Johanna L. Olson figured she understood democracy. After all, she lives in America -- the land of the free, home of the brave.
But it wasn't until Ms. Olson spent nearly two weeks as an observer to Haiti's first democratic election in five years that she got a true sense of what it means to live -- or die -- to be part of a democratic and free society.
"It was refreshing and inspiring to see people participating in democracy in its purest form," said Ms. Olson, 23. "To be a part of this, to see people striving to turn the tide of oppression and say, 'We want to have a government for the people and not be ruled by a dictatorship' was just an incredible experience."
Ms. Olson, a Wisconsin resident who volunteers in the Refugee Disaster Program at Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, was part of a 32-member group that helped United Nations forces in Haiti monitor the June 25 election and deter political intimidation and violence in the voting areas.
The delegation, sponsored by Witness for Peace, the Washington-based Office on Haiti and other human rights organizations, provided a presence in Haiti before and during the election.
"Some church groups and organizations, government officials and others may be interested in what we observed," Ms. Olson said. "The people of Haiti were very committed to seeing the process succeed."
Although some conflicts arose and some attempts were made to disrupt the voting process, Ms. Olson said the success of the election will not be determined by how many incidents occurred, but by how the people responded to their opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
"So much of the news [about the Haitian election] has been of a negative bent. But people have to remember that this is just their second election," Ms. Olson said.
"In a way, this was a chance for people to avenge the death or mistreatment of a brother or sister in a pro-active, peaceful manner, and without resorting to violence," Ms. Olson said. "It was a way to say that 'our loved ones did not die or were mistreated in vain.' It was a way to say, 'This is our voice.' "
It was that national voice that Ms. Olson and the other members of the delegation heard as they prepared to observe the second democratic election in Haiti's history.
The volunteers studied Haitian election laws, protocol and procedures, political trends and recent developments during a two-day orientation in Port-au-Prince before splitting into groups and heading for election sites in the country's isolated towns.
Even during the 13 1/2 -hour ride in the back of a truck in sweltering heat to the city of Jeremie in Southwest Haiti, Ms. Olson said she could feel a sense of the desired independence in the people.
"It was a joy to see the little children running out to you. And yes, you saw peasants and poverty, but you saw people who were maybe a little wary at first, but who wanted to be part of this," Ms. Olson said. "Overall, people were devout and dedicated to cast their ballot."
The process was not without its drawbacks. Some voting places had to be closed due to insufficient voting materials. Sometimes registration lists were incomplete. Some election officials complained about their pay, which was 20 percent lower than what they had received in the first election five years ago.
Sometimes people who were affiliated with a party that was not favored to do well in the election would protest that the election was being corrupted.
Troublemakers would use circumstances to take advantage of the community's insecurity about the election and democracy in general, Ms. Olson said. If election materials were late or the voting place did not open on time, someone would say that these setbacks were proof of corruption in the election process.
But by and large, citizens paid little attention to the rabble-rousers.
In one area, the president of the voting place decided not to open the polls to protest the amount of pay he was receiving. Undaunted, the community, with the consent of the observers and election officials, elected another man to the office. This man, an election official whose poll had been closed due to insufficient materials, opened his new station and voting took place as scheduled.
Ms. Olson talked about a blind man who traveled to the voting place supported by two women. On his way back, he clutched to his chest his thumb, shining bright green with the indelible ink used at the polling places to identify those who had voted.
"This was a big day for him. This man was in his Sunday best, " Ms. Olson said. "He had walked miles to cast his ballot, and he was proud."
As officials counted the ballots, voters anxiously waited outside the building for another glimpse of the election process.
"One ballot would be read aloud, and then shown for everyone in the room to see. There were windows all around this room so the people outside could see it, too," Ms. Olson said. "Although they could not be inside, they [the voters] very much wanted to know how the process would continue."
The delegates faced many obstacles during their stay -- from lack of running water and sometimes food to possible ambush and attack as they transported ballots to the headquarters in the Grand Anse Department. However, Ms. Olson said, the general observation of the group is that the election process was a worthwhile venture.