Maputo — The parliamentary Commission on Public Administration, which is amending Mozambique's electoral legislation, has made a major concession to the opposition by eliminating an article which the former rebel movement Renamo says was used to facilitate ballot box stuffing.
Article 85 of the law on electoral procedures stated that, in the event of any discrepancy between the number of voters' names ticked off by polling staff on the register, and the number of votes found in the ballot box, it is the number of votes that prevails.
Renamo claimed that this was an invitation to fraud. But the clause has been in every Mozambican electoral law since the first multi-party elections of 1994, and for 12 years Renamo did not object.
It was only during a heated debate in the parliamentary plenary on 20 December 2006 that just one deputy, Maximo Dias, of the now defunct Renamo-Electoral Union coalition, claimed that the clause was an invitation to ballot box stuffing. Suddenly Renamo, who had no problem with the article previously, added it to their list of contentious electoral issues.
There is no evidence at all that Article 85 has been used to stuff ballot boxes. It existed to cope with a real problem – namely that, as polling day wears on, polling station staff might make a mistake and fail to tick off names of voters to whom they had given ballot papers, resulting in more ballot papers in the box than ticks on the register. Article 85 was a simple way of dealing with a simple human error.
But Renamo, in the event of any discrepancy at all, wanted to check every ballot paper in the box against the serial numbers of the ballot paper stubs.
And in the last round of negotiations on the Commission on Public Administration, the ruling Frelimo Party has conceded this point to Renamo.
The draft law that will now be submitted to the parliamentary sitting due to begin on 22 October states that the serial number of every ballot paper must be checked. Thus when a ballot box is opened at a polling station, the polling station chairperson, having first counted the number of votes, then opens each ballot paper and reads out loud the serial number. This is checked against the ballot paper stubs. Any ballot paper where there is a discrepancy is put into a separate box.
If the number checks out, the chairperson continues as under the present law, displaying the ballot paper so that everyone in the room can see it, and declaring which candidate it is for, or whether it is blank or invalid.
This procedure should eliminate any possibility of ballot box stuffing, but it does nothing to cope with the real fraud which has happened in parts of the country – namely completely fictitious polling station results sheets which claim turnouts of 100 per cent, or sometimes more than 100 per cent.
Checking the serial numbers will greatly increase the time taken to count the votes at the polling stations, though this will be offset by a further change to the law which stipulates that no more than 500 voters can be registered at any one polling station. Previously the figure was 1,000.
The draft also states categorically that the voters will cast their votes at the same places where they were registered as voters. This will eliminate mobile voter registration brigades, and eliminate uncertainty in rural areas as to where the polling stations will be.
Introducing these changes to a meeting on Friday, the chairperson of the Public Administration Commission, Alfredo Gamito, said the measures will reduce the distances people have to walk to reach polling stations in the countryside. It might thus reduce the level of abstention in elections.
The director of the Electoral Administration Technical Secretariat (STAE), Felisberto Naife, disagreed with Gamito. He pointed out that, even in the cities, where nobody has to walk more than a few minutes to reach their polling station, there are high rates of abstention.
The changes to the law are likely to double the number of polling stations needed in the 2014 general elections from 12,699 to around 24,000, which will pose a massive logistical challenge to STAE.
Naife was also worried that the new measures will increase the number of polling stations operating under extremely precarious conditions. Even under the current law, in some rural areas the polling stations are under trees – which poses severe problems in the event of rain. Naife favoured a compromise with 700 voters per polling station.
One welcome change to the law will make it more difficult for dishonest staff to add ink marks to ballot papers, thus invalidating them, by making it look as if the voter tried to vote for two or more candidates.
This type of fraud can be detected statistically since it results in an unusually large number of invalid votes declared at the affected polling stations. Most people do not take the trouble to queue outside a polling station just to spoil their ballot papers, and under normal circumstances, invalid votes are not expected to be more than two or three per cent of the total number of votes cast.
When the number of invalid votes at a polling station goes over five per cent it is suspicious, and anything over 10 per cent clearly indicates fraud. Based on the random sample of over 900 polling stations used by the Electoral Observatory (the largest and most credible body of Mozambican election observers) for its parallel count in the 2009 general elections, it can be calculated that this type of fraud happened in over six per cent of the 12,699 stations.
The bill presented by Gamito includes two measures to reduce the likelihood of vote tampering. First, everything that can be used to mark ballot papers must be removed from the table where votes are counted – this includes pens, the flasks of indelible ink used to mark voters' fingers so that they can only vote once, inkpads, and anything else containing liquids.
Second, the hands of all polling station staff must be checked before counting starts to ensure that they are clean, and cannot smudge ballot papers. Anybody with dirty or damp hands must wash and dry them immediately.
This is a sensible measure dealing with a real problem – but it implies that every polling station must be supplied with water, soap and towels.