under a new constitution and since the devastating violence of the 2007 elections which left over 1,200 dead and more then 300,000 displaced. IPJ Program Officer Zahra Ismail joined The Carter Center observer delegation, which included 60 observers from 29 countries tasked with providing an impartial and independent assessment of the electoral process.


In the sprawling central high school of Bungoma in western Kenya on March 3, throngs of polling station staff, election commission officials and security personnel moved about at a rapid pace, pulling together election materials, and readying them for transport to their specific polling stations. This was the scene across Kenya as officials prepared for the next day’s historic elections.


Observers Krzysztof Iwinski and IPJ Program Officer Zahra Ismail filling out observation checklist at a polling station

With 14 million registered voters, over 100,000 security personnel were deployed across the country for just over 31,000 polling stations — the logistics alone were daunting. Yet staff and officials were determined to be ready, many planning to spend the night at their stations to ensure nothing went wrong.


Each person we met greeted us with a smile, hearty handshake and the words Karibu Sana, meaning “you are very welcome” — an air of excitement for the arrival of the long-awaited day in their voices.


“We are ready for tomorrow, everything is set,” the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission official for Bungoma assured us. “We will not sleep, and have not for many nights, so as to ensure that this election goes smoothly, and our promises to the people are met.”




Election Day


We headed out to our first polling station at 5:30 in the morning amidst a still starry sky, and as we approached voters scurried to secure a place in the long lines surrounding us. Some had arrived as early as 4 a.m., eager to cast their ballots.


Line of voters at 6 a.m.

As the 6 o’clock opening time passed, our station struggled with technical issues over its electronic voter identification system, leading to a stir of impatience in the line. The polling staff, well-trained and ready to respond to these glitches, went out to explain the delay and then quickly moved to using the manual register. An hour later things were moving swiftly as voters were invited inside one by one.


At each station we visited, whether it was in a school classroom or under a tent, we found lines of voters anxious to have their say.


Sealed ballot boxes waiting to be counted at the county tally center

As we were leaving, people would call us over and ask, “How is everything? We are doing a good job?” Already nodding and smiling with clear approval of what they had been seeing. “We are being well informed this time,” one person shared. “We know what is happening.”


At the final station we visited, one of the polling staffers remarked, “I think you were impressed with the unity we showed as a country.” We were.


We were inspired. We were humbled. Over 12 million Kenyans peacefully went to the polls on March 4, 2013, reminding us of the beauty of the democratic process and serving as a testament to the will of a people who vowed, never again.