A recent community forum on electoral reform generated much enthusiasm from participants gathered at Nyehn Town, Todee District, lower Montserrado County. The one-day forum gave residents from across Todee, one of Montserrado’s four statutory districts, the opportunity to hear direct news of the nation’s electoral reform agenda – the proposals and processes for changing Liberian laws, statutes and regulations when it comes to the organization of elections. It also served as a platform to allow them to “talk back”, helping to shape further development and prioritization of reform agenda item. This awareness initiative continues across the country, with a second forum schedule for Greater Monrovia in the near future.
CLEAR (Citizens in Liberia Engaged to Advance Electoral Reform) has several partners, including Liberia Media for Democratic initiative (LMDI) which manages and implements the country-wide forums. In Todee, the forum began with LMDI’s Tonia Gibson presenting the topic of reform, disclosing its angles and stakeholders. As a legal analyst, Mr. Gibson offered perspective as to the role of institutions, officials and individual citizens within the legal framework of reform. John Kollie, in his role as moderator, opened the dialogue by inviting ‘citizen views’ on past elections, especially the most recent. What were their experiences? What did they notice? What were the stumbling blocks?
Not surprisingly, these questions generated a number of personal stories full of issues and concerns.
Satta P. Hallie, Nyehn General Town Chief recalled the difficulty of getting to polling precincts due to the deplorable roads. It was such a negative experience, true for so many people, that she considered it something to be prioritized. “Polling precincts need to be accessible during the elections… it is very important to have a change in date to make this possible”. Madam Hallie reflected that if elections were to begin in January and end in March, the entire process would benefit, from campaign political outreach to NEC public education to her special concern, ease of movement on voting day.
Her words were buttressed by Nyehn resident Joseph B. Simpson, Simeon R. Willie, Ezekiel Karnga and several other attendees. Superintendent John M. Tucker concluded a change of date would be a notable improvement, as well as make conditions more favorable for persons with disabilities. Mr. Tucker said that polling centers needed to be accessible, but also more ‘disability friendly’ so that all citizens could partake in the process with ease. “The date and process of the election deny many people from exercising their constitutional rights”, something he said needs to be addressed “in the shortest possible time”.
Reflecting on the last Montserrado senatorial by-election and looking ahead in to the two upcoming July, former District Superintendent Joseph C. Kayakpan introduced the idea that the code of conduct should be amended to apply to incumbent or sitting representatives and senators seeking office through by-election. For now, section 5.2 (a) of the COC states only that Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Directors General, and Superintendents desiring to run must resign two years prior to elections; 5.2 (b) states that any other officials appointed by the president, holding a tenure position, must resign 3 years prior to elections. Applying these statutes to lawmakers would “discourage lawmakers from contesting, reduce too many unnecessary by-elections and save the country from spending.”
What makes the forum unique is that it allows for airing of grievances while also creating a context that moves the conversation from dissatisfaction to possible solutions. The points raised are integrated into the larger conversation about reform – what election observers also noticed, what has been recommended, what government stakeholders are being asked to address. Participants are encouraged to take their stories and experiences seriously, and to see themselves as key election stakeholders.
While regulatory reform can only happen at the institutional level, where NEC itself has to assume responsibility for improving disability access at the polling centers for example, citizen grievances stimulate NEC actions. In the case of legislative reforms, such as a change to the Code of Conduct, citizens can play a significant advocacy role in. As Mr. Gibson said, “You don’t have to sit down and wait. You can make contact with your lawmaker, take a petition to your representative to make a change to the existing laws or for a new provision in the law.”
Other changes, he explained, were beyond the authority of a legislator. Whether from October to January as some suggested or to March, as others preferred – a change to the election date requires a change to the constitution of Liberia. And this requires the authority of the people, or, a referendum.
Although not be a regular occurrence, referendum can be considered one of our most important duties as citizens, where we bear the primary responsibility for reform. Liberia has had eighteen referendums since our founding. If we add the voices from lower Montserrado County to the those raised in other forums across the country, we may well be preparing for our nineteenth.