The Independent National Electoral Commission says it will introduce electronic voting (e-voting) in off-season elections starting in 2021.
This is contained in a 17-page "Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of the Covid-19 Pandemic" released on Monday in Abuja and signed by the INEC Chairman Prof. Mahmood Yakubu.
The policy covers health and legal issues, election planning and operations, election day and post-election activities, voter registration, political parties, election observation, electoral security and deployment of technology in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"... Continue to make available its electronic channels for voters to check their registration status. Pilot the use of Electronic Voting Machines at the earliest possible time (not Edo and Ondo), but work towards the full introduction of electronic voting in major elections starting from 2021," the document stated.
The commission, however, ruled out the deployment of the e-voting for the coming governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states.
It said it would adopt electronic platforms for the submission of nomination forms by political parties for the two governorship elections.
INEC said that during the elections in Edo and Ondo, scheduled for September 19, 2020 and October 10, 2020 respectively, face masks would be made compulsory for voters, electoral officials and everyone else at all election locations.
It said the polling unit areas shall be redesigned to ensure substantial compliance with established protocols such as social distancing.
"In order to accommodate additional activities in setting up the PU due to COVID-19, polls shall now commence at 8.30 am and close at 2.30 pm. Personal protective equipment and other safety materials shall be provided for polling staff," the commission said.
It said infrared thermometers would be used at the various collation centres, alcohol-based hand sanitizers at the polling units for election officials; while methylated spirit and cotton wool would be provided for the disinfection of the smart card readers after the fingerprint of each voter is read.
The commission added that it would regularly clean up the biometric register of voters, "while continuous voter registration is suspended for the time being to prevent the health risks associated with it in the context of COVID-19.
"We are developing a new election budget template to reflect the likely impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the funding profile of electoral activities," it said.
The commission said it suspended Continuous Voter Registration because of COVID-19 and the health risk it poses for voters, stakeholders and staff.
On transportation, the commission said election staff would comply with COVID-19 containment protocols, and that there shall be a reduction in the number of passengers per vehicle on election day from 14 to seven for buses, and from 12 to six for boats.
INEC also said that its "state offices shall conduct a thorough assessment of RACs to determine their suitability for elections, adding that where there is insufficient space in a RAC and no suitable alternative facility is available for a Super RAC option, canopies may be deployed outdoors to increase the available area for use.
"In the establishment of voting points, in order to reduce the number of points in a polling unit to be monitored and controlled for COVID-19 compliance, the threshold for voting points shall be increased from 500/750 to 1,000/1,250."
The commission said it would create e-platforms in accreditation of observer groups and deployment of their field observers, submission of nomination forms by political parties for candidates, tracking and reporting of campaigns and campaign finance by/for candidates and political parties.
According to the new policy, "other activities to be done online include: submission of party agents lists by political parties, engagement with stakeholders -consultative meeting with political party leaders and briefing of observers."
On briefing and debriefing of election observers, INEC said it would combine physical and online briefings for observers.
It said: "However, whenever the former is adopted, all the protocols for COVID-19 prevention shall be strictly followed."
It said it would reassess existing security threats across the states and the implications of COVID-19, develop locally focused plans for election security deployments.
It added that it would engage with relevant authorities, including the National Assembly, to designate election as an essential service due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This, the commission, said would enable it function effectively in times of national emergency.
Yakubu advised political parties to develop appropriate guidelines and regulations for the conduct of party primaries that take into account the COVID-19 prevention protocols, saying where such guidelines and regulations are in conflict with the constitutions of political parties and the commissions' regulations and guidelines for the conduct of party primaries, it would draw the attention of the political party to the discrepancies.
He said the policy would apply to all elections and electoral activities of the commission during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Executive Director, Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED), Dr. Ibrahim M. Zikirullahi, in a chat with Daily Trust, described the introduction of electronic voting as commendable.
He, however, said that with Nigerian environment where there is infrastructural decay, lack of high technology to drive electronic voting, the nation needs to be careful.
"There is need to take into consideration all the challenges with card reader machine before delving into electronic voting which requires sophisticated technology to operate," Zikirullahi said.
On her part, Director, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Idayat Hassan, said INEC had done exceptionally well in coming up with an elaborate manual for the forthcoming elections and warned that this plan must be strictly implemented.
She said: "There are some issues that we cannot play with in the upcoming elections; these include that NEC must ensure that there is additional polling staff in case of original staff opting out; the provision of adequate cleaning materials is a priority, and INEC will have to reconsider the physical layout of the polling stations ahead of the elections.
"CSOs and INEC must prioritise voter education as elections held during COVID-19 in other parts of the world have recorded low voter turnout. For instance, the French Municipal election in March recorded a voter turnout of just 46 per cent compared to a previous 64 percent in her last polls; low voter turnout was also witnessed in Mali and Guinea in their recent election. There must be strict law enforcement, anybody that disrupts electoral operations by making threats or creating risks," she said.