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How INEC can step up online voter registration

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As speculations begin permutations and plots ahead of the 2023 general elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is also not resting on its oars, as it is working to validate its national register, include more eligible voters and expand voters access to polling units.

In one of its stakeholder’s meeting, INEC National Commissioner, Barrister Festus Okoye, announced that the continuous voter registration exercise for the 2023 general election would be done online.

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He listed the categories of persons expected to take part in the exercise to include Nigerians who have just attained the age of 18 and have never been registered to vote; any registered voter who has experienced some difficulties during accreditation in the previous elections; registered voters who wish to change their voting locations or whose Permanent Voter’s Cards (s) are damaged, lost or defaced; and those who wish to correct information such as names, date of birth and others in their cards.

To match words with actions, the commission on May 4, began a nationwide verification exercise of voting points and also followed it up with the training of its staff for the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) exercise set to begin tomorrow, Monday, June 28, 2021.

Okoye disclosed that online registration is meant to reduce crowd at registration centres in line with the COVID-19 pandemic protocols.

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However, despite the laudable innovation, some Nigerians have begun to entertain fears, saying this could be another way to insert fictitious names into the INEC register and as such become a calculated attempt to rig the 2023 general elections in favour of some parties ahead of time.

But Prof. Lai Olurode, a Professor of Sociology, University of Lagos (UNILAG) and former INEC National Commissioner, said it is a good development in the right direction.

According to the varsity don, the world is going digital and as such INEC should take advantage of digitalisation and social media to register more people, especially as it could be done on our android phones. Olurode said Nigeria and the commission should try to get it right this time. He observed that many organisations are already using online media for their various businesses and are also doing well and wondered why INEC should not follow suit.

Prof. Olurode disclosed that online registration will reduce the number of staff INEC would need to coordinate physical registration and the time voters would need to register too, aside from reducing cost and other logistics that would be expended on registration.

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“The innovation will also help remove the various bottlenecks created by INEC bureaucracy and the frustration for an average voter while undertaking physical registration. Of course, network challenges will be there, but I am sure after a while there would be smooth sailing,” he said.

Pointing out some of the things INEC needed to perfect the nation’s electoral system, he said the commission must clean its register, eliminate dead voters and stop the duplication of register.

He disclosed that under the former INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, the commission scrutinised its register to remove ghost names and under-aged voters, adding that with the online registration the cleansing would be easier and faster and with fewer challenges.

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Olurode disclosed that elections are about voters having the opportunity to register in the first instance, having the opportunity for their names to appear in the register and on the election day, and make them spend less time in their various voting units to cast their votes. He stressed that the commission should make life easier for the electorates by making them register online at no cost attached.

The former INEC National Commissioner called on the commission to begin to think of ways Nigerians in the Diaspora could be allowed to participate in the electoral system, especially now that it is going online. Drawing a comparison with the ATM card, the don noted that INEC should make casting votes in such a way that one can pull his/her PVC and connect to anywhere in the country to cast his/her vote, so long as such a person is duly registered to vote.

But while sharing a contrasting view, a former Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) of INEC in Southeast states of Anambra, Enugu and Ebonyi between 2011 and 2015, Dr. Lawrence Azubuike said the innovation is desirable and inevitable. He wondered whether the Nigerian environment is ideal for it now, considering the sensitivity of the nation’s voters’ registration and elections. He also desired to know if the system could be seen as a neutral concept, contextualised within the socio-political environment of the nation.

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Uncertain of the workability of the process, Azubuike asked: “How many prospective registrants or voters have access to the technology necessary for online registration? He observed that in an atmosphere of heightened mistrust, Nigeria needs a system that should enhance confidence and dissipate doubts.

According to him, this is not the best time to introduce such innovation, saying Nigeria still lacked adequate technology to undertake such a pivotal change in the nation’s electoral system.

He observed that the commission has not disclosed the details of the proposed plan to undertake online registration and it would be expedient to make such details known to the public to ensure the integrity of the process and make voters embrace it.

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Raising fears as to whether the innovation would not be abused and if voter’s information can be properly captured, he noted that if the online registration is not well managed by INEC official, politicians might have a field day registering whomever they want.

He said: “Those who have access to computers and other facilities may exert undue influence on those who do not have such facilities and could, through this means, disenfranchise many people, especially those assumed to be in opposition to their party. These are really important issues that need concrete, transparent and verifiable answers.

“It may not be sufficient to merely assure that double registration or any other infraction of the rules will not be tolerated. Given the state of our technological development, online registration is so prone to abuse that it can substantially distort the electoral process.”

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Dr. Azubuike observed that the nation’s electoral process has not always enjoyed collective admiration or even acceptance, stressing that the commission should ensure voter registration is continuous and routine.

He called for the consolidation of some of the changes the commission has introduced so far, while drawing from the gains to further improve on performance, instead of going into a new innovation like online voter registration.

According to him, doing these will enable the commission to entrench and sustain some of the progress made in the electoral system, aside from upholding the democratic and political ethos of the country.

Azubuike observed that although technology has become a feature of modern life, its adaptation must be gradual and be guided by the circumstances of each country or individual, stressing that the nation’s technology has not advanced to the extent that voter’s registration could be done online.

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