How the Catalan referendum was hatched in Elna

A group of volunteers hid the ballot boxes before voting day in attics and car boots

Ballot boxes in the boot of a car. / XAVIER BERTRAL

Preparations for the 1-O referendum began in the same place where, 80 years ago, 600 babies were born to Spanish Civil War refugees imprisoned in the Argelès-sur-Mer concentration camp. Elna, a small town in Northern Catalonia [the Catalan territory ceded to France by Spain through the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659], was chosen to safeguard the most sought-after prize for the Spanish security forces who have been sent to Catalonia over the last two weeks: the ballot boxes. They were sent from China over three weeks ago. Smart Dragon Ballot Expert, the Chinese company which manufactures boxes like those used by the Catalan government on Sunday, confirmed it had shipped 10,000 boxes to France, though not to Spain. After eight decades, Elna was once more witness to a key event in Catalonia’s history: the ballot boxes for the 1-O referendum were kept in the same place where hundreds of Republican women gave birth in a maternity hospital created by Elisabeth Eidenbenz, a nurse who risked everything to help others. Like Eidenbenz, hundreds of anonymous people have taken great risks in recent months in Catalonia, in this case in order to ensure that on Sunday every polling station was equipped with ballot boxes and voting slips.

An army of anonymous individuals discreetly worked behind the scenes over several days, in order to distribute the election material. Students, workers, OAPs, grandparents, parents and people on the dole managed to keep the whole operation a secret, working in conjunction with the Catalan government to make the vote possible. Some stored the ballot boxes, while others were responsible for distributing them. All without a word to anyone, since they had been sworn to secrecy to avoid attempts by the forces of the Spanish state to stop the referendum from going ahead.

Such precautions meant no information leaked out, thanks to the work of hundreds of individuals who spent recent weeks ensuring that the referendum would become a reality. It was a sizeable organisation, but the key was that, ultimately, no one had access to every detail of the strategy. The mechanism worked like clockwork, with each individual only receiving the precise instructions they needed to play their part.

Every area had a referendum coordinator who was in charge of centralizing and directing the organisation in each municipality. In the case of towns with a pro-independence local government, the individual was chosen by the mayor. The coordinators, who mostly had links to the ANC or government parties —ERC and PDECa, with the support of their youth wings—, contacted trustworthy individuals to safeguard the ballot boxes and other election material, such as envelopes, voting papers and other official documentation. In some municipalities the material was spread among a small group of people so that no one individual could be caught with ballot papers, voting slips and the electoral register, the three essential elements for a vote to take place.

In Elna itself, the material was hidden in several vans two weeks ago. The ballot boxes were delivered to counties across Catalonia several days ago, in some cases by avoiding police check points. It was then necessary to distribute them to each town and village. This is when the riskier and more complex second phase began.

No phone calls or WhatsApp messages

Communication among the volunteers prepared to hide voting slips and ballot boxes was conducted with extreme caution and careful planning. No information was passed on by phone or even in a WhatsApp message. Thousands of individuals downloaded the messaging apps Telegram and Signal, which are more secure, although most of the instructions were relayed in person. Even when information was passed on face to face, those involved turned off their cell phones, in case they were bugged. Everyone went to great lengths not to let slip the smallest detail, since the intelligence services and the thousands of Spanish Police and Guardia Civil officers stationed in Catalonia these days were doing their utmost to prevent the referendum from going ahead.

In most cases, the orders were to keep the ballot boxes under lock and key. The volunteers found all manner of places to hide them, as if they were some sort of treasure: these ranged from attics to storerooms and, in many instances, the boot of their car. The latter was the perfect hiding place for the organizers of the 1-O, particularly as in many cases they used cars which were not the ones they used for work. They also hid the ballot boxes in the boots of cars when the police appeared at the polling stations to confiscate them.

According to those who were involved in this enormous undertaking, they kept their role a secret from family and friends, particularly the fact that they had the ballot boxes in their possession. Those responsible for guarding the ballot boxes left their families in the dark, except for a couple of instances when they told someone in their organisation or political party. "Everything’s being taken care of" was an oft-repeated phrase in the days leading up to the referendum, in an attempt to allay people’s fears. The volunteers’ final mission was to take the ballot boxes to the polling stations. In some cases they did so at dawn, while others waited until just before the polls opened. They did not fail in their duty.

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