Debbi Stabenow, an American politician, is quoted to have stated that “Democracy is about voting and it’s about a majority vote. And it’s time that we started exercising the Democratic process.” If we accept that democracy is a governance system that is truly reflective of the will of the citizenry, then we must begin to wonder why it seems that many elections in Nigeria reflect the will of a certain subset of society rather than the majority of the populace. Today, we discuss a potential approach for the electoral umpire to remedy this malady. However, we would begin with a discussion of some reasons driving low participation of Nigerians in the democratic process.
Before we go any further, I think a disclaimer is useful at this point. This article assumes that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is truly non-partisan, is truly committed to enabling free and fair elections in Nigeria to ensure that the will of the majority reflects at the polls, and is truly committed to seeking ways of improving the electoral system to make it more effective and efficient in delivering credible elections.
On Saturday, 5 December 2020, elections held in Lagos and some other states to fill some vacant elective positions. When I learned that the voter turnout for the Lagos East Senatorial Election was a mere 8.3%, I worried for the future of the electoral system given the increasing voter apathy (due to several grievances) combined with a system that seems designed to discourage voters from turning up. Looking up the results for three major elections since 2019, a trend of low turnout is clear. During the 2019 presidential elections, the voter turnout was 35.7%. A year later, the Edo State and Ondo State Governorship Elections recorded turnouts of 25% and 31.6% respectively. I think we should be concerned if a majority of the population appears uninterested or unable to participate in the electoral process.
Taking the latest election in Lagos State as a case study, I can think of at least four reasons why only 8% of voters showed up at the polls. Firstly, people relocate quite a bit in Lagos, and it is highly possible that between 2011 when the current voters register was first populated and now (2020), a number of voters could have relocated to other locations within Lagos, outside Lagos, outside Nigeria, or even died. Secondly, turnout could have been impacted by voter apathy due to distrust in the government or a belief (whether real or perceived) that the results had already been decided. Thirdly, there could be the impact of poor awareness of the impending election or the location of polling centres. For example, I spoke with some Lagosians who were unaware an election was to hold that weekend, and I was unaware that the space outside our new residence was a polling centre. I strolled out of our gate that Saturday and was surprised to see electoral officers seated in front of the fence, with all the paraphernalia of elections displayed conspicuously, whereas there was nothing of such the previous day. Finally, given recent incidents in Lagos associated with the #EndSARS protests and the succeeding violence, some persons could have decided it was safer to sit at home rather than risk uncertain violence.
Let us now focus on the first reason above. I was unable to vote during the 2019 General Elections because my registration (in 2011) was done in Port Harcourt whereas I was now working in Lagos. Even if I may have been willing to travel to Rivers State to vote, postponing the elections by a week would have made it difficult for anyone who needed to take time off work to make such a journey. I believe there were many like me who wanted to vote but could not because the current system says you can only vote where you registered except you apply to have your registration transferred to a new location, with a new voter’s card issued. However, given the embarrassing inefficiency that embraced the issuance of new voter’s cards in 2019, there is not a lot of faith that any application for transfer would be seamless.
Imagine a Nigeria where you can register anywhere and vote anywhere. I understand you may argue that we do not have a robust national identity management system to enable this, however, I do not think it is not possible. Let’s say I registered in Kano State, but I have moved to Enugu State, elections are to hold in say five months’ time and I am definite I would still be in Enugu State by then. Knowing that INEC is mandated by law to stop updating the voters’ register thirty (30) days before an election, INEC could create a portal where anyone who has changed location and wishes to vote in his or her new location would fill out his or her information and select a suitable polling centre at least 30 days before the election. INEC would not need to print a new voter’s card for such a person. All INEC needs to do, is to modify the voter’s register to accommodate “place of initial registration” which tallies with the person’s voter’s card. This way, when I show up at my preferred polling centre in Enugu State with my voter’s card showing I registered in Kano State, the electoral officer would look at the list of registered voters for that polling centre, which would include my name with details of my registration in Kano. All they need to confirm is that I am the same person who registered in Kano; therefore, by voting in Enugu, I am only voting once in that election.
Is this system workable? I definitely believe so. I do not know if any change to the Electoral Act is required for this to be legal; however, such changes, if needed, should not be an issue considering the disclaimer that heralded this article. Addressing this issue of relocating voters, among other constraints to the electoral process should boost voter turnout and deliver election results that truly reflect the people’s will. I believe it’s time for Nigeria to move from playing democracy to really running a democratic system of the people, for the people, and by the people.
Image Credit: guardian.ng