By Afe Babalola
Democracy is often defined as the government of the people, for the people and by the people. The “people” or “citizenry” therefore constitute an essential element of the concept of democracy. Take the “people” out of the equation and there will be a dysfunction in the whole political and social make up of the society.
In no other system of Government can the power of the people be felt than through the free exercise of their franchise as indicated by their choice of candidate on the ballot paper. This power of the people was recently demonstrated by millions of voters across the United States of America who through their votes, amongst other changes, returned the Democratic Party to the majority in the House of Representatives and in so doing expressed their disenchantment with some of the policies of the Donald Trump-led Republican Administration.
Since the advent of democracy or indeed any political system which gives some form of recognition to the right of the citizenry to play a role in electing governments, a key factor has always been the ability of the electorate to cast their vote in one form or the other in a manner that will be truly representative of their political views and inclinations.
Serching for perfect electoral system
The search in Nigeria for the perfect electoral system has brought about various experimenta-tions with different forms of voting. People have spoken or written about open ballot system, the modified open ballot system, the secret ballot system and the open secret ballot system, E-voting, zero party among others. Balloting itself started in ancient Greece, when citizens used pieces of broken pottery to scratch in the name of the candidate for election purposes. This was done because while papyrus was expensive and had to be imported from Egypt, broken pottery was abundant and virtually free.
The first use of paper ballots to conduct an election appears to have taken place in Rome in 139 BC, and the first use of paper ballots in North America was in 1629 within the Massachusetts Bay Colony to select a pastor for the Salem Church.
In the United States, initially paper ballots were pieces of papers marked and supplied by voters. Later on, political parties and candidates provided pre-printed ballots for voters to cast.
Every ballot counts
Whichever system is adopted by a country, the most important thing is that every ballot counts. In order words, the vote of the electorate should be the only consideration in deciding who is declared the winner of an election. It is for this reason that the Electoral Act makes adequate provisions for the process of election starting from registration of voters months before the election to the process of voting on election day. This is why Part IV of the Electoral Act comprising Sections 27 -77 covers the entire process from accreditation to declaration of results. It makes provisions for virtually every eventuality on election day including spoiled ballot papers, over voting, recount of votes etc.
However, to me the most important provisions are contained in Sections 45, 63, 64 and 65 of the Electoral Act, 2010. For ease of reference, I quote these relevant sections:
45(1) Each political party may by notice in writing addressed to the Electoral Officer of the Local Government or Area Council, appoint a polling agent for each polling unit and collation centre in the Local Government or Area Council for which it has a candidate and the notice shall set out the name and address of the polling agent and be given to the Electoral Officer at least 7 days before the date fixed for the election.
63 (1) The Presiding Officer shall, after counting the votes at the polling unit, enter the votes scored by each candidate in a form to be prescribed by the Commission as the case may be.
(2) The form shall be signed and stamped by the Presiding Officer and counter signed by the candidates or their polling agents where available at the polling unit.
- A candidate or polling agent may, where present at a polling unit when counting of votes is completed by the Presiding Officer, demand to have the votes recounted provided that the Presiding Officer shall cause the votes to be so recounted only once.
- After the recording of the result of the election, the Presiding Officer shall announce the result and deliver same and election materials under security to such persons as may be prescribed by the Commission.
By virtue of Section 45(1), each political party is entitled to appoint a polling agent for each polling unit and collation centre. Under Section 63, the Presiding Officer shall after counting the votes at the poling unit entered the votes scored by each candidate in a form to be described by the Commission. The form shall be signed and stamped by the Presiding Officer and Counter-sign by the candidates or their polling agents. The Presiding Officer shall give a copy to the Polling agents and the Police officer after it has been duly signed.
More importantly, the Presiding Officer shall count and announce the result at the polling unit to demonstrate the finality of result at polling unit. Section 64 provides that a candidate or polling agent may demand to have the votes recounted.
Results announced and counter-signed conclusive
It is clear beyond all doubts that the poling agents and even the candidates have statutory power not only to be present at the counting of the ballot but are entitled to receive a copy of the result which is duly signed by the Presiding Officer. These copies are often relied upon by Petitioners who seek to dispute either the legality of the conduct of the election conducted in a particular unit, or the overall number of votes credited to them after collation. Regrettably, despite existence of these signed copies given to agents, many courts disregard the results. I personally do not see why these copies given to agents should not be deemed conclusive of the result at the police stations.
In the United States of America and some other countries, exit polls which is a poll of voters taken immediately after they have exited the polling stations have historically served as a check against electoral fraud. As this is the case, I do not see why our own procedure which even takes things further by allowing results to be given to agents at every step of the electoral process, cannot be allowed to serve the same purpose.
As the elections draw closer, I urge INEC to sensitise the people on the critically important roles of a Presiding Officer and the Party Agents at every unit.
INEC should make public announcement that the counter-signed copies of results by the presiding officer should be regarded as conclusive evidence of the result at the polling units.
There is also no reason why a candidate should not be allowed to treat the collated results countersigned by the Presiding Officer as the authentic result thereby giving credibility to the result announced by INEC.
To me, if INEC makes such a declaration to the electorate, it will restore confidence in the results that are finally announced by INEC.