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Saturday, April 17, 2021

The marble versus the paper ballot – are we afraid of change

We often hear that “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know”, but sometimes the devil you know may be so bad that anything else is preferable. That was what happened in 2016, when a majority of Gambians chose Adama Barrow, who hardly anyone knew, over Yahya Jammeh, whom we all knew very well.

Even though most Gambians are no longer quite satisfied with the Barrow administration, after it has reneged on most of the promises it made to the people, but it is definitely several times better than what we had under President Jammeh. Therefore, hardly anyone would ever want to revert to the old devil, especially considering the chilling revelations we have all been hearing from the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

In a similar scenario, it appears that most Gambians are up in arms against the suggestion by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to migrate from the use of marbles in our elections to the universally acclaimed paper ballot system. Are we not really concerned that out of the about 200 countries of the world, the Gambia, one of the smallest, is the only one that still uses such an archaic system? “Why do we want to continue to use ‘stones’ in our elections as if we are still in the Stone Age?” someone sarcastically asked.

Of course, it is good to be unique sometimes, but such uniqueness should be based on something worth emulating. However, in this case, it is something that virtually everyone else has moved away from, and no doubt for a very good reason. Therefore, apart from being afraid of change, there is hardly any other reason why we still want to maintain such a system.

We have heard some people give some flimsy reasons as to why we should continue with the use of the marbles; such as “if it is not broken, why try to fix it”, while others describe it as a more fraud-proof system compared to the paper ballot. Some even try to justify its continuous use to the fact that a majority of Gambian voters are not literate and therefore would not know how to use the paper ballot.

Of course, like every system, there are advantages and disadvantages, but with honest analysis, one would realise that there are far more advantages than disadvantages in migrating to the use of paper ballots. Like the Chairman of the IEC once said; by insisting that Gambian voters lack the capacity and sophistication to migrate to the paper ballot, we are assuming that we are the dullest people on earth, especially considering the fact that other countries with lower literacy rates and level of sophistication have been using the system without major problems. Why would the Gambia be different? Someone even said; “If countries with far lower literacy rates like Guinea Bissau, for instance, can successfully adopt the paper ballot system and had been holding relatively free and fair elections, then it is hard to see why this country should still hang on to such an archaic system.”

There was indeed a time when the marble system was serving this country very well, especially when we had few political parties and a manageable number of registered voters. However, now that we are likely to have a voter population of over one million and almost 20 registered political parties and several potential independent candidates, the dynamics have drastically changed.

In the past, we hardly had more than three candidates in presidential elections and a similar number for local government or National Assembly elections per ward or constituency. It was therefore quite easy to allocate a ballot box to each candidate with his/her photograph, party colour and symbol clearly displayed on the ballot box. Therefore, with not more than four boxes in a polling booth, it was quite simple for anyone to just walk in there and easily identify his/her preferred candidate.

However, with the potential of having 20 or even more ballot boxes cramped into one small polling booth, despite all of them with their candidate’s photographs, party symbols and colours (no doubt some of them quite similar), it would still be almost impossible for an unsophisticated old woman from the rural areas, for instance, getting alone into that polling booth and being expected to go around and identify her preferred candidate. It is certainly a prescription for chaos.

Comparing that scenario to the paper ballot system in which only one ballot box would be required for every polling booth, regardless of the number of candidates, and the very fact that such a box would be placed in the open where it would be seen by everyone, it makes quite a lot of sense to assume that such a system is much simpler. Also, with a single list of the candidates in a particular polling station containing their photographs, party colours and symbols, it would be much easier for the voters to identify and tick against their preferred candidates.

Another significant difference between the two systems is that, while in the case of the paper ballots, there is the opportunity to keep the ballots for a very long time for reference purposes, but in the case of the marbles, the IEC can only keep them as long as the next elections, as they are the same marbles used for all elections.

Therefore, by every indication, the paper ballot is a far much less complicated system to use than the marbles and all that Gambian voters may need would be simple sensitization by the IEC. Indeed, if the IEC were quite serious about migrating to the paper ballot system, it could have done the sensitization since 2017 rather than wait until when it is too late.

However, for the paper ballot system, the onus of sensitization is more on the political parties and their candidates than anyone else. This is because it is in their paramount interest to ensure that the voters easily identify their candidates when they get hold of the ballot paper. 

Now that the IEC has resolved to go ahead with the marbles for the forthcoming Presidential elections, some people are quite worried about the possible implications, considering the possible logistical nightmare of managing the system in view of the potential number of candidates that may be involved. The management of the situation could even be quite dire during the National Assembly elections when we expect far many candidates per constituency than we had ever seen in this country.

Therefore, in view of the possible logistical nightmare involved in going ahead with the marbles, some people are skeptical of whether the IEC has the capacity to conduct free and credible elections under the circumstances. This is in view of the fact that the Commission seems not quite well prepared for the next electoral process. While it has already released its calendar for the process, but it seems too little and too late in the day as there is very little time left for the presidential elections, compared to the mammoth task that the process involves. Is it possible to carry out a general voter registration and all the other processes involved, with less than eight months left before the presidential elections? This makes everyone wonder what the Commission had been doing since 2017 when it had all the time in the world to carry out the necessary reforms and it still failed to do so. 

While the IEC has no doubt abandoned the idea of holding a referendum for a new constitution after the failure of the President Goodluck Jonathan project, but the Commission needs to clarify whether it intends to carry out any amendments to the 1997 Constitution in order to make it at least meet some of the wishes of a majority of Gambians. For instance, is it possible to restore Section 48 that required a 50 +1 majority for a presidential candidate to win an election in the first round, which was later amended by the Jammeh regime to a simple majority?

Another area that the Commission however still needs to clarify is how it intends to go about the logistics of the registration of diaspora Gambians. Does the Commission really have the capacity to undertake such a project, especially in view of the time factor and resources involved?

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