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Opinions of Saturday, 7 February 2015

Columnist: Agambila, Gheysika

Ghana’s next last election

By Dr. Gheysika A. Agambila

Unless essential changes are made to our electoral procedures, Ghana’s next election in 2016 may well be our last democratic election. In response to the NPP’s petition against the Electoral Commission’s (EC) declaration of the presidential results in 2012, the NDC’s General Secretary said that ‘any fool could go to court’. This is true. This ‘foolishness’ will not be repeated. The Supreme Court will never again (at least in our life time) be burdened with adjudication of an electoral petition.
Observers must be worried. They are worried that the EC will not make the reforms necessary for fair and transparent elections. Ghanaians are worried because those who work at the EC are, to paraphrase Hon. Alban Bagbin, ‘also Ghanaians’; and the EC is not the most nationalist of institutions: the flag of Ghana does not flutter at the EC’s vast headquarters complex in Accra. The EC, apparently, takes delight principally in implementing those reforms with procurement opportunities: more Biometric Verification Devices (BVDs), creation of more polling stations, more training of its permanent and temporary staff, etc. The EC appears to loathe implementing needed reforms in the collation process.
In the 1969 Election, while a Secondary School student, I was employed by the Electoral Commission as a Polling Assistant. A wooden ballot box was used in that election. While this no doubt provided significant employment to Ghanaian carpenters, most of us mere mortals cannot see through a wooden box. We have come a long way from that opaque process. In the election of 1969, we took the notion of ‘secret ballot’ literally: a voter was shepherded into an ill-lit classroom to do his/her own thing where God was the only witness. Many reforms have been implemented since 1992 to ensure free and transparent elections at the polling stations. These reforms have addressed ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, manipulation of the written record in the Polling Station Results Form (PSRF) aka Pink Sheet, etc.
But much dangerous darkness still surrounds our electoral procedures. The only thing that is transparent now about Ghana’s elections is queues of civic-minded Ghanaians lining up from dawn to dusk to collect ballot papers to cast their votes and the subsequent public counting of those votes at the Polling Stations when darkness begins to fill the land. After the public counting of the ballot papers, the murkiness begins. The EC says elections are won and lost at the Polling Stations. This is only half of the truth. The other half is that elections are won and lost at the Collation Centers. If you keep your eyes (or ‘shine’ them as is popularly said in Ghana) only on the Polling Stations, you’ll suffer ma tricki wu at the Collation Center.
Give me a minute to explain the bureaucracy. There are as many Collation Centers as there are Constituencies; i.e. there are 275 of them. The EC officer in charge of a Collation Center is the Returning Officer (RO). The RO reports to a District Electoral Officer, who in turn reports to a Regional Director. The Regional Director is accountable to the headquarters of the EC. The Chairman of the EC superintends the whole shebang. The EC Chairman is the Returning Officer for the Presidential election. So, like his ROs, he has his Collation Center. The Chairman is the leader of 6 other Commissioners. The two Deputies are fulltime, and the rest are part-time. The Deputy Commissioners retire at 65, while the Chairman retires at 70 years. By the way, those who are resisting the Constitutional reforms that have now stalled should wait till the President appoints a new Chairman aged 35!
The Chairman of the EC is, effectively, the employer of the ROs because he is the one who signs their appointment letters. The ROs are the only persons who can “declare” the results of the elections in their Constituencies. Similarly, the EC Chairman is the only person who can “declare” the results of the Presidential election. This means that the media, CSOs and other political actors can do all the collation they want till hell freezes over, that doesn’t mean diddly, if their collation is at variance with what the RO or EC Chairman declare.
At the end of the poll, Presiding Officers (the bosses at the Polling Stations) return the ballot boxes (and the results form) to the RO. The first point of murkiness is that the EC has refused to make the election results, as contained in the PSRF (“pink sheet”) public. The EC could paste copies of these sheets at the Collation Centers or have electronic copies transmitted to CSOs, the media and political parties. But they will not do it. If you asked the EC for results forms for any of the previous elections for research purposes, you will be stone-walled. The question is, why is the EC hiding the PSRF (“pink sheet”)? What is it the EC is hiding? If the public had copies of the PSRF (“pink sheet”), individuals could do their own collation to confirm the EC’s declaration. And this is what the EC does not want. But this is a reform the EC must undertake if the ship of state is not to sink.
There is a paucity of guidance on when collation should start. Whereas the time for voting at the Polling Station is specified as 7 am till 5 pm, no such standard is established (per the EC’s training manual) for Collation Centers. Additionally, there is no indication in the EC’s procedures, of who must be present before collation starts. And then there is ambiguity as to those who may be present in the room in which the collation takes place. The EC’s manual says that “party executives” are allowed in this room. Some parties have up to 16 Constituency executives. If there are 4 parties in a constituency, do the arithmetic on the congestion in the typically small room. The number of executives per party should be specified. Representatives of Civil Society Organizations and other observers, who are often quick to declare that an election was free and fair just because they were able to eat their breakfast or lunch or swill their chilled mineral water at a polling station without hindrance, must focus their observation at the Collation Centers, because that is where the real action is.
Collation is the process by which the results of the election, as contained in the results form, are transposed into a form called the Results Collation Form (RCF). This RCF lists all the polling stations (by number and name) and the results for all the candidates, including spoilt ballots. There are separate sheets of the RCF for the Parliamentary and Presidential election. The problem with this form is that it does not contain a row which shows the columnar totals, i.e. the totals for each of the candidates. Yet it is the total for each of the candidates, which is entered into the Constituency Summary Results Sheet (CSRS). Since the parent document, the RCF, does not have this total, the question that begs for an answer is, what is the source of the summary data? The RCF should be modified to capture total ballots for each of the candidates.
There are several EC collation procedures here that must be changed. First, there have been recommendations that the EC should make copies of the Results Collation Form available to political parties to enhance transparency. Guess what? The EC has never done it, and doesn’t want to do it. We will ask the question again and again: what is the EC trying to hide? If anyone dragged the EC kicking and screaming to the fountain of transparency, they would have saved a nation.
The RCF can be a large document, but it is not beyond human ingenuity to carbonize this document so that the parties can have copies. Many phones can now make take pictures or scan documents. In addition, the RO has two Results Collation Officers who do “parallel” collation with a computer at the Collation Center. This computer could transmit the details of the collation as presented in the RCF to CSOs, the media, political parties, and various websites, including the EC’s website.
Many of the issues that were part of the Presidential Petition of 2013 could have been resolved at the Collation Centers. These include over-voting, voting without ‘biometric verification’ (a term as clear as mud), no signatures of Presiding Officers, etc. Indeed, there ought to be operational clarity on what is “biometric verification”. For instance, is “biometric verification” the BVD’s ‘verified!’ or the voter’s biometrics in the paper register?
The EC’s own rules indicate that voting can take place for up to 7 days. So why is the EC always in a rush to declare results, with the retort ‘go to court!’ to those who are aggrieved? If I am a Returning Officer who has been compromised, the one way I can earn my keep is to rush to declare. I will rush to collate and declare because I know the parties will not have all their pink sheets while I am collating. If I delay collation, the parties will gather all their pink sheets and challenge my collation, but if I rush they won’t have a basis to challenge me while I collate. If they challenge me after I have “declared,” I will tell them to ‘go to court’ and take off under muscular police escort from the Collation Center. I will then take refuge in an out-of-town hotel and wait for the electoral dust to clear. The EC must not rush to declare the results of the elections. It must make time and take time for the resolution of issues. If voting can go on for 7 days, why cannot declaration be done by the 7th day?
There are other reforms that are important; such as those involving biometric verification, “excess” voting and its consequences, etc. But I have focused on the Collation Center processes because the reforms there are crucial to the survival of Ghana’s democracy.
EC! Yo-o!