Does the allocation of polling centers support “free and fair” elections – for all?
By Shardrick Tarwily
Election reform is on the government’s agenda. Senior officials such as Deputy House Speaker Prince Moye, opposition leaders such as Charles Brumskine, key development partners and donors including USAID, and hundreds of national and international election observers are in agreement that Liberia needs to restructure and reform its electoral process in advance of the next election cycle – in 2020. Areas identified for reform include presidential and legislative term limits, the rainy season timetable and the adjudication of election related petitions, complaints and grievances.
While these matters are rightfully in the spotlight, several citizens in Grand Kru County have spoken to the Daily Observer regarding “smaller matters” of particular relevance to them. They worry that the difficulties they face as citizens with disabilities may fall to the bottom of the reform agenda, or be completely overlooked.
Speaking on behalf of the county’s disabled community, spokesman William Nyenneh disclosed that “there have been problems over the years”. For those with physical challenges, the issue of accessing polling centers is yet another challenge that has caused numerous eligible Liberians to be denied their constitutional rights. “We face problem to get to the polling centers due to long distances. Sometimes you have to appeal to somebody to give you help. But when the person think about the long distance to get to the polling center, they will feel reluctant”.
Nyenneh hopes that the matter of polling center access and the need for additional polling places to facilitate ease of access for people living with disabilities will capture the attention of the National Election Commission.
When it comes to the organization and administration of elections, a key detail is where voting happens, or, the allocation of polling centers. According to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a polling precinct is the official location where voters are assigned to vote during an election; it is sometimes referred to as a polling station or center. A polling precinct can have multiple polling booths depending on the number of voters registered in that precinct. A polling booth is a physical structure inside a polling precinct where voters mark their ballots; they are structured in such a way as to prevent others from seeing how a voter’s ballot is marked.
In Liberia, rather than physical booths, ballots are usually cast in other ‘structures’ within the polling station, for example in classrooms, offices or specially designated, separate areas. These areas are what we refer to as polling places. Each precinct or station can have multiple polling places, depending on the number of people who registered at that station. NEC regulation stipulates that each polling place should accommodate a maximum of 500 registered voters. So for example, if there are 500 people who registered at Precinct A, that precinct would have at least one polling place. If 1500 people registered there, it should have at least 3 polling places.
For the 2017 election, there were 2,080 polling precincts and 5,390 polling places established throughout Liberia to accommodate a total of 2,183,683 registered voters. More populous communities with large numbers of registered voters had more polling precincts, and thus more polling places. For example, there were 649,484 voters and 1790 polling places in Montserrado, while Grand Kru had 35,506 voters and 99 polling places.
While this makes sense in theory, in practice this arrangement has some challenges.
Precincts are understandably located in central areas, but this leaves people living further afield with long distances to travel for both registration and voting purposes. Add to that the often bad road conditions given the time of year and the realities of living with compromised mobility, and the situation becomes even more difficult. Dorku Garr, an official of the Barclayville NEC office, was sympathetic. He confirmed that Grand Kru voters indeed face difficulties as a result of distances, as did poll workers. While he was sympathetic, saying he could not even imagine the additional burden of people who are physically challenged, he emphasized that the number of precincts and polling places in the county was consistent with NEC regulations.
Juah Jahteh is a 46-year-old disability association member who uses a bicycle type wheel chair powered by turning her arms. For her, the number of local polling centers is “insufficient” and “a major burden”. It takes her a long time to travel any distance in her own community of Seator, let alone to make it from there to her nearest polling station.
“You can see me in the wheel chair. The time for elections can be a major problem for me. I have to drag from here to there to the polling center. If the election house will change their policy and add more centers to allow we the disable to reach there easily, I will be too thankful”. Madam Jahteh went on to speak about other communities where even citizens without disabilities were ‘victimized’ by election regulations.
The community of Farina Town for example, is located at least four hours walking distance from the nearest polling precinct in Big Swen. Zoloken (Wedabo electoral district one) voters have to travel to Gbanken to take part in election activities, crossing a river that poses a risk to able bodied and disable residents alike. Even the capital city of Barclayville has only two polling centers, the St. Peter Claver Parish (four polling places) and the Barclayville Central High School (five polling places).
The election reform roadmap, a document that considers the recommendations made by 2017 observers, makes the strong case that the polling center system does not fully support the requirements of a “free and fair” electoral process. The current system is neither adequate to the needs of the country, nor to particular citizens who are living with disabilities. The roadmap stresses that “polling places should be as accessible as is realistically possible”.
It therefore recommends that NEC review its overall electoral provisions relating to voting by persons with special needs (pregnant women, nursing mothers, persons (living) with disabilities and the aged); further develop its policies aimed at ensuring the electoral process is accessible to persons (living) with disabilities and special needs voters; strengthen training for NEC polling personnel, temporary electoral staff and party polling agents; review procedures at polling places and introduce measures to reduce overcrowding and long lines, with special regard for special needs voters.
Nyenneh, Juateh and other members of Grand Kru’s disabled community unfamiliar with the roadmap were happy to learn about its recommendations for regulatory reform relating to polling places. As interest in electoral reform grows at the ground level, their voices and those of diverse other Liberians are forming part of another kind of roadmap based on personal experience and greater expectations.