From the Editor’s Keyboard

Sierra Leone: Voter education critical for electoral success

14 November 2012 at 17:12 | 1013 views

By Titus Boye-Thompson, Guest Writer, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Voting in the forthcoming elections will be crucial for a very obvious
reason. This is the first time that Sierra Leoneans are being asked to
take part in multiple elections of officers for a range of elective
offices in a single swipe. The challenges of such a critical event as
voting are compounded by the complexity of the process that is new in
its design and for which sufficient information has not been made
available in a manner that people will understand. Most people are
daunted by the simple exercise of ticking their ballot paper and
depositing same in the ballot box. When you consider that even in the
United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, voter participation is
registered as low for the simplereason that then populace are
disengaged from the political process. More importantly, where voter
participation is low, there is always the incidence of void votes in
such significant numbers that elections are won or lost on their
account alone. So it is that the issue of voter education is crucial
in Sierra Leone where the level of educational sophistication is so
low.

The upcoming exercise is one which registered voters have a right to
understand so that their votes are not invalidated by an error, forced
or unforced nor would their votes be disqualified because they could
not follow the directions as prescribed. In the event, it is incumbent
of the various stakeholders to ensure that the right education and
instructions are disseminated to the public in a timely manner and for
such frequency as will guarantee sensitization to have been effective.

It is widely accepted that the National Elections Commission (NEC) is
the agency responsible for voter education. In the strictest
application of the mandate given to NEC, that agency has a significant
responsibility for the conduct of the elections and that means in
essence, ensuring that all votes cast are for all intents valid and
countable. If NEC were to fail in that duty then they would have
failed this Country and the legitimacy of the electoral process will
be severely threatened. In order to avoid such an occurrence,
political parties and the wider civil society network are now working
frantically to engage potential voters in education and action
learning to ensure that their votes are brought out on polling day and
that their votes are not lost for lack of understanding.

These forthcoming elections will be held to elect the next President
of the Country, Members of Parliament and Local Councillors. There
will be elections for Mayors in various Municipalities across the
Country and District Chairmen in others. In all, there will be four
ballots and these will be arranged in two sets as described by NEC.
The first set of ballot papers will be issued for the Presidency and
the Member of Parliament. These will be individually coloured. Each
ballot paper will have pictures of those standing for election for the
particular category of office, their names on the next panel, followed
by their party symbol and then a space for the marking of the ballot
paper. The ballot paper can be marked by an X or any other sign. It is
reliably learnt that NEC would accept as valid, any ballot paper
marked on the Candidate’s face, his name or his party symbol as long
as there is only one such mark on the ballot paper. The ballot paper
will then be folded long-side up and deposited in the box with the
same colour as the ballot paper. The mark on the ballot paper should
not be made so as to go over the boundary of the portion of the ballot
paper marked. If these instructions are followed, it is reasonable to
assume that you have yourself a valid vote.

Some Party officials are engaging their voters on how to vote for
their party. This is understandable, given the significant number of
illiterates in the Country. In the case of the All People’s Congress,
this task is made simpler because in all ballot papers, the APC
Candidate will be placed at the very top of the ballot paper. The
Candidates are ranked in relation to the alphabetical order and
placing of their Party. As far as is knows, no other party has an
alphabetical ranking above the APC. In the event, voter education for
the APC Candidate on all elective offices should be geared towards
directing voters to make their mark at the very top of the page and
vote for the first candidate in all event. Such an instruction would
simply follow the 4FOR4 principle and strategy that the Party has
adopted in its campaign.

The last thing that needs mentioning is the need to bring out the
voters on polling day. That move is threatened severely by the
Nationwide ban on movement of vehicles and bikes for a whole range of
reasons. While it is clear that NEC has a responsibility with the
Security Agencies to manage the election process in a transparent,
free and fair manner, it is incumbent on political parties to devise
innovative ways of bringing their votes to be counted. The challenges
will be greater in rural areas especially remote locations and hard to
reach areas, otherwise the assurance would be secure in the proximity
of every voter to his or her respective polling station. The NEC is
making pronouncements that they have adequately located these polling
stations so that each one is as proximate as possible to up to 300
voters. The further assurance required is whether these proximate
stations account for the full demographic dispersal of the electorate
and that any voter who may be hamstrung to reach his polling station
would be supported to do so via the provision of free transportation
on polling day, especially for those with special needs.

As Election Day approaches, Sierra Leoneans have a duty and
responsibility to fostering the peace of this Nation. A responsibility
to protect the fledgling democracy won after a hard fought civil
strife with the loss of so many lives. The decision that needs to be
made is simple. Every vote counts. Every vote should be a vote for the
right candidate, the one who has given every Sierra Leonean the right
to live and hope that he will stay committed to the prosperity of this
Nation. If any vote can best serve Sierra Leone, it would be the vote
that is emphatically placed for development and continuity. Ernest has
been the only candidate together with the APC Party to have given that
promise with the requisite vigour and confidence, so my four votes
will be counted for development and continuity to secure Sierra
Leone’s peace and prosperity, what about yours? Your decision should
serve Sierra Leone and not your tribe, serve the preservation of the
State not the narrow interests of your region or district. This is a
critical vote and your decision, when made, should be for progress,
peace and stability. Use your vote wisely, vote for the best amongst
the rest.

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