It’s Time To Fix Our Broken Voter Registration Process

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Data: Giulia Piccolino. Figure: Marcus Seuser/The Monkey Cage

The National Identification Registry (NIR) was established in 2011 to spearhead and oversee provision of biometric identification cards to all Liberians, ECOWAS citizens and foreign nationals resident in the country. The cards would be encrypted with data retrieved from and stored in the National Biometric Identification System (NBIS) database. Each card would be assigned a unique identification number and have an embedded, non-visible chip containing personal data points such as name, age, sex, place of birth, address, fingerprints and photograph.

Eight years and more than six million US dollars later, the Registry has an official, staffed headquarters in Congotown and enrollment centers across the country. What remains unclear however, is just how many people have been duly registered and provided cards, and how far NIR has gone towards organizing data for use and integration with other national agencies, including for example payroll administration, passport facilitation, and voter registration.

When the technological platform behind the entire initiative was launched in October 2016, and the first card issued to former President Sirleaf, she expressed the hope that the NIR and the National Elections Commission (NEC) would synchronize efforts towards incorporating biometric registration in the 2017 election.

That did not happen. One year later, the yet-to-be-finalized Montserrado by-election needs to serve as a wake-up call – for all of us. Our electoral system is more than messy and way past flawed. Quite simply, it is broken.

As Mrs. Marline T. Jarwoe, Chairperson of the Bong County CSOs, expressed, “In any democratic society, the voter registration process establishes the foundation for a credible election. The process is intended to ensure that everyone entitled to vote can do so, to prevent ineligible persons from voting and guard against multiple voting by the same individual.”

She continued, “The registration of voters, exhibition and finalization of the Final Registration Roll (FRR) posed a major challenge for the conduct of the 2017 elections, with FRR credibility at the center of the legal petition brought to the Supreme Court by Liberty and other collaborating parties”.

The ‘misplacement’ of thousands of registered voters’ names was reported across the country during the 2017 election, during the first round and even after a supposed FRR ‘clean-up’ prior to the presidential run-off. In Gbartala, Yelequelleh District for example, voting came to a complete standstill for several hours as frustrated voters at multiple precincts protested at being turned away from polling places because their names could not be found.

Prince Gotogboe, a student of Cuttington University studying Public Administration, is still discouraged about his 2017 experience. “Through no fault of my own, I was denied my right to participate in a historic election. I was disenfranchised, only because my name was not found on the FRR,” he said.

CSO Chairperson Jarwoe called attention to two other categories of voters repeatedly disenfranchised, suggesting that voter registration centers be opened in prisons and hospitals to allow pre-trial detainees and the hospitalized to exercise their lawful rights.

She wants to see Liberia implement a biometric voter registration system to leverage the work of the National Identification Registry, and ensure the rights of all eligible voters. “Since the NIR is already doing citizens’ biometric identification, it will be worthwhile for the NEC to work with them to use that data for future voter registration”.

“If the NR data was being used by the NEC, it would have established that indeed my son would be 18 by voting time, and based on that information, could register to vote”, Dolo added.

Jawoe’s recommendation concurs with observations of international and national stakeholders. From 2016 on, there has been ongoing “interest” in using technology to transform and secure the VR process.

In the Electoral Reform Roadmap, a document of post 2017 election recommendations, observers advised that NEC take steps to transition towards a passive, biometric voter registration system, ”advancing plans to establish a biometric Civil (National) Register and extracting the voter register from the Civil Register”. In a December 2018 meeting with representatives from NEC and accredited political parties, the latter voiced strong approval for the adoption of biometric identification in the VR process as a corrective measure.

In January of this year, upon touring NIR facilities and being apprised of plans for multi-purpose possibilities of NBIS usage, CDC Chairperson Mulbah Morlu reflected: “I am impressed with the introduction of such modern technology by the Liberian government,” and went on to recommended the use of the National Biometric ID Card in place of a separate voter registration card.

The use of biometric technology in developing countries is on the rise. As noted in a 2015 Washington Post article on developments in Nigeria’s electoral management, at least 25 sub-Saharan African countries have already held elections employing some type of biometric technology, including a biometric voter register.

Recognizing this, the Mano River Union (MRU) held a two-day conference in March to, among other things, strategies for using technology to enhance and fast forward sub-regional integration.

Liberia’s ambassador to MRU, Medina Wesseh, stated that “Some African countries have implemented a number of successful ID programs, making use of digital technologies to reform the delivery of social grants, manage government payrolls and facilitate access to credit… [Our] overall objective is to use the MRU region as a pilot to harmonize the national biometric ID cards of the member states into an MRU biometric ID card.”

Madam Wesseh explained that robust biometric identification would facilitate free movement of persons across MRU borders without compromising security; help monitor disease outbreaks and facilitate cross-border emergency responses; be a major factor in improved electoral management and integrity within and across all member states.

Such an innovation would be welcome, as Liberia’s electoral management capability has proven below par for the 21st century, and for a nation approaching 200 years of independence.

For Prince Gotogboe, and too many other Liberians, the introduction of a biometric voter register is past due, but it could make the difference in upholding the rights of other long-suffering citizens.

Marcus Malayea contributed to the publication of this story.

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