Lois Capps, 23rd Congressional District Representative, held a press conference Saturday at her Santa Barbara office to talk about her experiences as an election official in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where she helped oversee elections for a new Palestinian leader held earlier this month.

Capps was one of 80 official election observers from 16 different countries sent by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an organization that has been monitoring foreign elections for the past two decades, to the occupied territories to oversee the elections. Capps said she was the only active elected official to join the delegation, which was led by former President Jimmy Carter and included former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt. In addition to the 80 official observers, the NDI also sent several hundred other international observers, primarily from Europe.

“The [Palestinian] people were so grateful we and the international community were there,” Capps said. “The people noticed that the whole world was watching.”

The commission’s goal was to ensure that the election followed democratic standards and to report any problems, Capps said. She said she spent a week in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including three days spent doing election training and meeting with candidates, party officials, local election officials, civil society leaders, and Palestinian and Israeli political analysts. On election day, Capps said, she and another election official, a driver and an interpreter set out for a polling place in Bethlehem – a suburb of Jerusalem – having to cross an Israeli military checkpoint on her way.

Capps said the election went smoothly, despite the commission’s concerns that Israeli checkpoints might inhibit Palestinians from getting to the polls. Although Capps said an Israeli checkpoint soldier gave her Palestinian translator a hard time, she said checkpoint security was loosened in order to facilitate movement on election day.

“We were mostly impressed with the Sharon government,” Capps said. “For the most part, checkpoints were lax to allow people to get to polling places.”

Capps said the organization of the election was the biggest key to its success, considering that it was put together in less than 60 days in accordance with the time period allotted by the Palestinian constitution for electing a new leader.

The election was held on a national holiday in order to use public schools in the area as official polling places, Capps said. She said all election workers were schoolteachers – totaling 14,000 in all – and many of the head election workers were school principals. Polls were open for 14 hours, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In order to avoid any fraudulent voting, election officials stamped the left thumb of each voter with a type of ink that remains on human skin for three days. Informational pamphlets were also handed out to all voters in order to explain election procedure and rules.

Capps said she was impressed by how smoothly the election ran despite the fact that no computers were used. All the votes were counted by hand, and each ballot was shown to every election observer and international observer, like Capps, then tallied. Results from each polling place were posted outside the school for the public to see the results of their own precinct. All the ballots were then driven to Ramallah, a major city in the West Bank, to be recounted and added to the grand total. The election yielded a 63 percent turnout.

“That’s more than our elections ever get,” Capps said.

Although Mahmoud Abbas dominated the election with 62 percent of the popular vote, Capps said that the election was truly democratic, as there were many supporters for other candidates.

“It was a contested election,” Capps said. “The other candidates gave a strong fight. But now we have to think in terms of how can we support this newly elected president? How can we continue to keep the doors to peace open? How can we continue to ensure that democracy is on its way?”

Capps, who said she is a supporter of the two-state solution and Bush’s Roadmap to Peace, said the election was a step in the right direction.

“You have to have a lot of faith and confidence that this election will eventually lead to peace,” she said.

Capps also said that international commissions, such as the one she served on for NDI, should be present at all elections.

“There is no democracy so old or secure that shouldn’t be open to international inspection,” Capps said.