By Farai Chirimumimba
The national voters’ roll inspection began in earnest on 19 May and ended yon 29 May with stakeholders having urged eligible voters to register and verify their details. Over 20, 000 election officials were reportedly deployed to some 10,807 inspection centres to register new voters and to allow already registered voters to check and update their details in preparation for the July/August harmonised elections.
I would like to express my appreciation to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), political leaders and parties, the media, civil society and other stakeholders who have raised awareness of the inspection period and the importance of a reliable, accurate, and up-to-date voters’ roll for free, fair and credible elections.
It was an opportunity for all registered voters to check their details, and all unregistered eligible voters to visit the main ward inspection centres to register. Voters visiting inspection centres were required to carry IDs or passports. Inspection centres opened from 7am to 5pm for the duration of the project. In terms of details inspection, there is no doubt that the project was a success with over 4,7 million voters having checked their details using various platforms by 26 May as ZEC targeted 5,4 million voters.
A credible vote is a key to the restoration of democratic legitimacy following a coup last November that ousted long time ruler Robert Mugabe after 37 years of reign. It is also crucial to unlocking badly needed financial aid and repairing relations with Western powers. Previous elections in Zimbabwe have been marred by allegations of vote rigging, with manipulation of the register of voters frequently at the heart of the controversy.
Having completed the inspection process, ZEC is running against time to compile the final voters’ roll with 5.4 million people ahead of the July/August general election. The credibility of the 2018 poll hinges on ZEC ensuring that the voters roll meets acceptable norms and standards, as prescribed in the Electoral laws and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) principles and guidelines governing democratic elections. ZEC’s strategic objective going forward must be to ensure an up-to-date and comprehensive voters roll ahead of every statutory election. Compliance with electoral best practices should be the commission’s foremost priorities ahead of the general elections.
There are however, a number of issues that ZEC need to threaten out before the harmonised elections. One is why they so it fit to change the law to close voter registration two days after proclamation of election date, a process that traditionally closed 12 days after nominations court seating. ZEC should also be transparency on the exact number of centres that it created. For instance ZEC said they created 10, 807 centres a figure that was disputed by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) on its first update on voter inspection last week. In 2013 harmonised elections ZEC created 9, 670 polling centres meaning that this year there might be a whooping 1, 137 more polling centres.
In my preliminary report last week l noted that ZEC removed polling centres at traditional sites namely Unit L shops, C-junction and Jambanja market which are areas of high human mobility all in Chitungwiza South. One wonders where there are going to create these new 1, 137 polling stations. Is this a mechanism for rigging? This is one area that will bring the whole credibility of the general election into the spot light if ZEC is not transparency on how it has come up with the new stations and where they will be located. ZEC on their twitter account @ZECzim however gave an unconvincing reason for creating new polling stations: “Additional polling stations not completely new creation but split polling stations (A, B, C etc) created within already existing ones to maintain the maximum threshold of each polling station at 1000 people. This is meant to convenience the electorate on voting day.”
There is no doubt lack of voter education disenfranchising potential voters. On my visits to many inspection centres l only met a group of four voter educators once. I also observed that the registration process is being hampered by the scarcity of commissioners of oaths, resulting in potential registrants having to leave centres to certify their documents. Voter education drive should also inform transferring registration to another centre within a ward, or constituency, objections, making claims and deletion of dead voters. In all these aspects ZEC was found wanting as some people did not have sound knowledge of procedure to effect changes or register as voters.
Requirements for voters to register
Proof of residence is one of the basic requirements for voter registration and many potential voters who are not home owners in urban areas struggle to fulfill this requirement. Despite ZEC having a list of several documents that can be used as evidence for example affidavit, officers at registration centres are in a habit on insisting on only utility bills in one’s name. This has the net effect of disenfranchising eligible voters who otherwise would have used an affidavit as an alternative. At Seke 2 High in Chitungwiza an officer was insisting on utility bills ignoring the other alternatives eligible registrants can use.
Distance to registration centres
There was a systematic practice of illegally disenfranchising possibly thousands of eligible voters by ZEC due to the unreasonable distance that people had to travel to register. For instance in Chitungwiza, I found that new registrants near Zengeza High 1 and 2 had to travel to Nyatsime business centre where the BVR kit was located a distance of up to 5 kilometres to register. The situation was even dire in Seke rural where the BVR kit was at Jonasi School a distance of up to 8 kilometres for some who wanted to register. In such situation some eligible voters l met gave up because of the distance.
Accessibility of centres by PWDs
I noted with regret that most centres were inaccessible to persons with disability (PWDs), for example Aquatic Complex, Fungisai primary school, Seke 1 and 2 High being the most inaccessible centres that l visited in Chitungwiza. As the general election beckon, ways should be found to accommodate PWDS so that they can exercise their democratic right to choose representatives.
Gender mix-up for those who used USSD and other remote platforms to confirm
There should be discussion on questions whether a gender mix-up will serve to invalidate a voter on the on election day considering by 24 May, ZEC said that 819,935 had used the USSD code *265# and 3 256 440 had received bulk SMS. These voters did not physical checked their details when it is public knowledge that these platforms are inconclusive for instance they do not mention the gender or provide the factual characteristics of the voter.
Will people who find themselves with for instance a gender mix-up be allowed to vote? Yes says ZEC Commissioner Netsai Mushonga on her Twitter account @NMasivanda: “Correct full name, ID number correct and correct polling station. That’s the information we sent you. Even if your DOB (date of birth) and sex is wrong you have a valid ID (sic) and we can verify there! Let’s learn from the past but not live in it!” I believe Commissioner Mushonga is being blind to the obvious implications of gender mix-up to the credibility of the elections. How many losing candidates will be willing to accept results when they are aware that several or many persons with gender mix-up who were allowed to vote? Is this not the same case as allowing persons with voter slips to vote? A system which was roundly condemned in the 2013 general elections?
In conclusion, although much progress has been made but we remain highly conscious that a huge undertaking remains in order to meet Southern Africa Development Community (SADC principles and guidelines governing democratic elections. The absence of clean voters’ roll remains a critical risk to the integrity of elections and that can lead to a number of objections on the basis of the accuracy of the voters’ roll. We now await President Emmerson Mnangagwa to proclaim election date in terms of Section 144 (1) as read with Section 158 (1) (a) of the Constitution.
- ZEC should consider scrapping proof of residence requirement as it is blocking other people from registering to vote. It is logistically impossible to have a commissioner of oaths at each and every BVR centre. In the meantime ZEC should advise official’s centres not to only insist on utility bills in potential registrant name as people can also use affidavits as proof of residence. I witnessed an officer at Seke 2 High School insisting on the former when in actual fact people could use other methods of proof.
- There is need for ZEC to be visible in voter education as it is critical for a free, fair and credible election. Putting up posters and placing a few adverts on radio or television is not enough. ZEC should invest more on foot soldiers in the form of voter educators. Nothing can beat a one on one conversation between voter educators and voters and potential eligible voters.
- The lack of coordination of the process of mobile voter registration and that of mobile identity documents has possibly left citizens in some parts of the country short changed and crying foul. ZEC should consider having the mobile identity documents project a permanent feature as long as the voter registration is still continuing outside the district centres.
- There is no doubt that there was a possible disenfranchising of potential voters because of the distance they had to walk to the centre with the BVR kit as noted in Seke rural and Zengeza West. In future ZEC should consider locating the BVR kit on a central location for easy access.
- The voters’ roll should be accessible for inspection by the public to increase transparency and confidence.
- ZEC should also consider an external audit of the voters’ roll. The European Union’s overtones to help pay an external auditor are a welcome gesture that will boost confidence ahead of the general election.