By Omeiza Ajayi
ABUJA: In the wake of lifestyle changes occasioned by the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Independent National Electoral Commission INEC has said it would be using more technological tools in discharging its mandate, disclosing of its resolve to pioneer electronic voting in the country by 2021.
This was as the electoral umpire decried the rising cost of elections in the country, saying it would be liaising with the National Assembly to see how political parties can nominate replacements for dead representatives in line with a Supreme Court judgment that votes belong to the parties and not individuals.
INEC disclosed this in a 17-page document released Monday in Abuja which was tagged, “Policy on Conducting Elections in the Context of the Covid-19 Pandemic”, and signed by its Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu.
The commission also added that voters without face masks would be disallowed from voting in the forthcoming governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states.
While the ruling All Progressives Congress APC said it would study the policy to come up with an appropriate reaction, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria SAN, Chief Mike Ahamba said while the policy on bye-elections could reduce costs, it could, however, assume a dangerous dimension if not well handled.
A former Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Obong Victor Attah however kicked against it, saying the electorate vote for individuals and not just parties, adding that the development could create vagabonds in power.
Cost of Bye-Elections
INEC said its records showed that it is only in 10 percent of all bye-elections conducted since 2015 that the party which originally won the election went ahead to lose, saying it would engage federal lawmakers and other stakehokders to explore ways of defraying the costs associated with bye-elections.
“As already announced by the Commission, the dates for the Governorship elections in Edo and Ondo States remain 19th September 2020 and 10th October 2020 respectively. Dates for the four postponed bye-elections in
Bayelsa, Imo and Plateau States, as well as other bye-elections that become due during the COVID-19 pandemic will be announced by the Commission following its established procedures.
“The Commission will engage with the legislature and other stakeholders to explore ways of responding to the rising
cost of conducting frequent bye-elections, especially in consideration of the Supreme Court position that votes belong primarily to political parties, as
well as the Commission’s records, which show that only in 10% of all bye-elections since 2015 did the party that won originally lose the election.
“The Commission will engage relevant authorities, including the legislature, to designate election as an essential service to enable the Commission function effectively in times of national emergency”, INEC said in the policy.
e-Voting in 2021
The Commission stated that it would suspend the Continuous Voter Registration CVR due to the Covid-19 pandemic while by 2021, it would pilot the use of electronic voting in the country.
The policy states that INEC shall; “Suspend the Continuous Voter Registration CVR for the time being to prevent the health risks associated with it in the context of COVID-19. 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”.
No voting without face masks
INEC also announced far-reaching changes to the voting process, saying, among other things, that voters would not be allowed to exercise their franchise without face masks.
It said; “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. Anybody on the outer queue by 2.30 pm shall be allowed to vote, in line with the Commission’s regulations.
“Prior to the commencement of polls, the Presiding Officer or Assistant Presiding Officer (VP) shall ensure that the contents of the Voter Code of Conduct (VCC) are read out loudly to voters and that the VCC Poster is pasted at the Polling Unit.
“Face masks shall be mandatory at Polling Units and all election locations. Any voter without a face mask shall be turned away from the Polling Unit. However, the Assistant Presiding Officer (APO) II in checking the Register of Voters may request removal of mask to prevent voter impersonation.
“There shall be periodic disinfection of chairs, tables and work areas, as well as adequate ventilation at the Polling Units. The SCR shall be cleaned with the prescribed disinfectant after each voter’s fingerprint is read.
“Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other safety materials shall be provided for polling staff. At the close of polls, polling unit staff shall ensure that materials are properly disinfected, carefully packaged and that used PPE are hygienically packaged or disposed of.
“Reduce the number of accredited Observer Groups based on past performance and compliance with the Commission’s guidelines for election observation. This is to reduce crowding and therefore health risks at election venues”.
In the policy, INEC noted that the most immediate challenge that COVID-19 poses to the electoral process is health-related, adding that it has taken these steps in order to protect voters, election officials and other stakeholders in the electoral process.
While all protocols of the Presidential Taskforce PTF on Covid-19 would be adhered to, INEC said Methylated Spirit and cotton wool will be provided for the disinfection of the Smart Card Readers (SCRs) after the fingerprint of each voter is read. Those who show symptoms of Covid-19 at election venues shall be evacuated immediately.
We are studying the situation -APC
When contacted, National Publicity Secretary of the APC, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu said the party would take time to study the new policy once it is in the public domain before coming up with a response.
“I will not respond immediately. I do not have to jump into that. We will study it very well and then respond”, he said.
It’s good but dangerous – Ahamba
Chief Ahamba said the policy is good but should not be implemented without wide consultations. According to him, in the United States of America, when a lawmaker dies, it is the governor of the state who would have the responsibility of nominating a replacement.
He said; “The party that sends a wrong or unqualified person should suffer for it. They should scrutinize their own list. I remember when I was in NPN, we made very strong scrutiny of every candidate that came to contest elections under NPN. The irony of the fact is that those we disqualified in the NPN eventually got to the House through the NPP. Let them (INEC) be very careful. When they do it, they should expose it to a thorough debate.
“If INEC does well in the first election, there will hardly be a bye-election except in case of death. In the US, if such a vacancy occurs, what happens is that the governor of the state from which the person has come will nominate a replacement. You know they are more gentlemanly, they will nominate somebody from a party that has lost its representative. He is not bound to so do, but so far, they have done so. But here, if you do it in Nigeria, they (governors) will nominate somebody from their own party even if they lost the earlier elections. If you allow it here, they will kill the other person and take over. For example, I used to support Independent Candidature when there was decency and manliness in politics. My father went to the House in 1961 as an Independent Candidate. Today, if you allow it, you would find 10 presidential independent candidates in the area of the likely person to win, just to reduce his votes. We have lost a lot of honour in the way we play politics. So, when you make a law, you have to take certain things into consideration and not all these copy and paste.
“So, we have to be very careful because we have this penchant of converting what was meant to bring order into disorder. That is our problem. So, before they make any of such changes, they have to be very careful. But that can be a good way out, let the party that produced the last candidate send a replacement since the Supreme Court has held that votes belong to the party. It is a good idea”.
It creates Vagabonds in power -Attah
Attah on his part disagreed with the plan, saying the people should be allowed to vote in those to represent them during bye-elections.
According to him, if INEC and the National Assembly would saddle the parties with such roles, they should as well disallow contestants during elections so that the electorate would vote only for political parties who would, in turn, appoint those they want to occupy such seats.
“The issue of representation, you do not transfer it to the party. You send people to represent you. The more I think about this, the more reason I have for supporting the Parliamentary System because it is the people that are being represented and they must be people that they can look at and send to go and represent them.
“I have heard people say, ‘ah, if that party brings a wrong candidate, we won’t vote for him’. A candidate is the issue because the party can go and bring a vagabond just because we have voted for them. It has to be the person because people have to support who they want and not the party. If a party brings up a wrong candidate, the people should be able to reject that person.
“If we want the parties to nominate replacements, then why do we have to even name candidates? We should just list the parties and tell the people to vote whichever party they want and when we finish, the parties would name anybody to such positions. That is not the issue. Representation is about the person. The important thing is to ensure that elections are conducted properly”, Attah added.