The voters register, the list of all eligible voters in a country, is a crucial element in ensuring and maintaining electoral credibility, integrity and legitimacy.
By maintaining a reliable and accurate voters register, the electoral management body recognises citizens who are eligible to vote. The basic principle at the core of the existence of a voters register is 'one person, one ballot'.
The voters register is also a database of all people who have voted in previous elections, which can be used to monitor voting trends and citizen participation, as well as public confidence in electoral processes.
The recently completed supplementary voter registration period, which ran from September 17 to 30, should have allowed the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) to 'clean up' and update the voters register in preparation for this year's National Assembly and Presidential elections scheduled for late November.
Over the last decade the voters roll has become highly contentious and something of a political hot potato, with the ECN being challenged on a number of occasions about the accuracy of the register.
After the 1999 Parliamentary and Presidential elections, an Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report on the reliability of the voters roll used for the elections that year found that the register was littered with mistakes and inaccuracies. The IPPR report stated that duplication and multiple entries of the same name appeared rife; that many entries were incomplete; that many mistakes were made with the entry of information; and, that there were many 'ghost' voters (people who had died or shouldn't have been included for various reasons) on the roll.
The report basically found that the voters roll had been poorly maintained and haphazardly updated and that this brought the credibility of the 1999 election results into question.
On the eve of the 2004 National Assembly and Presidential elections, a political storm erupted around the voters roll when opposition political parties accused the ECN of not having given them time to scrutinise and challenge the voters roll and after the elections, in November that year, some political parties took the ECN to court over alleged election irregularities, including issues concerning the voters register.
In 2003, the ECN established a new voters register following a general registration drive. The IPPR later analysed the voters register that had been used in the Windhoek West Regional Council by-election of 2003. Again a number of double and questionable entries were found that appeared to stem from mistakes made at the point of registration. At the time the IPPR said a thorough ‘clean up’ of the register was required. We are still using the 2003 list today, albeit supplemented by periods of continuous and supplementary registration. In addition, according to the Electoral Act, each month the Ministry of Home Affairs should have supplied a list of recently deceased people to the ECN so that their names could be taken off the register. This does not appear to have happened systematically.
In the years following 2004, the accuracy and reliability of the voters register has continued to be questioned around the time of various elections at different levels, with the most recent serious incident happening ahead of the Omuthiya local authority elections which were scheduled for late 2008. As a result of objections to the voters register, the Omuthiya election had to be postponed and only took place earlier this year.
To observers, incidents like these over the years have highlighted the ECN's poor handling of the voters roll, which is put down to irregular and problem-plagued voter registration drives. The recent supplementary registration period was no different, with the ECN experiencing various logistical problems throughout the two-week period, which led to political parties unsuccessfully calling for the registration period to be extended.
After the registration period, when the initial number of voters was announced by the ECN, some political parties and commentators questioned the accuracy of the number of registered voters on the roll, as it did not correspond with current population estimates and the projected size of the eligible voting public.
Following the registration period of late September, the ECN announced that almost 300,000 voters had been added to the provisional roll, a figure which pushed the number of eligible voters up to 1.3 million. This figure has been disputed by some political parties and observers. Later there were reports that 150,000 names had been removed from the voters register following a data clean-up. Meanwhile, it was confirmed that the number of people registered during the supplementary period was now over 300,000. In short, the manner in which the ECN has announced the figures relating to the number of registered voters has been very confusing.
At the start of the scrutinising period of the voters roll, from October 12 to 16, political parties once again complained of having received the roll late and not being given enough time to go through it.
Political parties and members of the public only had that week to go through the voters roll and lodge any complaints. According to the Electoral Act, following a period for objections and appeals, a final voters register should be prepared.
Does this matter?
Does having an accurate voters register matter? It’s worth noting that Namibia has never used the voters register as a control measure at polling stations. Logistical reasons have usually been cited. Because Namibians are allowed to vote anywhere in the country, technically it would mean that the whole voters roll would have to be available at each polling station for voters to be checked as they take their ballot paper. As a hard copy, this would be a huge publication containing over a million names. The obvious alternative is to have the voters register available in computerised form but this has never happened on a wide scale at any Namibian election so far.
As a result, the main control measures at polling stations are the requirement that voters present their voters cards and the requirement that voters’ fingers are marked with ink to prevent them voting twice. The availability of an electronic voters roll at each polling station would certainly help to prevent fraud, particularly as the reliability of marking people’s fingers with ink has always been questioned (sometimes the ink is not available, sometimes it is not of the correct concentration and can be easily washed off).
An inaccurate voters register makes it far more likely that some voters have more than one voters card and could increase the temptation to commit fraud. There is also the possibility that vote rigging could be arranged by ensuring certain people have more than one card and/or that people are given the cards of people who have passed away (ghost voters). In addition to minimising voter fraud, an accurate voters register increases citizens’ confidence in the credibility of an electoral process and confers legitimacy on it.
It may now be too late for this election, but surely we can ensure an accurate register is available for the local and regional elections due at the end of 2010?