INEC and voter registration
The United States secretary of state under President Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, once said that the measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with but whether it is still the same problem you had last year. Solving one problem provides a springboard for solving another, which amounts to success. No one can claim success when the same problem remains unresolved.
Dulles’ statement provides a good insight into whether Nigeria is making progress or not. How many of the fundamental problems we had at independence still lingered more than five decades after? The assessment could be done on different aspects of our national life – healthcare, education, roads, water supply, electricity, etc. These and many more problems confronted the country at independence but still plague us. As a matter of fact, we were better off at independence than today. Those facilities that were provided then were functional and of high quality.
That is by the way. My focus here is about voter registration for general elections. How have the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) been dealing with this problem since 1999 when the current political dispensation began? Has it been successful or fraught with problems? What has been done to resolve the problems? And what has not been done that would have helped to remedy the situation?
The answers to these posers will help INEC deal with this particular issue that remains problematic during elections. From the outset, I would like to stress that good voter registration is vital for good election. The reason is that after all said and done – money spent and other preparations made, if the voter registration is flawed, then the entire election won’t be successful. That being the case, why is the issue of voter registration not given serious attention but only remembered a few months to election? Why is the voter registration done in a hurry – prospective voters are forced to flood the registration centres, where chaos and confusion ensue?
Since 1999, the issue of voter registration has not been adequately addressed. The same mistakes have repeatedly been made. During the 2015 general elections, for instance, INEC began what it called Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) in May 2014. That was roughly six months to the election date originally scheduled for February 21, 2015. There is no way all the eligible voters in Nigeria would be captured within a period of six months given the hiccups that must arise.
INEC reportedly registered more than 70 million voters in 2015, out of which about 28 million voted. But the actual number of eligible voters is about 60 million, meaning that the 70 million was incorrect. The 28 million who actually voted give a better insight into the true voting population. Otherwise, in a country of 170 million people, 70 million registered voters is less than half of the population and the 28 million who voted is far less than half. Compare this with America, where in 2012, more than 126 million people voted in the presidential election out of about 218 million eligible voters.
My aim is not to analyse the voting pattern of the last general elections but to show the importance of a well-structured voter registration. That INEC reportedly registered 70 million voters when the actual eligible voters were about 60 million showed that there was manipulation of the figures somewhere. And once the voter registration figure is flawed, the results would be questionable. That may explain why the 2015 general elections recorded the highest number of litigations ever with INEC recording 680 court cases, according to the INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu. The way out is for the electoral body to embark on a systematic and continuous voter registration. INEC has repeated the same mistake with regard to voter registration and it is time to correct it.
Constitutionally, after the 2015 general elections, the next election is in 2019. Going by this date, INEC has four years to prepare for the election. Apart from the thousands of eligible voters who could not register in 2015, thousands of others have attained the voting age of 18 and are now due for registration. What plans are there to ensure that eligible voters are registered? The strategy lies in making the registration process easier and wider coverage across the country.
In America, for instance, the National Voter Registration Act requires states to offer registration at motor vehicle departments, driver’s licence offices, disability centres, schools and public libraries. Mail-in-registration is also accepted whereby prospective voters fill the necessary forms and have them sent by mail.
In the United Kingdom, electors could register with a local authority all the year round. And in India, the government conducts what is called a summary revision of voters list every year. Citizens could apply to be included in the list at any time, and once approved; the person’s name is included in the list. In countries like Switzerland, voters are required to register with the municipal authorities at their place of residence. What is common in all of these is that voter registration is a continuous exercise and the registration is made easy and accessible.
Based on the foregoing, embarking on voter registration six months to a general election is not good enough. Thousands of prospective voters are disenfranchised. The Federal Government must establish an enduring framework to register voters all the year round. It is incumbent on the National Assembly (NASS) to enact a law, as part of the Electoral Act, mandating local government authorities, tertiary institutions, motor vehicles and driver’s licence offices, etc, to register voters. The right framework should be established for sending the names of those registered to INEC. INEC’s duty would be to collate and summarise the names and update the existing register.
INEC should erase the impression that voters won’t register until during election time. Granted that there won’t be large turnout on the spot, making voter registration open and easily accessible would relieve INEC of the heavy burden. It is unfortunate that the commission’s attention is diverted from the real job by unending litigations by aggrieved politicians. Given the low level of political maturity, there would be no end to the distraction of INEC from the courts. All the commission’s attention and resources should not be focused on court cases.