Liberia: Biometric Voter Registration Begins

... But not without hiccups

The process that would lead to Liberians deciding who will be their president and legislators for the next six years has officially begun.

The first phase of the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) kicked off onMarch 20 in Montserrado and six other counties ahead of the much anticipated and historic October 10 presidential and legislative elections.

Unlike previous elections when manual voter registrations were done, this year’s BVR exercise is being done in two phases with eight of the 15 counties initially kicking off the process.

Counties where unprecedented BRV exercise started Montserrado, Bomi, Margibi, Gbarpolu, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Bassa and Margibi Counties.

Phase one is expected to run March 20 to April 9, 2023, while phase two, which includes Bong, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Lofa, Maryland, Nimba, Rivercess, River Gee, and Sinoe Counties will be conducted from April 21 to May 11, 2023 — as per the National Elections Commission’s timetable.

The process, however, started at a slow pace, especially in Montserrado County with a few challenges. Turnout, as expected, was low. However, NEC workers also arrived late at some centers and, in some cases, took up to two hours to set up — a situation that infuriated some people who had gathered very early in the morning to complete the process and return to their normal activities.

The Daily Observer visited a few registration centers and observed some challenges that would probably hinder the successful implementation of the exercise if not addressed.

Our reporter saw NEC’s workers struggling to secure enough energy supply from the solar power provided to them to power the equipment. This led to the registration starting late at some centers while it took the intervention of community residents in order to get alternative power sources.

At the 72nd Barracks School on the SKD boulevard road, it was observed that the equipment could not come on due to the faulty solar power provided by the National Elections Commission. It took the intervention of Nackey King, a lady who went to register, to save the day as she provided a generator to the NEC workers.

“I saw the situation as embarrassing and I thought to intervene,” King said. “I came here as early as 5:45 a.m. in an attempt to register as soon as possible and go back to attend to my business but my sacrifice of sleep was in vain,” she explained. 

The solar panel failed to power on the laptop and other equipment the workers brought. 

“I had to give them my generator,” King said.

She also provided LD$2100 to buy three gallons of gasoline for the generator upon hearing the election workers complaining that they did not have money to buy gasoline. “I am not happy that NEC had all the time but could not plan well for this. I hope things improve, but the way they have started is completely troubling.”

Montserrado County District #5 representative aspirant, Priscilia Abram Cooper, said she was unimpressed with the startup of the process.

“I am not impressed at all. The process started very late,” Cooper said. “I think there was an issue with electricity. The solar panels they brought here couldn’t pick up the equipment.”

She wondered whether it was not sunny enough for the solar panel to charge and power on the equipment.

Like King, Cooper said NEC should have done better by ensuring that the first day of the voter registration gave people a good impression rather than the disorganized experience that ensued.

“I can safely say that since this morning not up to 20 persons have registered. It is now 1pm already and I have been here since the early hours of this morning. It is very slow and there are no lines for older people, pregnant women or baby mothers. Such people should be given first preference in activities like this but that is not the case here,” she complained.

According to Cooper, one person serving as registrar at a center with hundreds of people showing up to register is not good, recommending that NEC allows two or more persons to serve as registrars.

NEC workers also appeared to be struggling in handling the equipment as though they did not receive sufficient hands-on training with the materials.

Sources told the Daily Observer that the materials arrived in the country just two days ago; giving the NEC’s BVR staff no chance at practical training on the materials.

“I also see the workers struggling to operate the equipment. This is sad and NEC should not take lightly the crucial nature of these elections,” Cooper said.

She said this is Liberia’s first time using the biometric system and, as such, more time should have been allotted to training the staff, more so with the materials available for hands-on demonstration before the conduct of the voter registration as it has begun.

A first time voter, Prince Tumbey, told the Daily Observer that he was not happy about the delay in the process.

“We are hungry. I mean me and my friends came here and the coming elections will be our first time voting but here we are suffering to even register. No one is even feeling sorry for us by buying us water to drink before I say food. If it continues like this, we will abandon it and go on our different hustle,” Tumbey said.

Like others, Alfred C.G Njellay, 71, was unhappy due to his having to stand in a queue for a long time, waiting to be enlisted for registration.

Njellay said the voter registration process has begun at a very slow pace and if NEC would achieve its goal of registering more people, it has to improve in its approaches, staffing and equipment.

The septuagenarian admonished first-time voters and other young Liberians to think about their future rather than registering to vote based on influence by politicians. “Money in the pockets of people will never make Liberia better,” Njellay said.

The NEC staff assigned at the center declined to speak with reporters.

At the ELWA Junction’s Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church, similar challenges were also experienced, except for power failure. Those spoken to said registration began only when there was sunshine.

“The process is extremely slow. We have been here for a long time. They are talking about twenty minutes to complete processing one person. It is too long a time,” said Sargbeh Jerry, 59.

However, the ongoing BVR is Liberia’s first attempt to digitize and electronically create a database of voters—all in an effort to ensure an efficient and transparent electoral process.

The electoral body said that the BVR will help minimize fraud and inaccuracies that have characterized recent elections in the country. Considering how remote many parts of the country are, skeptics, especially within the opposition, are not convinced that the process could be successful. Access to power (electricity), which drives the BVR process, is nonexistent in many parts of the country.

Nevertheless, NEC in January published the updated edition of the 2023 Voter Registration Centers (VRCs) Listing for the Voter Registration Phase One. Both phases of the registration are expected to end on May 11, 2023.

The exercise is in line with Article 77 of the Liberian Constitution, covering political parties and elections.

Article 3 of the voter registration regulation in the country’s new elections law states: “All elections shall be by secret ballot as may be determined by the Elections Commission, and every Liberian citizen not less than 18 years of age, shall have the right to be registered as a voter and to vote in public elections and referenda under this Constitution. The Legislature shall enact laws indicating the category of Liberians who shall not form or become members of political parties.”

Ahead of the start of the BVR, President George Manneh Weah, who is seeking reelection, called on all eligible voters to take advantage of the voter registration exercise.

“I call on all citizens, 18 years and above, to register in order to be able to vote,” President Weah urged in a special statement issued Thursday, March 16, 2023. He reminded Liberians that voting is an important civic duty they must perform as good citizens.