There is already insufficient time for an update to the voter register to take place and LEON thinks that an update is essential so as not to disenfranchise the thousands of voters who attained the age of 18 after the last update and those who have moved location,” LEON, in a press release issued in Monrovia, said.
President George Manneh Weah, according to LEON, has written to the Senate and House of Representatives to ask for a delay in the elections of two months due to the COVID 19 pandemic – which seems a reasonable request to try to contain the spread of the virus and has precedent from Liberia’s experience with Ebola.
However, LEON understands that funds for procurement of voter registration materials have not been released to the NEC and, if not released shortly, even a two month delay will be insufficient. A longer delay will cause even more constitutional issues - if the new senators are not elected before the second Monday in January, Liberia will find itself in a very strange situation.
Will the current Senators retain their seats, until such time as elections are held? If so will any decisions made at this time have standing and how will their constituents react to what they might believe is a desire to circumvent the electoral system.
The timeline for elections stipulates that the final list of candidates must be published 9O days before the election. For an October 13 election this would be July 13.Aspirant candidates must provide signatures of 500 supporters, all of whom must be on the voters roll, as well as the aspirants themselves. Thus, the voter roll needs to be complete and final around four months prior to elections – by June 13. LEON is concerned that either the election date already can only be met if there is no voter registration update.
For these elections to happen and to meet basic standards for elections, there should be an update of the voter register. This is in accordance with Chapter 3 of the New Elections Law and international standards. Without such an update anyone turning 18 after March 2017, when the last registration took place, will be left unable to vote. Anyone who has moved since March 2017 will similarly be unable to cast their vote – a fact that could have severe implications for the constitutional referendum which is expected to be held at the same time.
For any of the propositions to pass they must receive a yes vote from two thirds of registered voters – so if a lot of people cannot vote this will be difficult. Procurement of the voter registration Optical Mark Registration forms has not started yet since no money has been given by the government to the NEC despite assurances from Minister Tweah.
LEON can see no mention of elections in the budget recast summary (the full version of the budget has not been made available to us yet. It should be recalled that it was problems in late procurement of these OMR forms that caused problems with the production of the Voters Roll in 2017.
LEON says while it acknowledges the devastating nature of the COVID-19 virus, “we are concerned about what might be a creeping constitutional crisis that could befall Liberia if nothing is done to ensure that everything is in place to hold the voter registration update as soon as it is safe to do so. Good queue control, ventilation and sanitation, will be needed plus a sufficient duration to keep the volume of people coming each day down. A ticketing system could be considered to help prevent the spread of the virus.”
Additionally, LEON notes that there is still not Chairperson of the Board of Commissioners of the NEC and calls on the President Weah to complete the appointment with the nomination of a suitable, impartial Chairperson. The Board of commissioners is facing potential criticism and blame for things that are currently outside of their control and it would be preferable to have the full commission in place prior to the start of operations.
The postponement of the Special Senatorial Election has an additional constitutional implication since a National Referendum is meant to be held at the same time. The constitution provides for changes to the constitution to be put to referendum at least one year after their being passed by a two thirds majority of both houses of the Legislature so as to allow for in depth civic education and debate of the changes.
Although the propositions were passed in early October 2018 no debates or sensitization has started, and are unlikely to start until the pandemic is under control. LEON has observeda lack of public awareness around the country on the National Referendum. Up to now, the Nation is yet to know or understand the proposalswhich will greatly impact our electoral system.
LEON gave this testimony recently to the Joint Committee of the Standing Committee on Autonomous Commissions and the Standing Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, Claims and Petitions. LEON exhorted the Senators to ensure that everything possible is being done to ensure that the Special Senatorial Elections happen this year, with a voter registration update, and that they continue to press the government to make funds immediately available to the NEC for procurement of voter registration materials.