Democratising Voter Access to Polling Units

Democratising Voter Access to Polling Units

…INEC Seeks Stakeholders Inputs to Expand Voting Areas …Says Polling Units Should Be Conducive, Easily Reachable by the PLWDs …Need to Decongest Overcrowded Polling Units with Some Having Between 4,000 to 15,000 Voters …Current Configuration of 119,973 Polling Units Done by Defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) in 1996.     Apart from deepening the

…INEC Seeks Stakeholders Inputs to Expand Voting Areas

…Says Polling Units Should Be Conducive, Easily Reachable by the PLWDs

…Need to Decongest Overcrowded Polling Units with Some Having Between 4,000 to 15,000 Voters

…Current Configuration of 119,973 Polling Units Done by Defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) in 1996.    

Apart from deepening the use of digital devices to make our electoral outcomes in Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy more transparent, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) also inches to democratize voter access to polling booths not only by creating more Polling Units but also locating them in places that are reachable by persons living with disabilities (PLWDs).

It also strives to urgently tackle overcrowding at Polling Units with many of them gone beyond the 700 voters’ benchmark in line with COVID-19 protocols. The demography of 50 million voters, which made the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) to arrive at the current 119,973 Polling Units in 1996, is no longer realistic as some now hold between 4,000 and 15,000 voters which is 2000 per cent above the national average.

Polling Units

In his preface to the discussion paper titled, The State Of Voter Access To Polling Units In Nigeria, INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu says, “Polling Units are central to the electoral process and therefore democracy at large. Voter access to Polling Units is at the very heart of electoral democracy because Polling Units are the basis on which citizens exercise their fundamental rights to vote and to make electoral choices freely. Consequently, Polling Units largely shape citizens’ confidence in the electoral process, the levels of either participation or apathy, as well as security and safety during elections.”

According to him, “Voter access goes beyond the number of Polling Units available to voters. It also entails citing Polling Units in places that are conducive to voting as well as the extent to which the environment of each Polling Unit provides a good voter experience and implementation of the regulations and guidelines of the Commission on Election Day.”

Yakubu explains further: “Over the years, voter access to Polling Units in Nigeria has been declining. For the 2019 General Election, the average number of voters per Polling Unit was about 700 nationally, rising to over 2,000 in the Federal Capital Territory while a specific Polling Unit in Nasarawa State had over 15,000 voters.

“Furthermore, some Polling Units are located in very difficult places that do not encourage voters to participate in elections, particularly persons living with disability. Others are located in places experiencing conflicts or in places under the control of partisan actors. Moreover, because of inadequate Polling Units, many voters have to travel long distances to their Polling Units on Election Day.

Election Regulations

“All these have contributed to low voter turnout at elections, egregious violation of election regulations and guidelines, violence and insecurity. Crowding at Polling Units also constitutes health and safety issues in this period of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Repeated attempts by the Commission to expand voter access to Polling Units by establishing new ones and relocating some to better sites have not been successful. Consequently, the Commission resorted to stopgap measures such as the creation of “Baby Polling Units”, Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements.

“All these have not adequately solved the problem and, in fact, in some cases have created new challenges of their own. The inability of the Commission to routinely expand voter access to Polling Units when necessary has been principally due to politicization of the process by sundry interests in the country, especially by propagating unfounded claims and conspiracy theories about the Commission’s intentions. Delays arising from opposition to the establishment of Polling Units have meant that the process comes too close to elections and therefore is impossible to complete. Also, the level of consultation with stakeholders by the Commission may not have been adequate,” the INEC chair says.

New Electoral Cycle

Yakubu notes that, “As the Commission enters a new electoral cycle (2019-2023), with some major upcoming activities such as the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) and several off-cycle elections which will culminate in the 2023 general election, it decided to embark early enough on a major programme of engagement with stakeholders on expanding voter access to Polling Units ahead of the activities in the electoral calendar.

“Therefore, this Discussion Paper is the Commission’s framework for the planned engagement. Among other things, it presents the Commission’s concerns about the worsening challenge of voter access to Polling Units, provides a historical background to this challenge, outlines some indicative issues to be addressed by the engagements and provides the Commission’s thinking on how to solve the challenge of declining voter access to Polling Units in Nigeria.

“As a Commission, we do not take the important contributions of stakeholders to the electoral process for granted. These engagements and this Discussion Paper are indeed a continuation of the commitment of the Commission to always listen to stakeholders and to do our best to carry them along in all cardinal issues of election management in Nigeria. Accordingly, this document should be seen not as an end in itself but as a means to an end for open, genuine and fruitful engagement with stakeholders in the electoral process.”

The Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) defines a Polling Unit (PU) in the paper’s outline, as “the place, enclosure, booth, shade or house at which voting takes place under this Act” (Section 156-interpretation). Consequently, Polling Units (PUs) constitute the basic structure of Nigeria’s electoral system and democracy. They are the nerve centres at which voters make contact with the Commission during elections.

Conducive Atmosphere

“As such, it is exceedingly important that Polling Units are not only ready and conducive to receive voters, but that they are also well-organized and secure for the beehive of activities that occur in them on Election Day. Indeed, well-organized and efficiently run Polling Units are emblematic of the quality of the entire election ecosystem. Voter access to Polling Units is therefore fundamental to our elections and democracy at large.

Over the years, several challenges have confronted INEC with Polling Units. First, there is the problem of inadequate number of Polling Units available to voters. As a result of population growth, demographic shifts and establishment of new settlements and residential areas, existing Polling Units have become inadequate. Since the law ties registration of voters and voting to specific Polling Units, it means that voters have to walk long distances on Election Day to vote. Often, they are not able to do so because of restrictions on movement.

Second, inadequacy of Polling Units implies that many of them are overcrowded during elections, which is a recipe for delays, disruptions, violence and apathy. To be sure, overcrowding varies from one area to another due to uneven growth in population. Still, practically all Polling Units have experienced increased population of voters.

Thus, during the 2011 elections, most of the Polling Units saw turnouts exceeding the 500 voters designated per Polling Unit. In fact, a review carried out by the commission in 2014 revealed that many Polling Units recorded very large number of voters. Some had exceeded the designated figure of 500 voters per Polling Unit by a couple of thousands while some had over 4,000 registered voters. These huge numbers pointed to the urgency of reorganizing Polling Units.

Physically Inaccessible

Third, the location of some of the Polling Units, make access very difficult. For instance, some are located in very physically inaccessible locations, particularly for persons living with disability. And, at least until recently, some were even located in the homes of important people and religious groups, who often have political leanings capable of discouraging some voters from voting. Also, some Polling Units are located in highly charged and contested areas, including areas experiencing communal conflicts.

Fourth, there is the problem of organization of Polling Units. This is related to location. Many of them are in the open, with little cover. Others have inadequate space to cater for the official schema for organizing Polling Units. As a result, arrangement of Polling Units during elections to facilitate voting is difficult to achieve.

Vote Buying

For example, this has been conducive to vote-buying whereby voters are able to reveal their choices to “party agents” to enable them to consummate the buying and selling of votes. This particular problem has become even more serious in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because the constricted spaces available at Polling Units do not support the necessary social distancing recommended by health authorities.

Finally, even the actual number and exact locations of Polling Units were unknown for a long time. The Commission then under Prof Attahiru Jega (2010 – 2015) had to embark on a verification exercise to enumerate and locate the Polling Units. In fact, it was only after this verification that the number of Polling Units was established as 119,973, instead of the round figure of 120,000 that was assumed for many years.

The Polling Unit is the lowest level of the electoral structure in Nigeria. As such, it is probably the most critical point in delivering qualitative elections. Polling Units aggregate into Registration Areas (Wards in the Federal Capital Territory) and, subsequently, into constituencies.

Electoral Act 2010

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is empowered by the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) to establish adequate number of Polling Units in the country and assign voters to them. Specifically, Section 42 of the Act provides that: ‘The Commission shall establish sufficient number of Polling Units in each Registration Area and allot voters to such Polling Units.’

INEC however says, voter access to Polling Units is not exclusively about their sufficiency because availability may in fact not guarantee access. The suitability of the locations of Polling Units is also very important in determining voter access to them. Consequently, the Commission has chosen to address both the establishment of sufficient Polling Units and their location in good accessible places.

For instance, it has been the policy of the Commission that as far as practicable, Polling Units are to be located in:

* Public places, preferably centrally located and accessible.

* Non-partisan, non-sectarian locations such as schools, town halls, etc.

* Spacious facilities to cater for adequately sitting election officials, political party agents, election observers and voters, if necessary.

* Adequately sheltered/covered locations such as classrooms and halls.

* Locations that can take several Polling Units, if required.

* Locations that can be easily secured.

Also, the Commission does not encourage the location of Polling Units in private compounds, royal palaces, government houses, political party buildings, or facilities that are in dispute, as well as very isolated or inaccessible locations such as forests or shrines.

Voter Access

“Consequently, by voter access to Polling Units we designate three things: first, it means adequacy of Polling Units, which has to do with establishment of Polling Units under Section 42 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended). Second, location of Polling Units in places that are conducive for voters to participate freely in the process. Third, ensuring that the environment at specific Polling Units is conducive to good voter experience, implementation of Commission’s guidelines on organizing Polling Units, as well as adequate security and safety of voters, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, the Commission prefers to talk of voter access to Polling Units given the fact that accessibility to voting locations as guaranteed in the electoral legal framework, is a democratic right for all citizens. In other words, the intent of the Commission is best captured by expanding access to Polling Units, rather than just the establishment of Polling Units, which is more limited in scope.

Current Configuration

The current configuration of 119,973 Polling Units was established by the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) in 1996. In the nearly 25-year period since then, every attempt to review or reconfigure the Polling Unit structure has been unsuccessful for sundry reasons. Consequently, the 1996 Polling Unit configuration was used for the 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019 General Elections.

When the Polling Unit structure was established in 1996, it was projected to serve about 50 million registered voters. However, the number of registered voters for the 1999 General Election was 57.93 million. This rose to 60.82 million in 2003, 61.56 million in 2007 and 73.52 million in 2011.

Although the number declined to 68.83 million for the 2015 General Election following the cleaning up of the register through the use of Automated Fingerprints Identification System (AFIS) to eliminate double registrants, it rose to 84.04 million in 2019 as a result of the Commission embarking on a robust continuous voter registration exercise, as prescribed by law.

The import of this development is that while the number of registered voters increased from 57.93 million in 1999 to 84.04 million in 2019, which is an increase of 45 percent, the number of Polling Units remained the same. This lack of correlation between the number of registered voters and the number of Polling Units since 1999 has resulted in congested Polling Units on Election Day and lack of Polling Units in many developing suburban and newly established settlements.

The effects have been low voter turnout and voter apathy, insecurity at the Polling Units, disruption of elections and, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, unsafe voting environments. Indeed, presently, the average number of voters per Polling Unit in Nigeria, which stands at 700, is 37% more than the situation in Ghana.

Yet, this could be quite misleading because in some States in Nigeria, the average number of voters per Polling Unit is well over 4,000. Indeed, in one Polling Unit, Mararaba Garage II in Karu Local Government Area of Nasarawa State, there are 15,061 voters, which is more than 2000% above this national average.


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