What the Constitution says about elections – 4

In this new series Magari Mandebvu explains the constitutional provisions that govern the holding of elections in Zimbabwe. This supreme law of the land details exactly how the government of they must seek a mandate to govern from the people. We all need to be aware of just how this is supposed to done.

Here is the next paragraph of the Constitution:

156 Conduct of elections and referendums

At every election and referendum. the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission must ensure that-

(a)            whatever voting method is used. it is simple, accurate, verifiable, secure and transparent:

Zimbabwe still uses the time-honoured ballot paper and pen and a theoretically secret ballot. Paper and pen is certainly simpler and more transparent than the electronic voting now used in a number of countries and our experience shows that it can be more secure than postal voting because it is more transparent, meaning it can be easily checked by voters because every step is open to inspection without endangering the secrecy of the actual votes.

First of all, the process of issuing ballot papers from what happens in the voting booth you are checked off on the voters’ roll when you are given the ballot paper(s), which should have no identifying mark on it and which you do not sign, not even if an angel from Heaven comes and tells you to sign.

Secondly, the voting booth must be shielded so that people cannot see what you write on the paper

Thirdly, it should be some distance from every other table, desk, chair or person. If you need to invite somebody you choose and trust to help you see the paper, read it or write on it, you choose someone you trust. Nobody else should see what you write

Fourthly, the only thing you write on it is the cross indicating your choice of candidate

Fifthly, you fold your ballot paper so that nobody can see where you put your cross and put it into the ballot box yourself. The box should be of transparent plastic, so that anyone present at the beginning of voting can see it is empty, and sealed in a way that any attempt to break the seal will be easily noticed

(b)               the results of the election or referendum are announced as soon as possible after the close of the polls:

The usual practice is to count votes as soon as the last vote has been cast, publicly so that anybody present can see all is being done properly and the results must be announced immediately the counting is over. They  must be counted by independent people, not police or the present Electoral Commission. Local teachers, known and trusted in their community, used to carry out all the tasks like this and that was a good practice because they are answerable to the voters – parents of the children they teach, shopkeepers from whom they buy their groceries and others who could make their reaction to any malpractice felt.

The results must be posted in an easily visible place; if the results are posted so high up that ordinary citizens cannot read them easily, be sure this means some dirty work is afoot. From the moment the results are announced, they are public. That means you can phone them to The Zimbabwean or any other media organisation, who can publish them. If, as has happened, people are detained by the police for spreading the news, this suggests that cheating is going on.

and (c) appropriate systems and mechanisms are put in place-

  • to eliminate electoral violence and other electoral malpractices:

The drafters of the Constitution are admitting they cannot list every possible malpractice, but emphasise the government’s duty to be alert and ready to stop any abuse

  • and to ensure the safekeeping of electoral materials.

An obvious point. When voting is by polling station, each polling station should receive enough ballot papers for 100% of the voters registered at that station plus a reasonable number because there will always be some spoilt papers. This number of papers received must be recorded. Election officials and all observers should be given this record and be able check it against the number actually used (votes cast) plus the number spoilt and the number not used. Observers have the right to check the exact number of people who voted and to know what happened to every ballot paper delivered to the polling station, whether it was used to cast a vote, spoilt or unused. They should be allowed to see the numbers of used, spoilt and unused counted, to be sure no ballot paper can be used for any other purpose.

Observers need to check how many people voted in each ward and what happened to every ballot paper. We all have a right to know whether strangers have voted in our ward. Some clever crooks might put a lot of names on the roll in the wrong ward or constituency, which means unknown people could vote using those names, and that is one reason why  rolls must be available to every party, all observers and any interested citizens in good time, meaning at least a month before the poll, and in a form that can be easily used.

In 2018 the roll came on sale (it should have been free) on CD in a form that could not be manipulated in any way at the weekend before the poll. Surely in this electronic age it should be possible to sort a list so that you can choose to read it by name of the voter, by address and maybe by age or some other variable. Given the discs issued, one would need to print out the full list and sort it by hand, an impossible task in the few days available. Because these rules were not followed, records of votes cast in the names of dead people, and of voters having been registered to vote somewhere different from where they lived are still emerging from the records for the 2013 and 2018 elections. This is not good enough.

If voters are allowed to vote at any polling station in their ward, then each polling station needs more ballot papers because nobody can be sure how many people will vote at each polling station. But the counting and the totals of papers used (votes cast), papers spoilt and papers unused for the whole ward must be public information. Observers must attend every count. Even better, the count shold be held publicly in front of all voters who are interested. This has been done at each polling station in recent elections, but unfortunately the police seemed to consider the totals for the wards to be state secrets, so nobody was allowed to share what they knew about their own polling station.

Historians may eventually discover the whole story, but that doesn’t help us here and now.

And the historians will only be able to do their job if full, verifiable, information is stored somewhere safe for them to study.

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