ANAMBRA POLL: How S/East political culture affected election – Mbamalu, Yiaga Africa Director

ANAMBRA POLL: How S/East political culture affected election – Mbamalu, Yiaga Africa Director

ANAMBRA POLL: How S/East political culture affected election – Mbamalu, Yiaga Africa Director

*Says BVAS deployed to 95 percent units, failed in 45

*Late distribution of PVCs disenfranchised many

*10 percent voter turnout in Anambra, lowest in history

Much as last Saturday’s governorship election in Anambra State didn’t live up to pre-election prognosis of a generally flawed exercise, so many aspects of the poll raised concerns about Nigeria’s electoral process.

Identifying the low points in the contest, in this interview, Cynthia Mbamalu, Programme Director of YIAGA Africa, a member of Civil Society Situation Room, who monitored the exercise, statistically identifies many areas, Independent Electoral Commission, INEC, parties, candidates and voters failed.

Among other things, she wants the commission to carry out a post-election audit of the technology deployed to avoid widespread technical hitches in subsequent elections.

Against all odds, the governorship election in Anambra held, defying the pre-election forecast of an uncertain poll. As someone, whose organisation participated in the process, what would you say about that?

Cynthia : It is important to commend the people of Anambra for coming out to vote. Before the election, there were major threats. There were a lot of worries if voters would come out to vote. Thankfully, the election was held and that is the success story. There was an election and voters came out. The fact that there was no major security breach on the election day, demands that we commend security agencies for working together to secure the environment, voters, materials and INEC officials. Another positive in that election is that it has been concluded and a winner has been declared. INEC kept through with its commitment to making certain innovations in the elections. Like every other process, it had its challenges.

The seamless nature of the election made it appear as if there weren’t challenges…

Cynthia : I would highlight our findings into three broad categories. The first is election logistics and administration. The second part is voter participation in the election. Under logistics and administration, one of the things we observed in the pre-election phase was that we saw the commission implementing its preparatory activities. And INEC actually stuck through to its calendar to implement those activities. However, there were challenges a week before the election. One of them was issues around Permanent Voters Card, PVCs. One of the indicators to track if you want to know INEC’s readiness for election is the commission’s ability to issue PVCs to registered voters.

And its ability to provide final figures on not just registered voters but numbers of PVCs collected. Going by the electoral guidelines, only those with PVCs can vote. So, it is usually important to have that figure of those with PVCs. However, two weeks before the election, PVCs for the newly registered voters were still not in Anambra. There were no PVCs for newly registered voters to collect. Based on YIAGA Africa’s observation, it was a few days before the election that some started collecting PVCs. That was quite wrong given that the election was just a few days away. Though INEC continued giving them out until Friday, the late collection affected some voters who had registered and were waiting to get their PVCs. Not all the PVCs were collected. That in itself disenfranchised voters who for no fault of theirs were not able to participate. Their PVCs were not delivered on time and they had a short window to collect their PVCs.

The fact that we didn’t have information on the numbers of PVCs collected before the election was also a low point. Till date, INEC has not released that data. All we are working with is data as it relates to 2019 because, in 2019, they released state by state collection rate of PVCs. We know that some PVCs were collected after the 2019 election and some were collected after new registration.

Polling Units 

The second observation still within election administration and logistics is the issue around polling units. Elections ordinarily are held at polling units. In fact, polling units are created specifically for voters to vote on election day. INEC had expanded the polling units, which is an expansion of voter access to polling units. This increased the number of polling units in Anambra. They added 1, 112 polling units. This increased the numbers to about 5, 720 polling units. However, in the week of the election, INEC had released a statement that 86 of those polling units do not have registered voters. We had places where there were no voters and voting didn’t take place there.

However, Yiaga  Africa’s observation with that process was not necessarily about the number of polling units without voters, rather it is about the imbalance in the distribution of voters. The key reason for expanding voter access is to decongest the polling units, bring units closer to the people, and eliminate the use of voting points. When you decongest, you make the election easier for officials to manage, bring polling units closer to the people and create some sense of balance in the distribution of voters.

But what we had seen, going by the analysis of the polling units in Anambra, highlighted that there was a major challenge in the framework of the creation of new polling units. One of the challenges in that framework was that some polling units had more than 750 registered voters. Some had up to 3000 registered voters. The newly created 5,720 units, about 953 of them had more than 750 registered voters. But you also have those that had registered voters between one and 49. That in itself wouldn’t have been a major problem if INEC had not set a benchmark of about700 and 750 registered voters for a polling unit. The idea is that no polling unit should have more than 750 registered voters. That was the reason for the new polling units.

To what extent did that affect the election, especially in the area of voter participation and access to polling units?

Cynthia : On election day, you could go to the same location where you have multiple polling units and you have a unit that has just four registered voters and you have another one with more than 750 registered voters. The question is that if it was properly done, there wouldn’t have been an imbalance. That created a problem on election day. In most of the polling units I visited, you could see the challenge in managing polling units with a large number of voters. Imagine if there was a high turnout. I don’t want to say thankfully the turnout was low. But it was easier to maneuver all of that. If we had a high turnout, it would have just been a nightmare.

Before the election, INEC had made a strong case about its readiness to deploy technology, but there was widespread failure of technology at the polls. What happened?

Cynthia : The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, BVAS, was introduced and Yiaga Africa supported its introduction. It was introduced to replace the Smart Card Reader. It has several functions for the election. BVAS is also used during registration because it has the INEC voter enrollment device. It is used for accreditation and result upload. On election day, it served the purpose of accrediting voters, verifying PVCs and biometric authentication. It does either fingerprint or facials depending on which works. It is also used for uploading results from polling units to INEC Result Viewing Portal. From our observation, it functioned better for the result upload regardless of the delay in the upload. We were also tracking the result portal on election day. By midnight, results of about 4000 polling units had been uploaded on the INEC portal. What that showed was that the BVAS functioned better for uploading results and I checked the platform on Monday morning and discovered that over 5000 had been uploaded. It was somehow slow compared to Edo and Ondo. It was faster in both states. It was just used for the upload of results in Edo and Ondo and it was called the Zpad. They had a trial with Isoko South Federal Constituency election.

This time, the BVAS integrates accreditation of voters and uploads of results on election day. It functions better for upload of results compared to authentication. Perhaps this may be because this is the first election where the BVAS is deployed statewide. Isoko South was basically in 84 polling units and that was a smaller number. One of the things we had observed was the fact that we had major challenges with the use of BVAS to accredit voters. Our data shows that BVAS was deployed to 95 percent of the polling units and was used.

But it malfunctioned in 45 percent of the polling units. And that is a huge number. By malfunctioning, we meant that at some point there was a fault. In some polling units, it was an issue of configuration. In one of the polling units I visited, the number of registered voters in that polling unit was 853, but the BVAS had records of 317 only. They had to call INEC’s technical support person. I was there when the person came. As of 11 am on election day, the person was still trying to reconfigure the BVAS because it is polling unit specific. You can’t use one BVAS in another polling unit. He had to reconfigure it with data for that particular polling unit. That in itself caused a problem. In fact, it was only in 15 percent of the polling units that the BVAS functioned all through.

In 39 percent, it malfunctioned but was fixed. In five percent it was not fixed nor replaced and the officials resorted to manual accreditation, which is against the guidelines. On election day, INEC released a statement, explaining that they had issues with software updates. However, the question is: for an election where the commission was test-running this deployment of new technology, the commission would have had a better plan to ensure the functionality of this device. Imagine if it was an election with a high turnout and you had this level of delay. That would have had a negative impact on the process.

In some of the locations, the BVAS was replaced at 12 noon or 1pm. In some places, the processing time was slow. As of 10 :50 am in one polling unit, officials had complained that only about 30 percent of voters that had come in were able to be accredited. That was the issue around the BVAS. Some voters even left. Some polling units had their election suspended because of the BVAS issues. It was a question of voters being disenfranchised because of faulty BVAS. The electoral commission needs to address that because it isn’t right for voters to be disenfranchised because of the malfunctioning of the device.

Is it correct to say that the failure of BVAS accounted for the low number of votes cast?

Cynthia : It contributed but not largely. When you look at those polling units, how many people turned out? How many people went back? The argument is even if it is one or two voters, the fact that some voters didn’t vote because of the BVAS is an issue. The idea of an election is one person one vote. And everyone has the right to vote once they are eligible to vote. Even if it is only 510 people, 10 is still fundamental. Because this is an innovation by the electoral commission, I think Anambra presents a lot of learning opportunities for INEC. The commission should go back to its post-election audit and review its system, its processes and its personnel. The failure wasn’t just the BVAS alone, the issue of capacity of the personnel also played out. Some of the adhoc officials didn’t understand how to use the device.

The electoral commission said some officials dropped off. Not everyone deployed was trained. There is a need for the electoral commission to ensure its contingency plans are sufficient enough. If they feel there is a likely threat to their deployment, it is important to communicate it ahead of time. In the week of the elections, there were reports that some officials were dropping off but INEC assured us that it wasn’t the case. Before the election, INEC managed expectations by saying everything was under control, but it didn’t work out. For instance, if the commission was able to communicate by saying there is a likelihood we wouldn’t see as many as four polling unit officials, it is a different communication from saying it has everything under control. This is one of the things the commission should learn from the election.

There is nothing wrong with the commission expressing its challenges and letting us know that it will address them than avoiding the challenges and giving the impression that everything is under control. We are hoping that in future elections, INEC should consider communication. In 2019, the commission said everything was under control but the election was postponed hours before election morning. I am highlighting this because I think as a commission that wants to build and inspire confidence, there is that need for some level of openness in conversation. That way, there would be a citizens/INEC partnership.

Deployment

One of the major observations was the late commencement of polls, which affected the process in different ways. It has become recurring, especially in Anambra. In 2017, during the Anambra governorship election, as of 30 minutes into the commencement of polls, only 28 percent of polling units had received materials to commence accreditation and voting. This time, in 2021, we also saw late deployment. By 7:30 only 17 percent of our polling units had officials present. And by 9: 30 am only 27 percent of the polling units had commenced accreditation and voting. And at noon, the number increased to 78 percent. By 12: 30, we still had 21 percent that was still not open on election day. Even during the supplementary poll in Ihiala, there was still late deployment. Beyond the late deployment, there was also a shortage of officials.

There was an average of two polling officials per polling unit while the guideline provided for four. And INEC had been consistent with three but we had just two this time. However, the turnout was low. This is the lowest so far for a governorship election. INEC figure put the participation at 10.27 percent. We had projected between 10 and 12 percent. The turnout actually falls within our margin. You can imagine that in an election with about two million registered voters, you had only 253, 000 accredited voters. The low turnout was not just about security alone because before now Anambra is one of the states with low voter turnout. In the 2013 governorship election, the turnout was less than 25 percent.

In 2019 it was 21 percent. In the 2019 presidential election, Anambra recorded barely 26 percent turnout. Now, we have 10 percent. Yes, security threats contributed to the reduction, what we have now is most likely beyond security. There was also loss of confidence in the process. If people do not trust the process, they may not want to participate. There was also the issue of political culture of citizens in the South-East. It is not just Anambra. We also need to look at it from a larger context. Turnout is declining nationally, but Anambra is one state where it is getting alarming. Regardless of the challenges, the election was relatively peaceful.

This election held after the Senate finally agreed to allow e-transmission of results in the amended Electoral Act. With your experience in Anambra, tell us how effective e-transmission was…

By midnight, about 4000 polling unit results were uploaded. That is a huge number. So, you can say 80 percent of the polling units’ results were uploaded. That is taking into consideration that some polling units didn’t have elections. If you look at the numbers uploaded, you can see that e-transmission was effective. I have people who were not in Anambra who were just on the result portal, tracking the results. INEC was actually uploading the result. It is important that this amendment was adopted in the Electoral Act. We saw that INEC actually achieved success using the BVAS to transmit results. The only responsibility now is for INEC to perfect that system. It should ensure that the lesson from Anambra informs the planning for the next elections. That level of post-election audit of the technology deployed shouldn’t be ignored. The transmission works. It was successful in Edo and Ondo last year. And we believe INEC would be working better to improve on it. The only reason I give this information is because of the Parallel Vote Tabulation, PVT, Yiaga Africa deployed in Anambra. That was the reason YIAGA Africa can give a statewide tabulation of the process. The PVT uses statistical principles and ICT to sample polling units and deploy observers to a representative random sampling of polling units across the states. It accesses the quality of voting, counting and verifies results.

 

Source: Vanguard 

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