By Alexander B. Cummings, Jr.
Conducting elections on time is the most basic test of any nation’s democracy. Our country cannot be failing this test and hope to be democratic. For our country, holding free, fair and credible elections, on time, is amongst the best ways to continue to keep our peace, and remain democratic.
Recently, Senator Varney Sherman spoke about the need for the government to begin planning to give the National Elections Commission (NEC) the money they will need to conduct the 2023 Elections on time. I agree with the Senator, and thank him for reminding the government about this important responsibility. It is really important for the country to not only hold the 2023 Elections according to the constitutional time, but that we do so in a way that makes the process, and the results, credible.
No responsible government needs to be reminded about its duty, especially to provide money to the election commission. This includes the money they need for by-elections. Every other day by-elections are delayed, a district or a county is denied proper representation in the government. This is wrong.
Elections provide a chance for the people to speak, and choose. Serious democratic governments do not delay elections. They do not need to be reminded to plan to support elections. It is such an important duty for governments that every responsible government makes planning for, and support to elections, a major priority.
However, time and again, under this George Weah-led government, we have to postpone elections and delay by-elections because the government says it has no money for elections. However, the same government knows how to find money for trips that bring nothing back to the country. When a country does not have money, its leaders will not waste the little that it has on things that yield no benefits to the people.
Even when countries that can afford are keeping their leaders’ home, during this COVID 19 period, our President is travelling and using money we don’t have. At the same time, our country is begging for help to pay civil servants’ pay that are already cut and so low.
Of course, countries can ask for help; but when we start getting donations of hand pumps, we should be concerned and ashamed. This is not where our country needs to be. Liberians would say, when people have to beat drum behind you to do the things you are supposed to be doing, it means you are irresponsible. Irresponsible people don’t lead.
This is why, I continue to say, we must work as hard as we can, and think as best as we can, to make Mr. George Weah, a one-term President. He and his friends don’t know what they are supposed to be doing, and by not doing what they are supposed to be doing, they are threatening our peace, threatening our democracy, and undermining the way the Constitution say we should be running the country.
Aside from making sure the National Elections Commission (NEC) has the money they will need, we also need to review the way we conducted the December 8 Elections, and try to not repeat the many mistakes made. If we carry the same mistakes to 2023, even if we give the NEC all the money they need and we conduct the elections on time, the process and the result, will not be considered by many to be free, fair and credible. This will not be good for our country. It could undermine the peace, security and stability of the country. Elections, if not done well, can lead a country to breakdown and chaos.
Therefore, as we start talking about money for the NEC, we also need to start putting everything in place to make sure every political party makes the minimum 30% quota for women on their party tickets. If a political party cannot do this, it should not be a party claiming to represent all Liberians. Enough with the talking about women participation in politics. It is time to actually do it. The CPP did not only meet the 30% quota for women candidates in the 2020 Bi-elections, but exceeded it by fielding five (5) out of fifteen (15) candidates. In 2023, let us all show that we mean this by actually doing it.
We also need to improve the security of election materials, especially the ID Card machines and ballot papers so that we don’t start finding them in private homes and abandoned places. We need to also improve the voter registration system. We have to make it harder, if not impossible, for anyone to register more than one time, and to make sure the voter roll is clean. To do this, we need to use the biometric system of registration others are using for registration, which ECOWAS recommended for us to use.
At the same time, we need to stop the trucking and bussing of people who do not live in a district or county to register and vote there. It is wrong to truck people into a district or county from outside to register and vote for representatives and senators of places you do not reside. These trucked voters will not really care how the person they are voting for will represent the people who are actually living in the district or county. If we do not stop this, we will continue to end up with legislators who do not know their people, do not care about them, do not live with them, and in truth, do not represent them.
More and more, we are seeing now that after elections, elected officials are moving out of and residing in places way outside their districts and counties they are supposed to be representing. As a result, they are caring very little about the people they are supposed to be representing. This is because they were elected by outsiders and not the people who actually live in those districts and counties.
Finally, we need to make some changes to how we manage protests from the elections so that we do not delay runoffs, if we need to have one, or the certification and seating of declared winners. As we have seen, these delays can undermine the work of the government too.
To deal with the issue of protests to elections results, some people are suggesting that when NEC announces a winner, the winner should be allowed to take seat and start working while protests against the announced victories are being heard. I disagree. This is illegal, wrong and undermines the right of any person with a grievance to be heard.
If we do this, we will be undermining the right to protest. Without the right to protest, we will not have democracy. The real problem is not the number of protests. It is the delays in hearing and judging protests that are the real problems. What we actually need to do is fix the NEC law to make sure protests are heard quickly and without letting the process be unfair to any of the parties.
The Legislature should begin to hold public hearings to get ideas on how we can do both. One way to consider, for example, is to fix the NEC Law so that the NEC can appoint a team of three regional electoral magistrates for each region of the country. These appointments are to take effect on the day after elections and will run for the next three months, after which, the work of the regional magistrates shall end.
The regional individuals must preferably be lawyers who will sit to hear all electoral protests from a region provided that no one hailing from a region can hear protests from that region. The regional magistrates are to decide each protest within three days of hearing it. Appeals from their decisions will go straight to the Supreme Court.
This way, we keep the business of electoral protests under NEC, as the Constitution instructs, but free up the NEC Commissioners to concentrate on the other business of the elections.
The way the current system works leaves room for the delays and the decisions to be seen as unfair. It has the same people against whom some of the protests are actually being brought to hear and decide it. This is like having the same referee to hear and decide protests from the game he refereed. Whatever he decides, will not be considered fair.
The election in 2023 will be for President, half of the Senate, and the House of Representatives. It is too important for our country not to get it right – not to do all we can, including fixing the current laws, so that the election is seen to be free, fair and credible. For sure, we must do it on time, and not look to delay it, as we have done in the past.