Yiaga Africa Press Statement on Nasarawa Central State Constituency Bye-Election :
Nassarawa bye-election underscores the complexity of safeguarding public health and electoral integrity
As a precursor to the upcoming 2020 governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) conducted a bye-election on Saturday, August 8, 2020, in the Nasarawa Central State Constituency to fill the vacancy created by the death of Hon. Adamu Suleiman Ibrahim. The bye-election was conducted in 44 polling units across seven wards in Nasarawa local government area (LGA) with a total of 71,919 registered voters. Yiaga Africa Watching The Vote (WTV) did not deploy the Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) methodology for the bye-election but instead deployed stationary and roving citizen observers to observe the election in 22 out of the 44 polling units where the bye-election held.
Despite low voter turnout, technological challenges, and non-compliance with some public health guidelines, the election was peaceful with no incidences of violence. The security agencies maintained professional conduct throughout the election. The voters in Nasarawa LGA deserve commendation for their resilience to participate in the election despite the logistical hiccups that resulted in the late commencement of voting in several polling units and the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. While INEC took some measures to follow COVID-19 health guidelines including providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like face masks, hand gloves, thermometer for temperature checks and hand sanitizers at all observed polling units and sanitizing all voters’ fingers before reading their fingerprints with the Smart Card Reader, INEC experienced challenges maintaining physical distance between voters and ensuring that all voters wore face masks/coverings while at the polls. In addition to massive vote buying, political parties provided facemasks and handwashing equipment at the polling units to lure voters to cast their votes. It is evident that INEC and other health institutions will need to take measures based on lessons learned from this election to guarantee the enforcement of health safety guidelines during subsequent elections amidst COVID-19, particularly for the upcoming off-cycle governorship elections in Edo and Ondo. Electoral technology can enhance electoral transparency as observed with the IReV platform; however, it has the potential to undermine the credibility of elections and decrease voter participation if the tools and systems are not tested, verified and deployed in line with Open Election Data principles coupled with adequate public sensitization on their functionality and efficiency. Electoral technology such the Smart Card Readers and electronic tablets may also disenfranchise voters and trigger violence if they do not function properly or polling officials aren’t adequately trained on how to operate them.
- Transparency of election results management process: Public access to polling units’ results improved with the introduction of the INEC Results Viewing (IReV) platform. This innovation enhanced the transparency of the process as polling officials uploaded images of polling unit level results onto the portal. As of 4 pm on election day, results from two polling units were uploaded for public viewing. By 10:20 pm, results from all of the 44 polling units were uploaded onto the platform. All of the uploaded images of the result sheet (Form EC 8 A) were duly signed and stamped except the result sheet from Polling Unit 004 Oshikpe in Ara 1 Ward. The uploaded results sheet from five polling units had blurred images, while seven other results sheets had corrections. Based on the guidelines and process flow, polling officials were required to take photos of the result sheet and upload directly on the portal at the polling unit. Yiaga Africa observed some polling officials breached this guideline and uploaded the images at the ward collation center. Most of the polling officials interviewed during the bye-election alluded to inadequate training on Android tablet usage.
- Technological Challenges with Voter Authentication: Yiaga Africa citizen observers reported delays in the commencement of accreditation and voting in several polling units due to the failure of the newly introduced tablets to recapture voters’ facial identity. Accordingly, while there was early deployment of personnel and materials by INEC, accreditation, and voting commenced late in several polling units. The average time for commencement of accreditation and voting in observed polling units was 9:30 am. In some polling units, accreditation and voting started at 11:00 am. The Smart Card Readers were used throughout the process in the majority of polling units visited. The electronic tablets were also deployed across all of the polling units for uploading polling unit level results.
- With the closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, polling officials encountered difficulty in securing tables and chairs for polling unit set up. This resulted in delays in the polling unit set up despite the early arrival of polling officials.
- Vote-buying: Political parties, candidates, and politicians still engaged in and abetted vote-buying in the full glare of the public and security personnel. The secrecy of the ballot was severely compromised by party agents who interfered with the voting process and engaged in vote-buying and voting by proxy. Votes traded between N500 and N1,000 across polling units observed, especially in PU 004, UNG Mallam, PU 005, and PU 006 Angwan Dutse.
- Non-compliance with COVID-19 Election Guidelines: Yiaga Africa WTV observers reported non–compliance with health safety guidelines by polling officials and voters. Voters were allowed into the inner queue without facemasks and physical distancing in all polling units.
- Low voter mobilization: According to INEC, the turnout of voters for the election is 17.2% indicating abysmal turnout. Yiaga Africa observers observed a high turnout of women voters compared to male voters in the polling units visited.
- INEC should collaborate with security agencies to enforce all health safety guidelines particularly those regarding wearing of facemasks/covering and maintaining physical distance between voters
- INEC should ensure technological tools and devices are configured, tested, and fully charged before deployment on election day. Polling officials should be adequately trained on new technological tools ahead of election day to ensure effective management of elections
- INEC should scale the INEC Results Viewing (IReV) portal to all subsequent elections. In doing so, the Commission should ensure election results conform to open election data principles such as timeliness, granularity, analysable, accessible etc.
- Maintain regular engagement with stakeholders and share adequate information on new policies and guidelines ahead of election day.
- INEC should continue to review its voting processes to allow voters to cast ballots without interference and intimidation
- INEC should liaise with state governments and school authorities to ensure access to tables and chairs in schools to facilitate polling unit set up during elections
For National Assembly
- Accelerate the consideration of electoral amendment bills and ensure their quick passage. This will confer legality on laudable innovations introduced by INEC and upscale the electoral results viewing to an election results collation and transmission portal.
For Security agencies
- Support INEC in enforcing COVID-19 safety guidelines during elections as well as arrest individuals involved in vote trading and disruptive behavior during elections
- Maintain professionalism and impartiality in managing election security
Yiaga Africa commends the voters in Nassarawa LGA for their peaceful conduct, resilience, and patience on election day. INEC deserves commendation for introducing the results viewing platform. It signals a leap in our quest to ensuring transparency of election results management. Yiaga Africa is concerned with the challenges of conducting a governorship election while adhering to the COVID-19 guidelines. INEC provided thermometers for temperature checks and hand sanitizers for sanitizing each voter’s finger before their fingerprints were read by the Smart Card Reader; however, Yiaga Africa observers reported significant challenges in maintaining physical distancing and ensuring voters wore masks/face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Clearly, the Nassarawa bye-election underscores the complexity of conducting elections amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. INEC must ensure effective enforcement of all COVID-19 guidelines ahead of and during the upcoming off-cycle governorship elections in Edo and Ondo. Achieving this will require the support and collaboration of all stakeholders, especially the voters, political parties, and their supporters.
Executive Director, Yiaga Africa