Law

Lawyers push for e-voting, regular voters’ registration

‘Our agenda for NASS on Electoral Act’

 

AKEEM NAFIU writes that lawyers are demanding a thorough amendment of the 2010 Electoral Act from the National Assembly in order to put the nation’s electoral system on a sound footing

 

As both Chambers of the National Assembly commenced another round of amendments on the legal framework that guides the nation’s elections, some senior lawyers have harped on the need for the lawmakers to ensure that no stone would be left unturned at fashioning out the Electoral Act that would help in solving myriads of problems confronting the nation’s electoral system.

 

The lawyers while lauding the lawmakers’ efforts at putting the nation’s electoral system on a sound footing also called on President Muhammadu Buhari to promptly append his signature to the new law after the National Assembly might have done the needful. President Buhari had previously declined assenting to the amendment carried out on the Electoral Act by the 8th National Assembly.

 

The last of such rejection on 7th December, 2018, made it the third time that the president had vetoed the Bill, citing closeness to the general election date scheduled for 16th February and 2nd March, 2019 as his reason for his last rejection of the Bill. Prior to the last rejection of the legislation by the president, it had earlier been rejected over drafting issues, alleged attempt to change the sequence of elections and its supposed conflict with certain provisions of the Constitution. Many novel provisions were incorporated into the rejected Bill by the 8th National Assembly.

 

These included provisions aimed at empowering the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to suspend elections for a maximum period of 21 days in a situation where a candidate leading in an election suddenly dies.

 

This was to forestall a repeat of the unfortunate incident that trailed the aftermath of the 2015 Kogi State governorship elections where a leading candidate died after polls began but before the result was declared. Another provision in the rejected Bill was also aimed at incorporating important technological innovations such as the use of the Smart Card Reader (SCR) in the body of the Electoral Act.

 

This was sequel to a Supreme Court’s judgement which prioritized manual voters register over the Smart Card Reader in cases of conflict.

Other novelties in the Bill included provisions seeking mandatory use of electronic voters register, the e-transmission of votes and the prohibition of arbitrary fees by the setting of maximum fees for all elective offices.

 

The 8th National Assembly, however, failed to utilize an open window provided by Section 58(5) of the Constitution to override the president’s veto and reverse his rejection of the Electoral Act Amendment Bill. To achieve this, both Chambers of the National Assembly will have to pass the Bill again by a two-third majority.

 

Fresh Electoral Act’s amendment

 

Following botched amendment of the Electoral Act by the 8th National Assembly, the 9th Assembly has commenced a fresh exercise to tinker with the legislation. Deliberations had already begun at the Senate since last month over a Bill to amend the Electoral Act (No.6), 2010.

 

The Bill was sponsored by Senators Ovie Omo-Agege (APC, Delta Central) and Abubakar Kyari (APC, Borno North). Leading debate on the Bill already scaled second reading at the Red Chambers, Senator Ovie Omo- Agege, said the Bill had 26 clauses aimed at strengthening and protecting Nigeria’s democracy as well as cure specific mischief plaguing the nation’s elections and electoral processes.

 

The senator disclosed that electoral reform remains a priority in the legislative agenda of the 9th National Assembly despite the fact that the process under the 8th Senate was fraught with mutual suspicions and bitterness. Specifically, Omo-Agege revealed that the Bill to amend the 2010 Electoral Act seeks to enact a new Section 87 on the Nomination of Candidates by Parties for Elections by prescribing maximum fees payable by aspirants and restricting nomination criteria strictly to relevant provisions.

 

He added that the Bill also seeks to make clarification under Section 38(1)(a) of the principal Act which states that “a person shall be deemed to be qualified for an elective office and his election shall not be questioned on grounds of qualification if, with respect to the particular election in question, he meets the applicable requirements of Sections 65, 107, 137 or 182 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999”.

 

He further disclosed that the amendment to the Electoral Act was also aimed at sanctioning those who give false information for purpose of registering a political party and ensure that failure by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and others to comply with any provision of the Act carries clear and adequate sanctions. The Bill has since been referred to the Committee on INEC for further legislative work.

 

Public hearing on new Bill

 

Determined to put in place a good piece of legislation that will guide the nation’s electoral process, a public hearing on the amendment of the Electoral Act was Wednesday last week organized by the National Assembly.

The public hearing offered stakeholders opportunity to make recommendations on Sections of the Bill to be amended by the lawmakers. Speaking at the event, the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, disclosed that the 9th National Assembly under his leadership will achieve all the targets set in the legislative agenda, including the Electoral Amendment Bill.

 

While noting that there is nothing more important to any country than electing its leaders in a very free, transparent and accountable manner, the Senate President assured Nigerians that the National Assembly will pass the Electoral Act amendment Bill before the end of March 2021.

 

He said: “The integrity of the elections makes even the loser to accept loss without any grudge and then those in office will enjoy legitimacy and even respect from opposition.

 

“We will work to make sure the political environment remains neutral and not a monetised or militarised environment. A free, fair and credible election in 2023 is doable, we just have to remain focused.”

 

In his welcome address, the chairperson of the Senate Committee on INEC, Senator Kabiru Gaya, disclosed that the Bill pushes for the establishment of an Electoral Offences Commission, inclusion of women, youth and Persons With Disabilities as well as autonomy for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).

 

On her part, the chairperson of the House Committee on Electoral Matters, Aisha Dukku, told the gathering that the Bill which sought to repeal the Electoral Act 2010 was aimed at addressing many loopholes in the nation’s electoral system by way of amending over 300 clauses which included new provisions.

 

Reviewing the amendments, she said: “The Bill will be amended to make provisions for the restriction of the qualification for elective offices to relevant provisions of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended;

 

“To allow the use of card readers and other technological devoices in elections ad political party primaries and to provide a timeline for the submission of list of candidates, criteria for substitution of candidates, limits of campaign expenses and address the omission of names of candidates or logo of political parties.

 

“One issue all Nigerians agree on is that of improving and strengthening our electoral legal framework. We have enough experience to show a strong correlation between an efficient and effective electoral legal framework and the conduct of a free, fair and credible election.

 

“We also have concerns that the electoral legal framework of certain issues should be well settled ahead of the 2023 elections such as the use of   technological devices like the card reader and electronic voting system, criteria for substitution of candidates, disclosure of source of funds contributed to political parties, replacement of lost or destroyed Permanent Voters Card, penalty for the possession of fake PVC, dates for conducting primary elections shall not be earlier than 150 days and not later than 120 days before the date of election etc.”

 

At the event, recommendations were made by representatives of YIAGA Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, as well as Albinos Foundation, Jake Epkele. Mbamalu spoke on the need to amend Section 31 of the Electoral Act 2010 that talks about candidate’s lists, to ensure that political parties are mandated to submit lists that include women, young persons and persons with disability.

 

Ekpele was however concerned about amendment to Section 10(3) of the Act to allow for disability status and type to be captured during the exercise.

 

Lawyers speak

 

A cross-section of senior lawyers has in the meantime been speaking about their expectations from the National Assembly as the lawmakers commenced another exercise of amending the Electoral Act. The lawyers while commending the lawmakers for the feat also spoke on some of the areas they would want the amendment to affect.

 

Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Dr. Biodun Layonu, spoke on the need to make electronic voting a permanent feature of the nation’s electoral process.

 

He said: “I want the National Assembly to look at the issue of electronic voting and see how it can permanently be part of our electoral system. We should also be able to come up with a technology that can be deployed even in the remotest villages to allow for electronic voting. If we fail to achieve this feat, we will never be able to have elections devoid of rigging and other irregularities.

 

The more we reduce rigging incidences, the better for us. “Besides, it has always been difficult, if not practically impossible for any aggrieved party to challenge the outcome of either a governorship or presidential election on its merit. We must find a way out of the quagmire so that people who rigged their way to power will not continue to enjoy where they are not supposed to do so.

 

He said: “Credibility is one of the words used by the law, what then is credibility? How do you prove rigging successfully as specified by the law? So, something must be done to tamper with the law, so as to make it easier for people to successfully prove offence of rigging at the Tribunal”. Dr. Fassy Yusuf spoke on the need to make voters’ registration a continuous exercise by INEC.

 

“The amendment must take cognizance of the fact that there are some provisions in the Act that are no longer in tune with realities. The lawmakers must look into this aspect. “One of the areas that must be looked into is registration of voters. Registration of voters should not be limited to a particular period of time. Voters’ register should be constantly updated by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Anyone that has attained the age of 18 must be registered as a voter, so that they can exercise their franchise.

 

“Besides, the lawmakers must also look at how to ensure that election results are released from the polling booth. The law should be amended to make it compulsory for election umpire to announce results of every election conducted at the polling booth. The results must also be available to all the parties who partake in the election.

 

From the polling booth, the results can be transmitted for collation. “I also think the lawmakers should work on how to reduce the number of political parties in the country. They are too numerous.

 

Though, we have been talking about freedom of association and all that, but at the same time, we must be conscious of our peculiarities. Majority of these political parties are not achieving anything at the time of election. These parties are just wasting the nation’s resources and creating logistic problem for the election umpire.

 

As far as I am concerned, we should not have more than five political parties in this country”, he said. To Mr. Oluwole Kehinde, the lawmakers should focus on making electronic voting and transmission of results a reality in the nation’s electoral system. He said: “The major area is electronic voting, collation and transmission of results.

 

It was done during the Saraki’s session, but was jettisoned by Buhari for political reasons. That process would save us from thuggery, intimidation, disenfranchisement and other manipulations.”

 

Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu also emphasized the need for continuous voters’ registration by INEC. “The method of registration of voters for the conduct of elections in Nigeria between 1999 and 2017 was largely ranging from typewriters compilations to Direct Data Capture Machine (DDCM), Electronic Voters’ Register (EVR), Smart Card Reader (SCR) and e-collation.

 

“Prior to the 2003 elections, there was neither a database of voters nor any technology introduced to minimize double registrations. Thus, there were serious credibility issues around registers of voters in Nigeria. The foundation of any election process is a credible voters’ register. The voters’ register is the basis for determining who is eligible to vote and who is not on election-day.

 

“Therefore a provision that guarantees periodic and regular review and further updates of the voters’ register must be encouraged in a manner that accommodates new entrants into the voting age bracket as well as the deceased. “Deliberate efforts should be concentrated at the establishment of a Federal Electoral Independent State Commission to deal with local council elections. It’s precisely to guarantee some measure of independence and impartiality from the observed grip of state governments.

 

“The lawmakers must also seek to harmonise all reforms and amendments that have been captured in the years of our electoral evolution into a single statute. Adopt full electronic means in the collation and transmission of results.

 

Statutory provisions that impose on INEC the responsibility to justify the integrity of the election it conducted and the result it declared,” Malachy said. To Mr. Kabir Akingbolu, any amendment to the Electoral Act must recognize the usage of card reader and electronic verification and accreditation.

 

He said: “It is heartwarming that the National Assembly has commenced the process of amending the electoral law. However, there are a lot of expectations by Nigerians from them. Although, many believe that the proposed amendment, to be meaningful, ought to embrace modern electoral practice and innovations that are congenial with modern democracy anywhere in the world, I respectfully and sincerely believe that Nigeria is not ripe for electronic voting because it is susceptible to manipulations by desperate politicians.

 

“In addition, one would expect any amendment to recognize the usage of card reader and electronic verification and accreditation. The new amendment should also look at areas that will make it impossible for courts to declare candidates that have not won elections by majority votes to ever get to office by default through court pronouncements.

 

“It will also make sense if there can be provisions to make it possible for the transmission of election results electronically.

 

At this stage of our democratic sojourn or experimentations, we should be looking at an electoral body that can conduct elections in an atmosphere devoid of manipulations so as to reduce the election litigations in our courts. “Meanwhile, amending the law is one thing, getting presidential assent is another. I hope the president will assent to the Bill on time so as to be useful for the coming election.

 

This is because in times past, the president always delays action on presidential approval of laws.” Mr. Destiny Takon said the proposed amendments, should extend first of all, to the process of collation and summation of votes cast at the election, for all candidates.

 

He said: “In my view, the absence of good governance and absence of infrastructural and human development in Nigeria is traceable to an electoral system that is totally bereft of integrity because it enshrines mediocrity, nepotism, bigotry and other stifling vices on the leadership of the nation.

 

“The president and most Nigerians who hold elective positions of public trust today, emerged as leaders with forged academic credentials and instead of being prosecuted under the Electoral Act, they are given a pat on the back and allowed to get away with forgery and when challenged again by opponents, are declared by an equally compromised judicial arm, to be emminently qualified.

 

“In other instances, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), another prime culprit in the sad commentary about our electoral system, declares elections where ‘persons of shared political interest’ are losing to be inconclusive, organized supplementary elections and only end up with a predictable victory, for the otherwise, losing candidate of the party in government.

 

Worthy of mention also is the situation where what led to the declaration of elections inconclusive in one state by INEC, would become irrelevant when it happens in another state, so long as the beneficiary of the declaration of a final result, is a ‘person of shared political interest’.

 

The instances of mischief, necessitating amendment of the Electoral Act, are myriad. “Therefore, the proposed amendment should extend first of all, to the process of collation and summation of votes cast at the election, for all candidates.

 

The process should be automated by imbibing technology that would ensure that the total number of votes cast at an election, are posted from a polling centre, after concurrence by party agents and summed up electronically by an excel system, at a Central Final Collating and Reporting Centre, on a real time basis and visible to the whole world, without further human or manual input.

 

“There should be new provisions stating that any candidate who wins a percentage of the total votes cast and over a percentage of the constituency, shall be declared the winner of the election and not as declared by the State or Constituency Returning Officer. INEC must be set up or appointments done in such a manner or through a process that alienates the Commission from Executive control and manipulation.

 

“On a final note, there should be provision for independent candidacy to reduce the strangle hold that godfatherism and cabal dictatorship have on our political landscape.

 

“I must also say that the president’s continued veto of the Bill reveals him as a debacle to our electoral reformation and transition to integrity in the electoral system.

 

He is a product of a far more transparent electoral process than he is operating and must capitalize on this current reform, to rewrite his shameful narrative.”

 

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