Citizens Express Disappointment in NEC’s Technical BVR Glitches

By Tina S. Mehnpaine

Chairperson of the National Elections Commission (NEC), Davidetta Brown Lansannah

Dozens of citizens who took part in the just ended Biometric Voters Registration (BVR) exercise are expressing serious reservation on the process, according to our reporter who spoke to many of the voters took up time to report.

Stephen Thomas was excited when the National Elections Commission (NEC) introduced an online registration portal where he could enter his information, download the rapid response code, and then take it to any nearby registration center to obtain his card.

Thomas thought he had overcome the difficulties of standing in long lines and in the sweltering sun. He completed his biometric voter registration (BVR) online to simply pick up his card.

“After registering online, I thought I was just going to get my card in a few minutes, but aahh the sun nearly killed me, ” he narrates.

Simple as Thomas thought it was, he spent eight hours at Carmel Elementary and Junior High School because the solar panel was off to print his card out so he became irate and decided to boycott.

Phase one of the biometric voter registration in Montserrado, Grand Bassa, Bomi, Margibi, Gbarpolu, and Grand Cape Mount counties was marred by constant technical constraints that discouraged many from getting registered.

Apart from waiting in long lines and the shortage of cards, there were no seats or canopies to host them in the event of rain or if they got tired standing up.

“I left my four children home and I needed to come back home so I was not able to stay for the whole day,” said Teta Johnso.

The solar panel the NEC staff were using to power the biometric devices took a long to come on. Most of the time when the machine does turn on, people have already left.

These technical problems were attributed to some of the NEC’s temporary registration staff’s poor comprehension, according to Daviatta Browne Lansanah, NEC’s chairwoman.

“The introduction of new technology comes with limited knowledge and, as such, glitches do occur. Such challenges are not peculiar to Liberia.”

However, she said that challenges were being addressed with the deployment of a mobile technical team to all the voter registration centers across the six counties to address each concern that may arise.

But the issue continues, frustrating many qualified voters.  To speed up the voting process and lessen the possibility of double registration and other types of voter fraud, the Commission opted to adopt biometric equipment for voter registration.

This comes after the Commission faced pressure to shut down its optical manual registration (OMR) system. Many believe that the OMR system, which is frequently marred by controversy and mistrust, does not enhance the transparency and accountability of election processes.

“BVR is new. It is a first for Liberia. That makes it exciting and means that everyone is learning how to use the new system – NEC and voters alike,” said Stephanie Lynn, Chief of Party at Democracy International in an email. 

Lynn believed the BVR is a significant achievement that will advance Liberia’s election transparency and fairness by cutting down on false or duplicate registrations thereby ensuring that each eligible Liberian can only vote once.

Democracy International is implementing the Elections and Democracy Activity (EDA), a USAID-funded project designed to help Liberia overcome the most serious threats to its democracy and foster inclusive, sustainable democratic political development. The project works with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), the National NEC, and the Government of Liberia (GOL) to cultivate accountable elected representatives who govern in the interest of their constituents.

The EDA has three interrelated objectives which include: increasing leadership of marginalized groups in political processes, improving civic knowledge and sense of civic duty, and advancing self-reliance of the NEC and civil society organizations to independently manage and observe all stages of the electoral cycle.

According to Lynn the EDA conducted focus groups with regular Liberians in late March in Montserrado, Lofa, and Nimba counties using social science best practices for qualitative research. “We learned that most respondents are excited to register and to receive a voter registration card.”

Announcing the preliminary results, NEC Chair Browne-Lansanah said, a little over 1.4 million people. “ Of this number, 711,410 are females while 723,799 are males.” 

All elections for elective public seats must be held by NEC, which is also in charge of overseeing the Republic of Liberia’s election laws and their administration. The biometric was seen as a safe route to produce a credible voter roll void of double registration.

A pilot and test of the equipment on a smaller scale were never carried out, despite calls to do so to identify any potential issues that would arise before the nationwide ongoing voter registration, which ends on April 9, in six counties.

“If people get impatient and leave because the system breaks down and they don’t come back to register, we may not register enough eligible voters,” says Oscar Bloh, an expert on the Liberian electioneering process.

Bloh, the Chair of the Election Coordinating Committee (ECC), which is the country’s largest election monitoring group, has previously warned about similar problems arising from the lack of piloting of the equipment on a small scale, saying then that the electoral body’s transition to a biometric system is not without risks as the system has its pros and cons. 

“It is frustrating that people are turning out to register, and they have been denied because of the capacity of NEC. So I hope the government can find a way out,” he said.

The commission requested US$91 million to conduct the election, but the amount was finally sliced to US$33 million. The Commission however is struggling to access its budgetary allocation for the October 10th elections, something U.S Ambassador Michael McCarthy warned in March could potentially undermine the election process.

Even before the Ambassador’s warning, many others, including leaders in the political opposition and civil society actors, have raised concerns that this situation could negatively impact the commission’s ability to conduct a fair and credible election.

“If the necessary funds requested for are not provided to the NEC, it has the propensity to undermine the conduct of the October 10 elections,” McCarthy warned. “The commission needs the necessary resources to effectively prepare for and implement all aspects of the electoral process.”

Similar to Satta Joel, a resident of Duport Road in Paynesville, technical difficulties at the site she visited prevented her from receiving her card. She accused NEC of failing to set up enough mechanisms to encourage registrants.

“We stood on the road in line closer to the car road. Who knows if any of us could get hit by a vehicle,” she noted.

Satta and many others who were unable to get their cards will not vote in the October 10, election. They will have to wait for the senatorial election to get their cards.

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