I write to offer a dispassionate contribution to the debate on whether Ghana needs a new voters’ register (even though the EC seem to have decided already on the way forward) and some other issues germane to the relationship between the EC and political parties as well as peace and political stability in Ghana now, during and after the 2020 General Elections.
1. The EC has given cogent reasons why we must get a new voters’ register for the 2020 elections. They have highlighted several challenges with the old register that cannot be glossed over by any reasonable election management body.
2. But in spite of the challenges of the current register, it was successfully used to organize a referendum. It was also used to organize the just ended DA elections without much qualms. How did this happen? Certainly, our current biometric registration devices may have encountered some challenges in the referendum and DA elections. Nevertheless, these challenges were competently resolved somehow, by the EC in a manner that did not undermine the credibility of the two elections.
3. Are there truly imponderable and unsurmountable or peculiar challenges that the 2020 elections present, that cannot be tamed by the current register and consensus among the political elites? If so, the EC must thoroughly explain these challenges to stakeholders, possibly beyond political parties, to include even the ordinary Ghanaian voter, not in one long technical Press Statement, but in very simple and short pieces of information.
4. I admire the innovation in setting up an Advisory Committee to demystify the work of the EC. A similar innovation maybe for the Commission to sometimes go beyond its traditional political party stakeholders. The Commission may want to reach out to the public to seize them with crucial information, as a way of also meeting its constitutional duty of political socialization, and obtaining popular buy-in of its proposals beyond political party support.
5. We need a new register and I agree with the EC, given the challenges with the old one. But do we have enough time to go through the laborious processes in an election year where there is much suspicion by the main opposition party of the EC?
6. Certain activities undertaken in an election year by the EC, regardless of how pious the intentions maybe, would be viewed with suspicion by the opposition. This has been the case since 1992. I am certain that it wasn’t the fault and intention of the Commission to delay the processes and to defer matters of the new voters’ roll to an election year. But the fact remains that, this is an election year and without an extra effort to build consensus, every move by the EC will be viewed by the opposition with suspicion.
7. If we want to do things right, then the EC cannot commence the registration process until the 2020 Population and Housing Census (PHC) is undertaken. This is because the PHC figures, usually accepted as more credible because of the less partisan interest in their compilation, will provide irrefutable benchmarks for the EC’s registration processes to commence. This would ensure a harmony between the PHC data and the voter registration data of the EC. Indeed, the two must speak to each other. Else, one can anticipate problems if for instance, the EC goes ahead of the PHC to register 100 people in the Ashanti region as voters, only for the PHC to show that there are only 50 voters there. So, to avoid needless suspicion and confusion, the PHC must take place first.
8. But the PHC is expected to be held in March and it may take up to May for the results to be released. Let’s also note that the procurement of the EC’s voter registration devices may also take some time.
9. Again, compiling a completely new register (including field work, generating provisional register, resolving and adjudicating disputes about who shouldn’t be on the register, exhibition of the register and the production of a final register) may take up to five months of the attention of political parties in a campaign season.
10. We are also yet to know whether ROPAA will be implemented to allow Ghanaians resident abroad to be registered to vote in the 2020 elections. There will be too much pressure on the EC and political parties, should the EC be compelled to implement ROPAA in 2020 in addition to compiling a new register.
11. We must not forget that given the heightened interest in the upcoming elections, the two main political parties will need all the time to campaign with full concentration, and without being distracted by the highly tensed and potentially polarizing issues of compiling a completely new register. Wouldn’t it be too much for parties to shuttle between campaign rally grounds and registration centers to police what is going on there?
11. The political parties must take a second look at their respective campaign calendars to see whether they will have the time to virtually halt their campaign to be able to fully participate in the new voter registration process. But in my experience, these parties in the lead up to the 2016 elections, were among other reasons, so busy campaigning in the hinterlands that, it was difficult for them to find the time to mount the platform of Presidential Debates.
12. As a member of the Electoral Reforms Committee, I remember we recommended the need for the EC to desist from packing activities and running crush electoral programmers in an election year to avoid needless suspicion and allow political parties some ample time to campaign. Other AU protocols support this recommendation because, it also allows for ample time to cater for the resolution of disputes, for instance, on matters of voter registration, should they arise.
13. As we debate the issues of new register we must also interrogate the state of our national identification process. Is the national identity card not supposed to provide biometric information for voting? Should the biometric national identification process go on, while we quickly commence another biometric data for voting? May be, we are richer than we think, but we may have to sincerely rethink the needless duplications in our biometric identification systems.
14. There may be legitimate reasons to back the call for a new voters’ roll. But apart from the huge financial implications, will we have ample time to go through all the processes? If YES, let’s build consensus and go for it NOW because there is no time at all. However, if we aren’t sure, then let us be careful.
15. If the EC decides to go ahead with its decision to compile a new register, political parties would have to be mindful that their active campaign season may be shortened. The citizenry would also have to be mindful of the fact that the expression of quality choice, may be undermined as there may be no ample time for political parties to thoroughly market campaign messages to help voters rationally decide who must be voted for.
16. So far, it is decidedly clear that the New Patriotic Party is unable to forcefully communicate its achievements to many Ghanaians. Though the party continue to suffer from some deficiencies in political communication, it is certain that the situation will drastically improve in this election year. The campaign time for them, must therefore not be shortened by the tasking and distracting process of compiling a new voters’ register, that will demand their intense attention and vigilance. Similarly, even though the National Democratic Congress calls for change, its distinct campaign message is yet to be fully marketed and be ingrained in the psyche of voters. I am certain they will step up their game in this election year and hence the campaign season must not be shortened for them too. Also, they must not be distracted by the contentious issues of the compilation of new voters’ roll in the same election year.
17. Our electoral processes have undergone several mutations since 1992. However, the relationship between political parties and the Electoral Commission seem to remain unchanged in a manner that continue to undermine and weaken the legitimacy of the Electoral Commission. Since 1992, the ruling party has generally been supportive of all the major initiatives of the EC even when there have been empirical data to show that the initiatives played negligible and infinitesimal role in their electoral fortunes. Also, the opposition has since 1992 been generally suspicious of some of the major initiatives of the EC, even though evidence abounds to show that they benefitted from some of the initiatives they opposed. We must break this cycle and build bi-partisan consensus to guide the relationship between political parties and the EC.
18. Ghanaians should judge whether we truly need a new register or we have to use the old one while improvising solutions to its challenges by consensus. The support of EC proposals by political parties should not be contingent on whether one is in power or in opposition. It should be based on rationally thought through issues that will benefit not only the political parties but also Ghana as a whole.
19. Finally, we must know by now that, the 2020 election would also be hugely competitive. The political careers of any of the two main contenders may end after a defeat. Also, each of the two main contenders has a sense of unfinished agenda for Ghana and hence need power to finish what was or has been started. These and other allied factors may make the contest very keen. Matters that may therefore needlessly raise the political temperature, must be handled tactfully by the EC in collaboration with the political elites and the society as a whole so that they do not degenerate. For no one will be around to “chop the post” we are seeking or protecting, when there is implosion, conflict and democratic relapse.