Margibi County held bi-elections (elections held mid term, in this case, due to the death of an incumbant) in District 4 on Tuesday, 13 February 2008.
On whole, the elections were quiet, voter turnout was moderate, and results were formally endorsed by all candidates. Minor exceptions to these high marks include a charge of "a lack of transparency, unfairness, and cheating" by the Liberty Party chairman Israel Akinsaya against the National Election Committee (NEC) (detailed in the Analyst's "Liberty Party Cries Fowl") and low voter turnout during morning and mid-day hours. As a volunteer election observer, I witnessed Akinsaya's confrontation with the NEC Chairman, the slow turn-out at polling stations with dense populations (as well as surprisingly high turnout at polling stations such as Marshall City and Smell-No-Taste) and other election occurrences, both standard and exceptional.
We began the day at 7:30 a.m. at the regional NEC office in Smell-No-Taste (reference previous blog for name description). Upon arrival, lines were already forming at polling stations and local election observers and workers were preparing for voters.
Voter registration occurred prior to election day, during which each voter received a voter ID number and a voter registration card with photo. ID numbers were consistent with those issued for the 2005 elections, which raised some skepticism amongst election parties. In 2005, Liberia, and Margibi in particular, had a large population of IDPs, or Internally Displaced People; these IDPs were eligible to vote for national, but not county-level positions. Today, some IDPs have relocated while others have taken permanent residency in their new county. Many Margibi natives were concerned that these IDPs would now be casting their vote for Margibi representatives.
The physical process of casting a vote is quite simple. Registered voters check into a polling station where an attendant cross references the photo ID with both the voter and a list of eligible voters in the district. The voter then proceeds to a voting attendant to receive a ballot (with pictures of each candidate); the ballot is folded to facilitate the voter's refolding of the ballot after they've made their selection, and then stamped with an official NEC seal. Next, the voter "carries" (if you will, in Liberia we say "carry" rather than take/bring :)) the ballot to a voting box, checks-off the candidate of choice and then drops the re-folded ballot into a large, transparent box in the center of the room. Lastly, the voter continues to one last station where they receive an ink blot on their thumbnail to deter people from trying to vote twice.
The process is straightforward, but visuals always help:
Checking into the polling station.
Receiving a ballot - with a NEC stamp.
Casting the vote
Receiving the ink-blot, after voting.
There were two things that impressed me about the voting process itself: first, the picture-ballots enabled illiterate citizens to vote and, second, the ink-blotting safe-guarded against double-voting. Apparently, ink blotting is standard practice in African elections. The practice was introduced in Namibia in 1989 by UNTAG (the UN Transitional Authority Group) for elections that followed more than two decades of civil war. In theory, it seems effective. In all honesty, I feel that ink blotting acts more as a deterant than a monitoring tool. I'm certain that voters received ink blots after voting; I'm less sure that those registering voters checked to see if people already had ink blots. This raises the concern about election transparency in Liberia; while the proper processes may be in place, the execution of these measures is questionable.
By mid-day, we reached the Dolo Town polling station on the Firestone Campus. This polling station, as all polling stations, was open from 8:00 to 18:00, but there was hardly a crowd, even by 11:00. On speaking with voters about the turnout, I found that some believed employees were hesitant to leave work to vote while others maintained that people were simply not engaged in these elections. "In 2005, these lines were out the door," noted multiple election observers. While at Dolo Town, our party listened as political party candidates prodded NEC officials about "tally cards" - the sheets used to total the votes at the close of the election. Political party candidates demanded the opportunity to participate in completing the tally cards while NEC officials maintained that NO candidate or party representative would be permitted to touch the voter ballots or tally cards.
As the closing hour neared, debate over tally cards had snow-balled. The Liberty Party National Chairman, Mr. Israel Akinsanya met NEC officials at the NEC Margibi headquarters around 16:00 for a shouting match about the issue. Mr. Akinsanya approached NEC about the issue, at which time he was informed he need to file a report to NEC in order for the complaint to be processed. Mr Akinsanya found this unacceptable and began a rant on "foul play" on behalf of NEC. He and the NEC Chairman (a highly respected human rights attorney) exchanged ... words. Akinsanya was escorted away, after which time I had the chance to ask the Chairman about Akinsanya's charges.
"What claims did he make?" I asked.
"I don't even know, he just wouldn't stop complaining about having to file a report... he just goes on about how he should be able to voice his complaint now," the Chairman replied. Note: only 9 of 13 parties attended the pre-election debates on the Saturday preceding election day - and Akinsanya was not among them.
"I will be that thorn in your side!" ... was just about all I understood from Akinsanya. Here's a glimpse of the scene:
(would have taken a better shot, but this UMIL soldier was not enthusiastic about having cameras around)
From my understanding, the process of tabulating the votes onto tally sheets was hardly cause for concern. Our team watched a closing of the polls at the Rock Institute. I was amazed by the transparency. The magistrate at Rock Institue was composed and clear throughout the entire counting process - which was no small feat. By the end of this day, I'll admit, I was exhausted. Keeping vigilant watch over voters is a taxing job in the heat of Liberia's dry season. And, counting votes into the night is a challenge when the electricity goes out and the only source of light is camping lamps.
The magistrate emptied the voting boxes, unfolded the ballots, counted all the ballots - then, one by one, lifted each ballot for all the political party observers to see and placed the ballot under the name tag for the respective candidate.
Emptying the voting box,
Counting the ballots,
Presenting the ballots to the political party observers,
Amassing the ballots behind the name tags of each selected candidate.
Political Party Observers - taking notes and recording votes as the magistrates call off names.
At the end of the day, it appeared that the CDC Party had a clear lead. While there were 13 candidates in total, the clear leaders were CDC and Unity party candidates Mr Ballah ZayZay and Mr Roland Cooper respectively. Unity Party is that of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the CDC (Congress for Democratic Change) is the party of George Weah, football start and Sirleaf's primary opposition in the 2005 elections.