PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti's electoral authorities began deliberating Tuesday whether to annul the disputed presidential election and hold a new vote, as recommended by a special commission that reported finding what appeared to be significant fraud and professional misconduct.
Electoral council chief Leopold Berlanger declined to comment on the verification commission's findings, saying his panel would need until June 6 to review the recommendations and announce a revised election calendar for this troubled country.
The Provisional Electoral Council, whose current members replaced the election officials that organized balloting last year, has the final say on election matters.
The leader of the verification commission, Pierre Francois Benoit, told The Associated Press that members of his panel were so troubled by their monthlong review that they had no choice but to recommend starting over. That would mean scrapping a presidential runoff vote that already has been postponed three times.
The panel, which delivered its findings Monday evening, examined 25 percent of the roughly 13,000 tally sheets from polling stations and found about 628,000 untraceable votes.
The commission was formed by interim President Jocelerme Privert, who took power in February amid the electoral impasse due to a widespread perception of electoral fraud.
"After digging into it, we started seeing a pattern where a lot of votes could not be traced to a voter or to a group of voters. I call them 'zombie votes,'" Benoit told the AP.
Concurring with what Haitian observer groups said shortly after the Oct. 25 election, Benoit said numerous accreditations issued for political party representatives appeared to facilitate multiple voting because "many people voted more than once." He said the conduct of a number of polling station workers was questionable.
At a Tuesday press briefing in Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. urges the Provisional Electoral Council to publish no later than June 6 a new electoral calendar "establishing a date for prompt installation of the president-elect."
U.S. taxpayers have contributed some $33 million for impoverished Haiti to hold elections during this cycle. The United States is Haiti's largest donor and trading partner.
"The longer it takes for Haiti to have a democratically elected president, the longer it will take for the United States to consider new elements of partnership in helping Haiti confront mounting economic, climatic, and health challenges," Kirby said.
While the October vote also included a slew of legislative contests, Benoit's commission did not press for new balloting for those races even as it called for some contests to be examined closely by electoral authorities. Haiti's Parliament is nearly complete from last year's two voting rounds and getting various senators and deputies to vacate their seats would greatly complicate matters.
A negotiated accord that paved the way for Privert to be selected as interim president in February had envisioned him making way for a newly elected leader on May 14. But late Monday, Privert said the electoral council has a responsibility to hold a legitimate vote so an elected leader can take power sometime in early 2017.
Privert has repeatedly said Haiti cannot restart balloting without first building confidence in the electoral machinery. But under the accord that put him in office, he is due to leave office June 14.
Last year's contested presidential tally gave the leading spot in a two-candidate runoff to Jovenel Moise, the Tet Kale party candidate who was hand-picked by previous President Michel Martelly.
The results were disputed by local observer groups and virtually all the other candidates, most notably the No. 2 finisher, Jude Celestin, who announced a boycott of the runoff.
Leaders of Moise's political faction have dismissed the verification panel as unconstitutional and accused Privert of using them to try to illegally hold onto power. In a tweet, Tet Kale party spokesman Renald Luberice said: "The fraudulent commissioners have pleased their master, as expected."
Leon Georges, a barber shop owner in the Port-au-Prince district of Delmas 33, said he supports holding a new election. But this time, he said, instead of taking money from foreign governments to fund elections, Haiti could tax every citizen a local coin worth less than 10 U.S. cents to pay for balloting.
"We can do it all ourselves," he asserted outside his tiny clapboard shop where meager earnings feed his four adult children who have struggled to find work. "We are free and must make all decisions ourselves."
David McFadden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dmcfadd