Liberia: 357,292 Invalid Votes: What’s In The Numbers?

By Cyrus L Gray

Although the conduct of the October 10, 2023 elections by the National Elections Commission of Liberia has been generally described as free and fair, many have been surprised by some of the results announced. 

There have been all kinds of claims of suspicion of impropriety ranging from the stuffing of ballot boxes, occasioned by lapses in opposition poll watching, engineering of the ballot paper such that marking could be erased, and NEC’s suspicion that unstamped ballot papers were not legitimate. 

Short of any formal claim of impropriety, it will be helpful for the NEC to explain several apparent anomalies being observed from an analysis of the election results.  Elections are very critical to the stability and security of a democratic society; hence they are not only expected to be free, fair, and transparent but also must be perceived to be so. The New Elections Law 1986, amended requires that all ballots taken to polling places be accounted for at the end of the count.  Let us look into the numbers reported by the NEC as valid and invalid votes and seek answers to several important questions.

  1. Invalid Votes 

Although it has been widely reported that the total number of invalid votes recorded is 114,639, what has been understated is that this number represents only invalid votes in the category of president. 

When brought together, the total invalid votes in the election in all three categories (president, senate, representative) is 357,292. What’s responsible for such a high number of cancellations?  During the verification stages of the voters’ registration, the NEC discovered that more than 500 underage children had been registered and an even higher number of persons registered more than once. 

In the NEC in-house Polling and Counting Manual for Staff, NEC Polling Staff are trained to declare as invalid any ballot that mirrors any of the images in five out of several samples depicted below.

Granted that markings on all of the above five depictions are unusual, is there any of them in which a reasonable person can honestly say “the voter intent is in doubt”? Let’s look at the requirements of the law.  The 2014 Amendment of Section 4.13 of Liberia Elections Law (Question Ballots) sets the standard thus: “(1A) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), if voter’s choice of candidate is clear, the ballot shall be counted as a valid vote for that candidate, even if the voter has not made a mark in the box provided, or has not made the correct mark, or there are other marks on the ballots, other than the mark that identifies the voter.” 

While some of the samples translate the strong sentiment of the voter, the markings are not disqualifying, according to the law. In effect, the NEC is training poll staff to discard legitimate ballots in which the voter intent is clear, all because there may be other markings on the ballot, that do not change the interpretation of the voter’s choice. 

  1. Variances in total votes cast across three categories 

On election day, every voter is given a set of three ballot papers to vote for the president, the county senate, and the district representative, respectively. In the results provided by the NEC in its results portal, the total votes cases in each of the three categories are reported as a summation of the valid votes and invalid votes. 

For example, the total votes cast for president is reported as 1,949,155, representing 114, 639 invalid votes and 1,834,516 valid votes. The below table includes the same relationship between the Senate and the Representative. No other category of votes out of the votes cast is captured in the NEC report. 

It will be instructive to note that Section 4.13 of the National Elections Law as amended (2014) sets the clear requirement to categorize and report ballots either as valid votes, spoiled ballots, ballots determined to be questioned as invalid or blank, number of unused ballots and verification of the totals equal to the number of ballots issued at a polling place. No comprehensive depiction of the numbers has been provided in the published NEC report and neither has the NEC provided the total number of ballots that were produced for this election.  

Considering that an equal number of ballots were given to voters in each of the three categories aforementioned, the summation of valid votes and invalid votes in each category should theoretically be equal. Based on the numbers below, the total votes cast for president (valid + invalid) is 8,298 votes higher than that of the total votes cast (valid + invalid) for senate and 184 votes higher than that of the total votes (valid + invalid) cast for representative. There were 8,114 more votes cast (valid + invalid) for Representatives than votes cast (valid + invalid) for Senate. Can the NEC explain the variances?

CategoryValid VotesInvalid VotesTotal Vote Cast
Presidential    1,834,516     114,639         1,949,155 
Senate    1,812,166     128,691         1,940,857 
Representative    1,835,009     113,962         1,948,971 
Source: NEC Results Portal
  1. Stamped Ballots

It has been reported that an unknown number of ballots were invalidated because, at the point of tabulation, it was observed that they did not bear a manually imprinted stamp of the NEC. My inquiry to the commission to ascertain the fact as to the invalidation of ballots because of the absence of the NEC stamp has gone unanswered up to this publication. According to the NEC Polling & Counting manual for Staff (p. 34) each ballot paper is stamped on the upper right back side by poll workers before they are handed to the voter. 

Does the absence of a stamp on an NEC ballot paper clearly carrying the serial number ascribed to the particular polling place constitute sufficient ground for the invalidation of a ballot duly marked by a registered voter and tendered into the ballot box before watching eyes? 

Is the NEC asserting the ballot papers without the stamp are not NEC’s legitimate ballots? If so, how many such ballot papers have been discovered out of the 357,292 invalid ballots, and what level of investigation is being conducted to identify and punish the supposed fraudsters who may have printed ballots and infiltrated them into NEC’s inventory of ballot papers (if that is the case)? 

If, however, these are legitimate NEC ballot papers, duly issued to voters at the designated polling places and adequately carry the serial numbers representative of that designation, invalidating such a ballot merely because it does not carry a stamp is contrary to the requirement of the law, aforementioned. 

If there are concerns, at the least, such ballots should be held in a provisional category to be reviewed for their authenticity before a decision is made to exclude or include them in the count. The right to vote is fundamental in a democracy and should not be so trivially abrogated over the absence of a stamp required on a ballot paper as a result of the work of a temporary/casual election-day worker. 

The published NEC reports do not explain the nature of the invalidation of votes. There is no telling what the results of the elections would have been had the NEC followed the law to the letter. It is not the role of the NEC to decide the outcome of elections. Given these documented lapses in performance and apparent insincerity among some election workers, shouldn’t it make sense for the NEC to audit the 357,292 invalid votes to authenticate their invalidation?

While a full review of these concerns may not translate to any changes in the election results, in view of the collapse of the seven-day window for filing elections-related complaints, an understanding of what happened and the erection of a guidepost to prevent any recurrence in the ensuing November 14 presidential runoff is cardinal to ensure public confidence in the conduct of the elections and the eminent results. By now, the NEC should have published a report giving a full account of all the ballots brought in Liberia for the conduct of the October 10, 2023 Elections. 

Today, there are more questions than answers. How many ballots have been brought into Liberia for the conduct of the November 14 Runoff? The mandate of the National Elections is to conduct free, fair, and transparent elections. It is not in their power to determine the outcome of the election but in the absence of care and due diligence, the National Elections Commission may determine to outcome of elections by their actions and/or omissions.  

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Daily Observer's editorial stance.