Illiteracy, Poor Voter Education Pose Serious Challenges during Voting Process

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Voters in queue in at ta polling center in Montserrado county. The county has the highest number of invalid votes, followed by Nimba and Bong Counties.

Official provisional results from the National Elections Commission (NEC) reveal that the high illiteracy rate among the electorate and challenges in the electoral process affected the number of votes cast, including the number of invalid votes.

According to NEC four provisional results, dated October 15, out of the total vote count of 1,466,748 so far, 84,071 were invalid votes, and accounted for even more than the votes garnered by some candidates. In 2011, the invalid votes were 80,504 or 6.5 % of the total votes. Surprisingly, the invalid votes are mostly from vote rich counties, especially home to leading candidates.

Breakdown of valid and invalid votes as of October 15, 2017

No.
Counties
Valid Votes
 Invalid votes
%
1. Bomi 43,520  2,250  4.9
2. Bong 15,1536 11,900 7.3
3. Gbarpolu 34,547 2,174 5.9
4. Grand Bassa 99,377 7,208 6.8
5. Grand Cape Mount 48,446 3,386 6.5
6. Grand Gedeh 39,498 2,215 5.3
7. Grand Kru  22,993  2,329 9.2
8. Lofa 11, 6365 6,838 5.6
9. Margibi 108,241 6,900 5.6
10. Maryland 38,178 3,086 7.5
11. Montserrado  530,654 19,932  3.6
12. Nimba  154,440 10,387 6.3
13. River Gee 24,259 1,508 5.9
14. River Cess 23,308 1,997 7.9
15. Sinoe 31386 1,947 5.8

 

Following Tuesday’s peaceful general elections, local and international media practitioners and some voters revealed that a lot of voters were frustrated with how the voting process was set up and executed.

The public is already raising alarm about the high number of invalid votes and local and international election monitoring groups have blamed the high number of invalid votes to poor voter and election education, but the Commission is shaking off the blame.

Several media reports stated that at almost every precinct across the country, the issue of voters queuing in the wrong lines only to be told so at the top of the line – after patiently waiting hours to get there, and then sent to the back of the correct line, was prevalent, which would point to two things: high level of illiteracy among the electorate and poor voter and electoral worker education.

In our Friday, October 13 edition of the Daily Observer, Samantha Smoot, mission director for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) said many precincts with multiple polling places lacked clear signs to direct voters to the correct queue. “This led to confusion about which line to join. Where there were precinct queue controllers, some were not effective in directing voters to the correct queue,” Ms Smoot said.

Reports gathered from various polling stations in and around the capital said polling centers were packed with eager voters, including the aged, many of whom queued up before dawn. Voting started on schedule in the 19 polling centers visited by the Daily Observer Newspaper, but there were reports of late arrivals of materials in some rural areas due to bad roads and poor weather. Our reporter observed that voting was a bit disorganized in some polling stations in Monrovia as many voters had difficulty locating their voting points. Many, who had spent hours on a particular queue, were directed to other voting points when it was their turn to vote, leaving them frustrated.

“Affected voters assumed that because they registered in a particular room in a center, so they went to that particular room during voting. In many cases, your name will not be in there but in another room because the precinct where you registered will be spread out into various centers during elections, and your name may be in one of the centers within that precinct.

“A second issue was in cases where a voter is registered twice. These individuals are registered at the last place of registration in line with our policy. You will not be at the original place.”

As part of its short term recommendations to the National Elections Commission (NEC), the Carter Center said “the NEC has acknowledged difficulties with long lines and queue management at polling precincts on Election Day. Given this, if there is a run-off, we recommend that the NEC offer polling precinct staff enhanced instruction on these issues before the second round.”

With polling center workers misspelling the names of voters whose names were mysteriously not part of the final voters roll and not properly directing voters to the correct queues to cast their votes, many are pointing fingers at the NEC and its failure to execute a proper voter education program.

“What happened to the voter education campaign?” was the question posed to this journalist by an annoyed party polling center representative who was clearly frustrated with the slow pace of the voting due to several factors: voters’ names not being on the final NEC voters roll; inconsistent application of procedures by polling officers; single voting booth; and voters not knowing which line to queue in.

Chairman of the Election Coordinating Committee (ECC), Oscar Bloh, said while the voting process was generally smooth, ECC observed that NEC staff had challenges managing queues and directing voters to the proper polling places.

“Particularity in areas with higher numbers of registered voters and in voting precincts located in facilities not adequate to accommodate these, this resulted in long waits and frustration among voters and caused voting and counting to extend long past the official closing time.”

Although not much is known about the effectiveness of the voter education drive launched by the NEC, but at its launch on Friday, August 18 (a month and two weeks after it was scheduled to be launched on July 4, 2017), the campaign was meant to cover all 19 magisterial offices throughout Liberia. NEC workers hired specifically for this purpose were to engage in a door-to-door campaign across the country to teach people how to vote; something that should have anticipated the problems that arose during the actual process. During the voter education campaign, no election ‘dry runs’ were held with anticipated scenarios for electoral workers to act on.

NEC chairman Jerome Korkoya claimed the Commission “has put in place the requisite administrative structure and strategies to reach out to every county, city, village, and clan within the borders of Liberia to create the necessary awareness for the maximum participation of all eligible citizens in these elections.

“To ensure that a voter is adequately prepared for the elections, he or she must know the purpose of elections, the time and place of the elections, and why their participation in the electoral process is critically important to the democratic process.”

He stated that the NEC had recruited and deployed 436 civic educators and 290 gender mobilizers across the country to carry out door-to-door outreach as well as face-to-face interactions with community dwellers.

According to the NDI’s preliminary statement on the October 10 elections, “Delays in making outreach materials available, including sample ballots, hindered efforts during the initial period of voter education. NDI’s September pre-election mission expressed concern about this delay and the potential impact it could have in the NEC’s goal of reducing the invalid ballot rate to less than 3 percent. Long term observers noted, however, that NEC civic educators and gender mobilizers had difficulty in reaching the more inaccessible areas of the country and that voter education often focused more on turning out to vote than on the process of voting itself. This became further evident on election day.”

But NDI’s Samantha Smoot summed it up best when she said “Also, there was a lack of clarity about the procedures…which slowed the process in those locations and underscored earlier concerns that the training for poll workers did not sufficiently address procedures for voter identification.”

In an interview with an executive of one of the civil society organizations (who refused to be named for this article) that conducted the voter education drive, he said the NEC should not be singled out for the blame of the failures of the voter education campaign.

“The NEC was underfunded for these elections; add that to capacity problems. We have said that given the high level of illiteracy in the country our voter education campaign should not be just for election time, it should be an ongoing effort. Civil society should also be blamed for the high number of invalid votes and the poor outcome of the voter education drive,” he said.

Liberia is a country with a high illiteracy rate. According to the ‘Liberia People 2017, CIA World Factbook,’ 47.6 percent of those 15 and above can read and write, while 62.4 and 32.8 percent of adult males and females can respectively read and write. The NEC should have known that its work was cut out and should have started the voter education process a whole lot sooner. This was at least the contention of The Foundation for International Dignity (FIND) when it wrote a formal communication to Liberia’s development partners, drawing their attention to what it calls the unwarranted delay in the conduct of the civic and voter’s education ahead of the elections.

It can be recalled that in October 2016, FIND issued a press statement in which it called on all stakeholders including Liberia’s development partners to provide technical and financial support to the national civil society institutions to begin early civic and voter education.

FIND’s call was based on previous election observation reports, particularly the Carter Center’s 2011 Election Monitoring Report which, among other things, highlighted late and inadequate voter education as one of the key contributing factors to the huge number of invalid votes.

While the CDC was hoping for a first round victory, and the UP might be praying for a run-off knowing that fate had not been on the side of the CDC in 2005 and 2011, we hope that the NEC will sort out the issues experienced during these elections so that should there be a runoff,  the same problems won’t be experienced.

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1 COMMENT

  1. NEC’s idea of placing the voter roll in an online (electronic) database was ill-advised. That action alone effective disenfranchised voters who live all over the country who:

    1) Do Not have cell phones and/or,
    2) Can Not afford to put credit on their phones

    The million dollar question is, why didn’t NEC simply print the voting center location on the back of the voter card?
    You cannot disqualify one hundred thousand (100,000) people and claim that you did a good job … Shame on NEC.

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