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Opinions of Thursday, 13 June 2013

Columnist: Agambila, Gheysika

EC Must Reform Now

By Dr. Gheysika Agambila

Ghana’s Electoral Commission (EC) has been an integral part of our commitment to democratic rule since 1992. Goaded by mature political leadership, it has acceded to electoral reforms that have brought a measure of transparency to our election processes. We have come a long way since 1969 when a ballot box was a wooden box and voting was done in a darkened classroom. But the credit for our democratic development and the continued peace of our nation must go, first, to the maturity of our political leaders and second, to our people. In other African countries in which such maturity has been lacking, electoral disputes have degenerated rapidly into civil unrest and/or war. But we must not take this tolerance for electoral loss for granted or believe that it will continue to be manifest no matter the electoral circumstances.

If we leave the EC to its own devices, it will lead us to the brink of political disaster as it has now done. The destiny of our country now hangs perilously on the thin thread of the judicial system. The EC is probably as well-run as all our other public sector institutions such as the civil, education and police services. Without major reform of the counting process, our nation is hurtling to disaster.

THE ELECTORAL PROCESS

Our electoral process can be divided into two phases: the voting process and the counting process.

The Voting Process

The voting process has seen so much reform that it is now quite fair and transparent. Eligible voters are allowed to register without intimidation or much hindrance. The Voters’ Register is displayed for all to check it for accuracy. On Election Day, a transparent ballot box is displayed and records are kept to ensure that a good record of the process is kept. Political party agents and international observers are allowed to observe the voting process. In the evening, assuming darkness does not hamper proceedings in a village temporary polling booth, counting of ballots is done in the open. Let me state parenthetically that when international observers claim our election was free and fair, that opinion must be restricted only to what they could observe, i.e. the voting process. They cannot express opinions on things they have not seen. In crude electoral systems, even the voting processes are characterized by violence, intimidation, opaque voting systems, etc. Not so Ghana.

I therefore recommend only four changes to our voting process.

First, there is no earthly reason why Voter Registration should be source of undue stress to our national energy and treasury. At each General Election, the Register is constructed from scratch. The Register should be augmented only by those who have attained the age of 18 years since the last election, and the indolent who failed to register the last time. There is no reason why registration cannot be done continually at an office that is open daily for that purpose.

Second: in rural areas, polling stations are so far apart that one is amazed at the commitment of old feeble men and women walking vast distances to cast their vote in a process that pays scant attention to their daily needs. No one should be required to walk more than a mile to vote.

Third: In the last election, the EC insisted that political parties should submit the names of their agents for training. As it is said in Ghana, ‘is it their concern?’ This was not a requirement in previous elections. And we did very well then, thank you. Look at what their training has done for us this time around! My unethical cynical mind tells me that the EC wants the list to make it available to others. Training of party agents is and ought to be, the business of the political parties. The EC should mind its own business, such as conveying their staff to the polling stations and making sure they are paid!

Four: My last recommendation on the voting process goes to the parties. The EC now wants to argue that Party Agents (PAs) are “agents” in the strict legal sense. That is, they represent their principal (the candidate for election) and if they are derelict in the discharge of their duties, the EC cannot be held accountable even for its own dereliction. Is the EC then saying that without PAs it has no responsibility to conduct free and fair elections? Is the EC implying that anyone who can’t organize PAs (a thing done at significant financial cost) should not stand for election in Ghana? The EC’s standard response to objections, “if you’re not satisfied, go to court”, will not do.

But given the EC’s position on PAs, it is important that political parties give more attention to the selection and training of PAs than to attendance at funerals and the holding of rallies. Political parties should recruit agents nationally and deploy them strategically. In areas where a party is weak, it is not likely to find loyal agents. In my constituency, more than 20% of PAs refuse, in election after election, to present the polling station results sheets (now called Pink Sheets) on the evening of the collation. And yet we know that the elections are won and lost at the Polling Station.

This brings me conveniently to the second phase of our electoral process: the vote counting process.

The Vote Counting Process

The ballot papers of a Polling Station are poured on a surface and counted in the plain view of those who choose to be present and vigilant. In my experience, the result for each candidate is first recorded on a scrap paper. These counts are transferred to the Results Sheet when all the counting has been done. At this point, the crowd around the Polling Station begin to disperse, some jubilating others sobbing in their hearts. Where PAs have been compromised, it is not inconceivable that transcription “errors” will be ignored by such PAs. And no one will know, especially if such a compromised PA decides to drink pito and hand over his Pink Sheet the next day when he is sober and collation is conveniently over.

At the Collation Center where the Pink Sheets are tabulated to ascertain a Parliamentary winner and for the Presidential result to be conveyed to Accra, the candidate is allowed two agents. If these agents fail in their duties, the collation that is done and the results that are announced may be inconsistent with the actual vote (which was free and fair).

The Constituency results sheets are sent the regional EC office where they are faxed to the EC Headquarters in Accra. In my mind, a fax is like a photocopy; it can vary significantly from the original and the recipient may be clueless; unless the recipient has an institutionalized independent means of verifying the authenticity of the fax or photocopy received.

It is therefore clear that an electoral process that has a free and fair voting process, but an opaque vote counting process is flawed. Ghana’s electoral process, ipso facto, is flawed. It is flawed because the results of the counting process have been hidden by the EC. If you demand from the EC polling station results for any constituency in any of the elections we have had, you will not get them. Why is the EC hiding the basic data that determines who won or lost the election? Does the EC have cause to hide data paid for by Ghana’s taxpayers and our development partners? And the cost of our elections will shock most Ghanaians. And the EC is given a free hand to conduct free and fair procurement! To ensure that our elections are truly free and fair, the disinfectant of broad daylight transparency must be applied to the documents that record the counts done in plain sight. The Polling Station results must be posted on the internet and displayed at the collation center so that anyone with a phone or calculator can go and make their own collation, and which must tally with the EC’s constituency level collation. A similar thing must be done for constituency level collation results that are transmitted to EC Headquarters. The results for each Constituency must similarly be posted on the internet and displayed at EC Headquarters so that any citizen so minded can do her own collation of the Presidential results. Polling station level data must be available to researchers.

These reforms will enhance our democracy and preserve the integrity of our nation. These reforms must be done now; there is neither time nor reason to wait.