9 January 2010

Zimbabwe: The Pros and Cons of Voter-Registration Methodologies

opinion

VOTER Registration remains one of the most political and highly sensitive aspects of the pre-electoral phases hence the need to ensure that its conduct is informed by best practices of efficiency and transparency. Those eligible to vote by virtue of age still have to pass the voter registration eligibility test in order to consummate their basic political right to vote.

Voter registration thus determines who can vote or not vote and on this basis has the potential to enfranchise or de-franchise potential voters especially where it is not openly run.

Election literature is replete with stories of eligible voters who have been robbed of their basic right to vote because voter registration requirements were not clearly spelt out.

Debates on when and what specific time frames should be accorded for registration, which identity particulars should be produced, whether potential voters should only register in their constituencies or outside their constituencies continue to be contested terrains in the pre-election discourse.

By determining who can vote or not vote, voter registration ultimately determines who wins and by extension shapes the political future of every citizen in the country.

This explains why genuine logistical and administrative constraints may be perceived as politically motivated. In highly polarised election contexts, decisions about who to register and who not to register determine the legitimacy of electoral processes. Underscored here is the need to ensure that voter registrations are accurate, up to date, impartial and comprehensive.

In the 2008 Elections in Zimbabwe, voter registration was generally constrained by an interplay of factors, among which was that Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was not in charge of the voter register, problematic ward-based voter registration, lack of transparency, limited access to the electronic copy of the voter register by political parties, lack of figures on how many have been registered, contradicting numbers in the delimitation report and voter register, lack of notification of deleted entries, deliberate exclusion of resident status, inclusion of names of deceased voters, deliberate rural over-representation and politicised farm tent voter registration points.

These allegations should not be allowed to resurface in the 2011 Elections.

Voter registrations assume various forms. They may be in the form of active registration in which registration is initiated by the voter when he or she applies for inclusion on the voters' register.

They can also be in the form of passive registration in which the compilation of the voter register is initiated by state authorities, a process which is often done using records of residence or citizenship.

Thus conceptually, voter registrations can be in the form of stand alone ad hoc/ periodic processes or in the form of stand alone continuous/permanent processes. The third set is a form of voter registration which is based on the civil register.

Maintenance of voters' rolls can be done either as an on-going process or at fixed regular periods, or only when there is an election.

These updates are done to ensure that all eligible voters are included in the register.

However, it is instructive to note that voter registration processes are very expensive and require use of huge human resources and technology. In practice, there is always a limited supply funds, time and trained personnel with IT expertise.

Where supplier-driven voter registration models with heavy doses of IT and special material from external suppliers are adopted, issues of sustainability have to be considered. In addition, most of the proposed technology and methodologies are often entirely replaced in the next election cycle.

Three levels of technological approaches are usually used namely:

Low Technology Approaches. These are manual and paper-based. Challenges associated with these are how to perform duplicate searches which are mandated by several electoral laws as well as ensuring enabling conditions including civil identification of citizens.

Mid Technology Approaches. This approach is OCR/ Optimal March Recognition/ICR based. The main challenges in this approach relate to replacement solutions for Polaroid, photographic equipment problem versus review of total solution. It was in use in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1997.

High technology Approaches. These involve digital registration kits where specialised devices such as digital photographs, fingerprint scanning, facial recognition and fingerprint matching.

Points to ponder include use of technological upgrades, biometrics (facial recognition versus fingerprint matching for duplicate search), standardisation, sharing experiences, sustainability and relation to voter education and domestic observation.

Given the strong political dimension of voter registration, the exercise must be inclusive, transparent and fair. There should be sufficient time for inspection of the roll to effect changes.

The process should be accessible to all potential voters, whilst copies of the roll are available to interested parties. Sustainability issues must be considered fully, and technology and methodologies must be relevant in the next election cycle. There should be an independent audit of voters' roll.

These recommendations are based on international standards. There should be consistent legal provisions for the method of registration, registration timetable, eligibility documentation, registration forms and the format of the register.

The voter register is sufficiently recent to allow for newly eligible voters to be included and recently deceased persons to have been removed. Where there is active registration, there should be effective voter education. The method of registration should be simple and accessible.

Voter registration should be intensified for groups less likely to be registered, e.g. first time voters, minorities, etc.

A preliminary voter register should be made available for public inspection to ensure voters can confirm their inclusion and its accuracy can be assessed before assessed before it is finalised.

Relevant extracts from the preliminary voter register should be posted at polling stations or other convenient locations. The voter register should be computerised to avoid duplicate entries.

Political parties should be able to access copies of the voter register.

The number of registered voters is published in advance of the election and that number is broken down into different levels, including by polling station.

There should be a right to challenge any inaccuracies or omissions in the voter register. Corrections should be made through a simple but secure procedure.

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