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Registration of voters, an election on its own
Election Resource Centre
September 16, 2011

Much has been said about the need for a new voters' roll in Zimbabwe over the past months and the debate has come to a head in current discourse around the roadmap to elections and the recently gazetted Electoral Amendment Bill. The debate has prompted the Registrar of Voters to challenge anyone dismissing the roll to come and inspect it as he believes that it is probably one of the best in the world. In as much as he has trashed suppositions that Zimbabwe's Voters' Roll is in shambles, the very people that participate in elections such as political parties, civic society organisations and ordinary voters clearly do not have confidence in the document. In fact, the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) has repeatedly and categorically called for the cleaning up of the current voters' roll.

That being the case, the Election Resource Centre (ERC) seeks to ignore the Registrar of Voters' comments about the state of the Voters' Roll and instead explore possible voter registration methodologies that the state could embark on ahead of the next poll. The submission below will seek to place into a context, perceptions about the roll and the fact that as the primary election document, any negative perception on such a document by election stakeholders not only opens up any election premised on it to rejection, but also promotes voter apathy.

The ERC further wishes to point out that in as much as voter registration has to be comprehensively and inclusively conducted, the success of such a process, regardless of the methodology, lies in its accessibility to the very people that are supposed to register and the opportunities available for scrutiny of such a document by election stakeholders.

Consequently, the ERC is convinced that any voter registration methodology that the Election Management Body decides to embark on can be comprehensive enough as long as the electorate can freely participate in the process of registering and parties that will participate in the election have unlimited access to scrutinise and audit the document on time.

It is therefore prudent that the political environment under which future voter registration processes are conducted allows for the exercise of one's freedoms and there is access to accurate and timely information on the process.

That being said, a number of submissions have been presented as potential solutions to Zimbabwe's discredited voters' roll. Election watchdogs such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and organisations such as the South African Institute for Race Relations have recommended that a credible election in Zimbabwe can only happen if the country adopts the usage of a biometric system. Such submissions have largely been centred on the need to add security features that are aimed at eliminating the six flaws that have been identified in the current voters' roll namely;

  • Duplicate entries
  • Existence of deceased persons
  • Existence of under age individuals
  • Incomplete addresses
  • Inaccurate names
  • Unclear sex of voters

Using biometric voter registration methodology, the registering authority is able to collect more than just one's name, identification number, residential address, sex among other things. The method, which has proven quite popular in emerging democracies such as Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Gambia, captures biometric data such as the voters' finger prints and photographic image and then assigns a barcode to the data.

It is widely believed that the system, which is computerised and centralised, is able to detect once an individual attempts to register more than once as his details are unique and hence limits multiple registration. Owing to its computerised nature, the methodology is also able to reject incomplete data such as unclear sex and incomplete addresses.

Given the above assertions, it would be logical for Zimbabweans to clamour for biometric voter registration as it clearly addresses four of the key challenges identified with our current voters' roll. The other two challenges can also be comprehensively dealt with if the system is linked to the birth and death register and the electorate is adequately educated to understand the importance of registering births and deaths and the processes are easily accessible to everyone.

However, the ERC is cognisant of the fact that processes that are meant to be inclusive and participatory in nature often confront difficulties if the environment in which they are conducted is not conducive. By environment, the ERC refers to the political climate and the question here should be are communities free to participate in the process. From past experiences, participation and free participation are different in the Zimbabwean context. The Constitutional making outreach process provides clear evidence of this fact in our immediate past. In some rural areas, communities came out to participate and in fact participated through attending the ward meetings but only assigned "spokespersons" participated as they were the only ones permitted to contribute during the discussions.

Secondly, access to accurate information and not just access to information is also central in processes that are supposed to be participatory. If the objective of voter registration is to capture a true record of potential voters and to afford every adult of voting age an opportunity to exercise their constitutional and democratic right to vote, then emphasis should be placed on dissemination of accurate information about the registration process.

Again from previous election experience some political parties have thrived on provision of false electoral information. communities have been convinced that the ballot is not secret and that in fact when one folds their ballot paper and shows it to the polling officials, "ZANU PF" is able to see how one would have voted. Through biometric voter registration's use of advanced technology to capture potential voters' details, there is limit to what those politicians who thrive on misinformation are likely to tell rural and marginalised voters what the system actually allows them to predict.

As the voter registration debate continues, the ERC strongly urges all election stakeholders to carefully consider the implication of any voter registration methodology to be used ahead of the next poll. The ERC supports a process that will not only be inclusive but transparent and conducted in an environment free of intimidation and violence.

Voter registration in Zimbabwe will in fact be an election on its own and therefore the same demands being made about the next election also aptly apply ahead of this process. Such conditions include security sector reforms, media reforms, reforms to ZEC and all bodies mandated with conducting election related processes such as the Registrar of Voters, an end to violence and removal of all infrastructure of violence such as bases and the disbanding of youth militia.

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