By Simon Sabally
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) was established by section 42 of the Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia, 1997. Its main functions are to conduct and supervise registrations of voters (s.43(1(a)(c)), conduct public elections and referenda (s.43(1)(a)(b)), fix the dates, places and times of elections (s.43(1)(d)), and announce the results of elections and referenda (s.43(2)). The foregoing responsibilities of the IEC are among the other duties and powers bestowed on it by other Electoral Laws.
From the 2001 elections up to the 2016 elections, the IEC had conducted and supervised all aspects of public elections, ranging from voter registration, replacement of voter’s card, to conducting of by-elections and elections. One distinctive feature of all the elections and referenda ever conducted by the IEC and its predecessors, the Provisional Independent Electoral Commission (PIEC) and the Department of Public Works (later Ministry of Local Government) during the PPP era, was the usage of the ballot tokens (marbles) and metal ballot drums. The marble system of voting “was introduced just before the 1960 General elections” (IEC website), and according to the IEC, the system was introduced for two main reasons:
1. The majority of the electorate were illiterate and would find it difficult to use the ballot paper
2. The system provides greater security against election fraud.
Therefore, the basis for the introduction and justification of the current system of voting in The Gambia are the low literacy rate in the country and the guard against rigging and fraud. The literacy rate reported by the 1993 Population and Housing Census “was that for people of age ten years and above, the literacy rates were 40% for both sexes, 26% for females and 54% for males” (www.adeanet.org). KNOEMA, the most comprehensive source of global decision-making data in the world, stated that “between 2000 and 2015, adult literacy rate of Gambia grew substantially from 36.8% to 50.8%”. These cited data and many more have established the fact that the literacy rate in the Gambia pre- and post-independence have been low.
The Gambia’s marble system of voting has received a lot of praises. In 2016, the Telegraph Newspaper described it as the Gambia’s “homegrown solution to the problem of fraud and illiteracy at the ballot box.” In 2006, the BBC News website’s headline: “Gambian are voting for their president with a unique marble system”, captured the marble voting as thus “Voters enter a booth and pop a clear glass marble into one of three drums representing the candidates, instead of putting a ballot paper into a box. As the marble falls into the drum, it hits a bell so officials can tell if anyone votes more than once.” In a CNN website report, Alieu Momarr Njai, Chairman of the IEC remarked that “our electoral commission is second to none” and “no one can rig the it”.
After the 2016 elections cycle, the IEC announced its plans to introduce the paper ballot voting system because it is more secure and less prone to being rigged. Speaking to Fatu Network, an online news outlet, the IEC Chairman stated that “for this to be done the exact Laws and Constitution have to be amended and we understand from the Minister of Information that, they are planning to have a complete new constitution for the country in which all these will be addressed.”
Surprisingly, the New Draft Constitution does not offer anything different from what the current Constitution gave on the system of voting. Both grundnorms have instructed for a secret ballot voting system and empowers the Electoral Laws to make further provision on elections and referenda.
Section 80(1) of the Draft Constitution did not specify the system of voting, that is, it does not instruct whether the Gambia’s historical and unique marble system or the proposed paper ballot should be used. Although section 78(a) of the Draft Constitution mandates the Independent Boundaries and Electoral Commission (IBEC) to ensure that at every public election, “and whatever voting method is used, the system is simple, accurate, verifiable, secure, accountable and transparent”, it falls short of specifying the system of voting.
The absence of the specified voting system in the current and draft Constitutions has left the IEC with one course of action, that is, to proposed to the executive to amend the Elections Act, especially, s.58 on equipment for polling , s.62 on direction on voting, s.63 on ballot tokens, s.64 on ballot boxes, s.66 on methods of voting, among others. Its efforts must be geared towards engaging the executive and law makers on the need to shift from the marble system to the paper ballot system. Without the requisite legislative amendments, the Commission cannot lawfully conduct a public election through paper ballot system.
Similarly, the IEC should roll out sensitization programs on the proposed paper ballot system and its benefits. It must be prepared to constructively justify the use of the paper ballot over the marble system which has been tested over six decades and had produced transparent and rig-free elections. Both the IEC and the Executive must be prepared to convince the National Assembly that the paper ballot voting system is more secure, transparent and less prone to rigging as opposed to the hailed marble system.
Ultimately, it will the National Assembly to give Gambians the paper ballots instead of the ballot tokens, and the paper ballot boxes instead of the belled ballot drums. It will be the one to allow a Gambian voter to tick the box of his or her preferred candidate on the ballot paper, and not hold the single glassy marble and pop it into the ballot drum. The choice between the ballot paper and the marble lies with the legislature and not with the executive or with any of its departments.