6 October 2017

Liberia: Will Ballots Get to Polling Centers in Time?

Photo: Daily Observer
Arrival ballot papers

Transport challenges during Liberia's rainy season include impassable roads like this one outside Zwedru (photo credit Natasha Rothchild).

The huge infrastructure deficit that Liberia faces, especially roads at this time of the year, is a huge worry for Maria Arena, head of the European Elections Observer Mission, who feels it would negatively impact the elections.

On her recommendation to major stakeholders in the electoral process, Madam Arena said "This is a Liberian process and it is left to Liberians to handle, but if I were to make any recommendation at any given day about the process, I would advise that the time from the election be changed from this period to the dry season."

Changing the electoral timeframe to the dry season, she said, would help to make the process more participatory by making everyone throughout the country accessible. Sharing a similar concern was the National Democratic Institute which, in its Newsletter, termed the situation as a serious concern for the NEC.

Over six million ballots - 3 million presidential ballots printed in Slovenia, plus 3.1 million House of Representatives ballots printed in Ghana - have been printed, the Chief Observer noted. While the presidential ballots arrived in the country last week, the legislative ballots finally arrived during the early hours of Thursday, October 5.

The NEC must now grapple with the challenge of distributing these ballots on a tight timeline and a worried NDI is trying to figure out how the NEC will overcome such a mammoth challenge.

Transport challenges during the country's rainy season include impassable roads to the northwestern and southeastern counties, many of which are cut-off. The yearly road trouble takes a toll on fresh produce being conveyed to markets. However, this time around, the main concern is whether the ballot papers will reach Liberians at every polling center in the country in time for the much anticipated election day.

"UNMIL has committed itself to helping us transport some of our elections materials using their helicopters to few of the inaccessible parts of the country," NEC Chairman Korkoya said at a press conference a few weeks ago.

Though Liberia is a small country, the logistics required to move goods across it -- especially the election materials -- are tedious, complex, costly. To get its job done, the NEC's logistics plan for transporting polling materials from regional centers to polling places includes utilizing 73 trucks; 435 4×4 vehicles; 276 motorbikes; 2055 porters to walk across terrains unsuitable for vehicles; 530 tents; and 117 canoes.

In spite of the huge gesture from UNMIL, the major problem now is how to get the ballots to the various towns and villages after these have reached the provincial capitals and major cities.

An Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC) official told the Daily Observer yesterday the challenge now is whether these contingency means would get to the various destinations during this time of the year with distressing logistical conditions. "This is one problem that most people are not looking at but it needs strong consideration. Our roads are deplorable and we must endeavor to solve the problem of getting the ballots to the people," he said.

To reach some precincts, porters will have to carry election kits and ballot papers on treks that will last for days. UNMIL will airlift sensitive election materials to seven inaccessible parts of the country, including locations in Gbarpolu, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Lower Lofa, Maryland, Lower Nimba and River Gee counties.

However, as the NDI observed, the physical distribution of election materials across Liberia is not the only challenge, the NEC must also deal with software, electronic, and legal issues. On September 20, the NEC announced that the Final Registration Roll (FRR) was complete and distributed electronic copies soon thereafter to political parties.

The final roll totals 2,183,629 voters. This new figure reflects the conduct of a set of integrity checks by the NEC, including a comprehensive manual verification of registration forms, the inclusion of 4,621 voters during the lost and damaged voters' card replacement period, and the removal of 4,567 incidents of duplication.

Although regional NEC offices across the country have received electronic copies of the FRR as well, they still await delivery of a printed version.

The NEC indicated that 60,000 people responded to the NEC recruitment ads for poll workers for over 29,000 openings. The newly-hired staff are currently being trained on how to run 5390 polling places across the country.

In an effort to avoid confrontations during the campaign exercises, the LNP had earlier asked political parties to submit plans for campaign events in advance, and by asking parties to abide by a voluntary moratorium on large campaign events after October 4, when the LNP must begin deploying officers to remote locations for election duties. Very few parties submitted their campaign event schedules, and parties were unable to come to an agreement on the moratorium.

However, the violent clashes in Nimba and Montserrado counties could have been prevented with better communication from parties about their plans.

Non-interference

Madam Arena has also urged that international partners should have no business in meddling in the Liberian electoral process, rather they should simply observe how the process unfolds.

Underlining the objective of the mission's work in the pending presidential and representative elections at a press conference a few weeks ago, Madam Arena, who is a European Parliamentarian, said, "The EU will observe the pre-election phase and on the day of the polls. We will stay in the country until the completion of a comprehensive assessment of the electoral process, including recommendations for future elections."

"We keep to our mandate of non-interference and neutrality. Our mission here is to contribute to impartial and objective assessments to a democratic transition in Liberia. The outcome of the elections would be left with the country and its national institutions. We are not here to validate or certificate this election, but to observe and analyze the whole electoral process, including the legal framework, electoral administration, voter registration, nominations, campaigning, the conduct of the media, voting and the counting, the tallying of results and dispute resolution mechanisms," she said.

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