The issue of a voters’ register and its centrality in elections is always fundamental because without voters, there is no election
By Faruk Kirunda
The next general election is fast approaching with residual elections due in some electoral administrative units. A lot of effort will go into making everything ready to ensure compliance with the best electoral standards, locally and internationally. Elections are a significant ritual in functioning democracy. They cost a fortune, but are worth it when steps are taken to make them transparent and truly representative of the aspirations of the people. The people, this case, are the voters and their eligibility is protected and guaranteed by their enrollment on the voters’ register.
Previously, the role of generating and maintaining the voters’ register was with the Electoral Commission (EC). That was the era before national IDs came into operation, with the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA), as the agency in charge. NIRA essentially registers Ugandans at and above a certain age of 18 for purposes of availing them with an official record of citizenship. But because it is at the same age of 18 at which one qualifies to be a voter, it was decided that every national ID holder is automatically enrolled on the voters’ roll. The wisdom of the decision notwithstanding due to logistical considerations, it is risky to use the NIRA data to mine a voter register directly. The E.C should be independent both in its statutory function and in respect of the data it holds for electoral purposes. A registered citizen with a national ID can relocate to another area different from where they were registered. If the E.C relies on the citizenship register, many people will be disenfranchised since they will not vote in their new areas of residence.
Another crucial safeguard to institute is excluding NIRA staff or its agents from the electoral process by any means-except as voters like everybody else. If the same people in charge of the citizenship register and machines are involved in elections, they may have ulterior motives and tinker with the system. The E.C should have an independent team of personnel in charge of its data and the biometric machines.
There should be rigorous progress to screen every registered citizen before confirming him or her as a voter. After acquiring a national ID, there should be another form of identification to ascertain a voter’s status and whether at the time of voting they are indeed of the correct age and if they are accurately placed in a polling a jurisdiction where they belong. The E.C should be accorded powers and resources to undertake this work independently to ensure that we have a clean and reliable register.
The dead, those who have left the country, school goers who have left schools where they registered, those who changed names without officially communicating and the change, should all be weeded out. Such categories of people constitute the infamous “ghost voters”. It is possible for someone to take advantage and vote in those names in cases when the machines (biometric voter verification system) break down during the course of voting.
I urge concerned officials to burn the midnight candle to ensure that both the NIRA register and that of the E.C are prim and proper and that their correlation is distanced from the process of elections. Each register should be accurate for its unique purpose. Rectify any anomalies and train sufficient manpower to man equipment and the system!
When the technicalities have been attended to, then the ordinary Ugandan (read voter) should do their part to support the process. Everybody of age should register for the national ID. The E.C is rolling out a verification exercise during which, among other measures, corrections will be made in the particulars of voters to prevent last-minute disappointments due to errors in entries. Voters should turn up and “assist the Government to assist them”. If you know you registered in error, co-operate with officials to rectify the error-whether it was false entry in name, date of birth, gender and any other detail.
Over time, there have been fallouts from the elections, with some being challenged in court and being nullified. The issue of a voters’ register and its centrality in elections is always fundamental because without voters, there is no election; without voters, there are no candidates because to be a candidate, one should be a voter first. It is not enough to be a citizen.
In all, effort must be taken to differentiate a voter from a citizen; one can be both but not every citizen can vote anywhere, anyhow. A bad register affects all. When there are ghost voters or when eligible voters miss out on exercising their adult suffrage right, the quality of elections dwindles, which upsets democracy generally. Resultantly, questionable candidates gain unfair advantage, get elected and because they were the wrong choice, they can’t serve well. It all starts with you!
Writer is a private assistant to the President in charge of media management