Seventeen hours on democracy's frontlines

Samoa Observer reporter Marc Membrere was one of thousands who queued up on Thursday to register to vote in his first election, the final day of registrations. This is what his experience was like. 

I arrived at the Congregational Christian Chruch of Samoa (C.C.C.S) Hall of Samoa at Sogi at approximately 7.30am on Thursday morning. 

The sun was just starting to rise but you could already feel the heat and from the snaking line of people waiting in front of the hall, I realised I was in for a long day indeed. 

Even though the Office of the Electoral Commission has been telling people about compulsory registration for a very long time, most people were obviously here in a last-minute bid to avoid a $2000 fine. 

I was, too. This will be the first time I will be of voting age at a national election and I had only returned from studying in China last November. I had missed much of the messaging about new electoral laws. I had to ask for the day off work. 

I had started to move a little closer to the hall’s entrance. People were already becoming impatient; things were becoming to feel unruly. It was only 8.30 am.

Security guards and electoral officials tried to pacify the crowd but only elicited insults and foul language.

An attempt to divide the crowd into two more manageable lines led to a sense of chaos. 

I could hear people near the doors screaming at others to stop pushing. The screams continued until they were punctuated by the sound of a glass door shattering. 

Silence descended but only for a moment. Authorities tried to move people back but it seemed to have no effect,  

By now I was standing outside about five meters from the hall’s doors and wasn’t able to move. The heat from the sun was intense and sweat started streaming down my face. 

Then, the rain started. 

By 10am the pushing got worse. Breathing became difficult.

I and others started yelling towards the back of the line asking people to stop pushing. Laughter was heard in reply. Moments later another glass door shattered and people were being pushed towards shards of shattered glass. 

The sense of disorder continued to escalate and the pushing started to become intense. I became scared when I heard a woman screaming near the shattered glass in front of her. She and three young boys were slowly being pushed towards the shattered remains of the door. 

The screams continued. People kept pushing.

Security guards’ shouts for calm were drowned out by the noise. 

By noon I was near the front door and I could barely move because of the thrusting queue. 

Once I was able to enter the hall little did I know that was just at the beginning of my journey.

Hundreds, maybe even a thousand were inside, lining up to register. 

A few hours passed and there was little progress.

But then people started to jostle around empty chairs and that was when the chaos infected the atmosphere inside. 

People were moving the chair behind them in an effort to get to the front of the line faster. 

Social distancing seemed a very distant concept indeed.

Like most of the others around me I was soon gripped by hunger and thirst. 

A battle to move further ahead in the queue by clambering over vacant chairs continued. 

Once I was near the front of the line which also happened to be near the entrance of the hall, I heard screams from outside.

I noticed the glass doors had been completely shattered; a clean-up had been performed but shards remained. 

I started to feel sorry for the mothers and pregnant women. Mothers were trying to protect their children from the shoving. 

The gates to the hall were closed at 4pm; anyone outside of the compound was not allowed to enter but people still near the hall’s entrance were let in shortly after.

People started cutting the line and others began complaining. Police Officers began moving in. 

People started complaining after they realised some of those who had arrived at 5am were still at the back of the line while those who arrived in the afternoon were somehow nearing the end of the process. 

I asked someone the time. I had been there for 12 hours and I was starting to get sleepy.

By 11.30pm I got there and felt a surge of excitement at the thought of finishing the process. 

A kind woman greeted me with forms. Once I had completed them I had just one stage left to complete my registration. But 30 minutes later, an announcement sounded. 

Registrations were halted. The new plan, the announcement told us, was for registering voters to be called into the office to complete the process over the next fortnight. 

It was just past 1am. 


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