ECC’s Voter Registration Observation Final Report

Summary

The Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC), a platform of civil society organizations that observes all aspect of elections in Liberia, deployed 89 trained observers across the 15 counties to witness the conduct of the voter registration process that took place from February 1 through March 14, 2017. The ECC issued four updates on the voter registration process. This final report summarizes the findings and recommendations for the entire exercise.

Overall, reports from ECC observers in all 15 counties showed that the process was generally well conducted across the country. The vast majority of registration centers at which ECC deployed observers opened on time, had the necessary materials and generally followed procedures. While there were recurring challenges with equipment including cameras and printers, late openings of centers or missing materials, this only effected a small number of centers observed by the ECC. In addition, the number of these incidents observed decreased as the process progressed. ECC observer reports did find that registration staff unevenly required applicants to provide proof of eligibility and where they ordinarily reside. Ensuring that only eligible voters register and register in the correct location remains a challenge that the NEC should further address in future elections. ECC observers reported few incidents of violence during the process. While overall the average turnout rates were encouraging throughout the process, the ECC would require access to the preliminary voters list in order to assess the comprehensiveness of the registration process.

Background

The National Election Commission (NEC) conducted a full new voter registration exercise in advance of the

2017 Presidential and Legislative elections. The voter registration exercise commenced on February 1st 2017 and was scheduled to run through March 7th with centers being open every day except Sundays (for a total of 30 days). On March 3, 2017 the NEC announced that voter registration would be extended for an additional week, thus ending on March 14th. All Liberians wanting to vote in the 2017 elections were required to register (even if they had registered previously).

A total of 2,080 registration centers were established (an increase of 300 over registration centers in 2011 and 2014). The NEC indicated that it would have liked to have increased the number of registration centers to 4,000, but it lacked the finances to do so. Each registration center was to be staffed by four registration officials: a registrar in charge of the center, a registration clerk, a shader for completing the registration form; and a photographer. Registration centers were scheduled to open at 8:00 am, but there was some confusion about when they were to close. Some NEC documents stated that registration centers were to remain open until 4pm, others until 5pm and still others until 6pm.  Additionally, some confusion arose when registration centers closed due to reaching the established threshold of 3,000 registrants. The NEC lifted this threshold during the extension period to 4,500 registrants.

The registration procedures require all applicants to appear in person at registration centers (see Appendix A: 2017 Simplified Voter Registration Procedures). Applicants had to demonstrate that they were Liberian citizens and 18 years old or older at the time that they registered. Changes to the legal framework also required applicants to register where they ordinarily reside (to prevent the “trucking” of registered voters between electoral districts for political gain). However, the corresponding regulations did not clarify how registration officials were to determine if an applicant ordinarily resides in a location making it difficult to determine if trucking indeed occurred. For each successful applicant an optical mark recognition (OMR) registration form would be completed by registration officials. These forms were periodically transferred to magistrate offices and then to Monrovia where they are scanned into a computer to create an electronic voters list. In addition, each successful applicant would receive a laminated voter registration card with his/her name, photograph, and location where he/she would vote on election day written on the card.

Registration Age Requirement: The NEC requires successful voter registration applicants to be 18 years or older on the day on which they present themselves at registration centers. This approach excludes Liberians who turn 18 after the end of registration, but before Election Day. In countries like Liberia that use periodic registration, it is more common to require successful applicants to be 18 years old or older on the date of the election. If registration had been done based on the applicant’s age on the date of the election, then the NEC would register all Liberians born on or before October 10th, 1999. This approach would have given more young people the opportunity to vote without extending the duration or increasing the cost of voter registration.

Methodology

The ECC deployed 89 total observers – one county coordinator per county for each of the 15 counties (with an additional coordinator for Montserrado County) – and one electoral district observer for each of the 73 electoral districts. All ECC observers were carefully selected and thoroughly trained by the ECC.

All 89 observers were instructed to observe at a single registration center throughout the day on nine specified days during three phases throughout voter registration. Following the decision by the NEC to extend voter registration by a week, ECC observers were instructed to observe at a single registration center for an additional day during the extension.

The dates on which ECC observers were instructed to deploy to polling stations were:

  • Phase 1 February 1st to 6th – Start of Voter Registration: Observations on February 1st, 3rd, and 6th;
  • Phase 2 February 18th to 23rd – Middle of Voter Registration: Observations on February 18th, 21st, and 23rd;
  • Phase 3 March 3rd to 7th – End of Voter Registration: Observations on March 3rd, 6th, and 7th; and
  • Extension – One Week Extension of Voter Registration: Observation on March 14th.

On each observation day, every observer sent in four observation reports based on a comprehensive checklist via coded text message using their mobile phones to the ECC’s Information Center (ECC-IC).

Review of List of Registration Centers (see Tables 1 and 2)

Starting on Wednesday, January 18, 2017, the National Elections Commission (NEC) began publishing the

list of registration centers for the 2017 voter registration exercise in local newspapers with 2,080 registration centers. In advance of deploying observer to monitor the voter registration process, the ECC conducted a review of the list of registration centers.

The ECC’s review of the NEC’s list showed a small number of potential errors – registration centers that appeared to have been removed from the list (21); registration centers that appeared to have moved electoral district (9); and registration centers that appeared to have wrong codes (4). These potential errors affected only 1.6% of the total registration centers. However, the ECC’s review of the initial list also showed that out of the existing 1,780 registration centers from 2011/14, 1,048 (59.6%) had a different locality in 2017 and 1,118 (63.6%) had a different name in 2017. This suggested that nearly two-thirds of the existing centers had potentially been moved to a new location for 2017. The ECC shared these issues with the NEC who informed the ECC that they were aware of these concerns and were working to address them.

The NEC subsequently released a revised list of registration centers on Saturday January 28, 2017, just four days before voter registration was scheduled to commence. This revised list corrected the potential errors raised by the ECC about the initial list. Further, all of the existing 1,780 registration centers from 2011/14 list of registration centers had the same location and name in 2017 list as they did in 2011/14 list, suggesting they had not been moved after all. As with the initial list the revised list also had 2,080 registration centers of which 300 were new.

  • The largest number of new centers were established in Nimba County (48);
  • The fewest number of new centers were established in Maryland County (5);
  • The largest percentage of new centers were established in River Gee County (80.6%); and
  • The smallest percentage of new centers were established in Maryland County (6.4%).

Observation Findings

Overall, the ECC received a total of 849 reports on the conduct of voter registration from its observers throughout voter registration with reports being sent in from all 15 counties (see Table 3).

Accreditation

While the ECC did not have difficulties being accredited by the NEC to observe the voter registration process, there were significant administrative challenges in obtaining the accreditation badges for observers. The ECC submitted its list of observers by the NEC’s deadline of January 19 however, 25 observer badges were not received before the start of voter registration and 10 duplicate badges were also received.

As a result, six ECC observers on February 1 and one ECC Observer on February 3 were not permitted to observe as they lacked accreditation badges. Generally registration officials in Montserrado adhered to instructions and did not permit observers lacking accreditation badges to observe at registration centers. However, many ECC observers outside of Montserrado were permitted to observe even though they did not have accreditation badges.

Setup (see Table 4)

There were challenges with some centers not being able to open due to lack of materials (in particular working cameras).

ECC observers reported that only 16 registration centers never open as scheduled.

  • 639 of 847 registration centers opened by 8:00 am;

ECC observers reported that generally registration centers had the required staff and nearly all registration centers had all the required materials.

  • 694 of 831 registration centers had four registration staff at opening;
  • 231 of 831 registration centers had a female registrar;
  • 829 of 831 registration centers had optical mark recognition (OMR) registration forms; and
  • 829 of 831 registration centers had indelible ink.

ECC observer reports show overall low presence of uniformed security personnel at registration centers:

  • 137 of 831 registration centers had uniform security personnel; and
  • 428 of 822 registration centers had representatives of any political party.

ECC observers reported that at 73 of 831 registration centers applicants were required to go upstairs to register – which potentially poses a problem for some persons with disabilities.

Registration Procedures (see Table 5)

Once centers opened, registration procedures were generally followed:

  • At 761 of 823 registration centers, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and pregnant women were allowed to register before other applicants;
  • At 789 of 822 registration centers, an optical mark recognition (OMR) registration form was completed for every successful applicant; and
  • At 793 of 821 registration centers, every successful applicant had his/her finger marked with indelible ink;

However, applicants were not systematically being asked to show proof of eligibility.

  • At 371 of 822 registration centers, every applicant was asked to show proof of his/her eligibility; and
  • At 477 of 821 registration center, applicants were asked to provide any evidence that they ordinarily resided in the locality.

ECC observers reported challenges with cameras at some registration centers:

  • At 45 of 822 registration centers, the camera did NOT work throughout the day; and
  • At 11 of 822 registration centers, the camera did NOT take good quality photographs.

At 43 of 821 registration centers, ECC observers reported that the center was closed for more than an hour for lunch and at 8 of 256 registration centers the center closed before 4:00 pm.

Registration Figures (see Table 6)

ECC observers witnessed a total of 37,235 applicants successfully register, an average of 46 successful registrants per center based on 817 reports.

A total of 16,598 women successfully registered at 818 centers for an average of 20 women successful registrants. Women represented 45% of successful registrants observed by the ECC.

Finally, there were 999 spoiled OMR registration forms at the 817 centers for an average of a little more than 1 spoiled forms per center.

While overall the average turnout rates were encouraging throughout the process, the ECC would require access to the preliminary voters list in order to assess the comprehensiveness of the registration process.

Critical Incidents

ECC observers were instructed to immediately report any serious problems that could compromise the conduct of the voter registration process. Critical incidents that were reported by ECC observers were related to the late opening of registration centers and the failure of camera’s to work throughout the day resulting in the suspension of registration.

A total of only 52 critical incidents were reported by ECC observers throughout the entire voter registration period (from the start of voter registration on February 1st 2017 through the end of the extension on March 14th). Critical incidents of note that were directly observed by ECC observers include:

  • Suspension of registration due to equipment failure such as mal-functioning cameras, dysfunction of solar panel,
  • Refusal of NEC officials to share the Daily Accounting Sheet with ECC Observers,
  • Late opening of some registration centers, while others never opened,
  • Incident of potential trucking, apparent illegal registration of applicants, minor conflicts at registration centers, etc

While critical incidents are important and reflect serious issues that could significantly affect voter registration, they must also be understood within the overall context. As noted previously, the process was generally well conducted across the country and the number of registration centers effected by these incidents were small.

Trends by Reporting Period (see Tables 7, 8, and 9)

While most aspects of the voter registration process were well conducted throughout the registration period, ECC observers reported some challenges early in the process that were improved over time. Between the beginnings of the process (Phase 1) through the end of the process (Extension), ECC observer reports indicated:

  • A decrease in the number centers that opened late (Chart 3);
  • An increase in the number of centers with political party agents present (Chart 4);
  • An increase in the number of registration centers where applicants were asked to provide proof that he/she lives in the locality/community (Chart 5); and
  • A decrease in the number of centers where the camera did not function (Chart 6).

ECC observers also noted that the number of average registrants at each registration center observed by the ECC declined as the process progressed (Chart 7). It is typical that registration rates start higher at the beginning of the process. However, there was not an increase towards the end of the process as had been expected. In addition, the average number of spoilt OMR forms decreased after the first reporting period and remained at an average of less than one spoilt form per registration center for the remainder of the process (Chart 8)

Trends by Geography (see Tables 10, 11, and 12)

Generally, different aspects of the voter registration process were equally well-conducted across the country. However, in some aspects, ECC observers found difference in how the process was conducted in Montserrado County, in the South East region (the most rural parts of the country) and in the rest of the country. For example:

  • Registration centers in Montserrado County were more likely to have a female registrar than in the South East and the rest of the country (Chart 9);
  • Registration centers in Montserrado County were more likely to have uniformed security personnel than in the South East and the rest of the country (Chart 10);
  • Registration centers in Montserrado County had a higher number of average registrants per registration center on the days observed than in the South East and the rest of the country (Chart 11). This is not unexpected given the higher population in Monsterrado County. Registration rates were relatively consistent in the rest of the country.

ECC observers also reported that the percentage of women registrants was relatively consistent across the country.

Recommendations

The 2017 voter registration exercise offers lessons for future voter registration efforts; the upcoming exhibition of the voters list, as well as for Election Day.

Recommendations for Future Voter Registration Exercises

  • The NEC should provide the final and accurate list of voter registration centers by the legal deadline to ensure citizens, political parties and observer groups have adequate time to plan and fully participate in the process;
  • The NEC should enhance the training of voter registration staff to ensure they adequately understand the voter registration procedures, rules and regulations including the role of observers in the process;
  • The NEC should recruit voter registration staff from the county, and if possible district, in which they serve;
  • The NEC should print accreditation badges in a timely manner to ensure observer groups are fully able to observe the process from its inception;
  • The NEC and civil society should conduct widespread voter information campaigns sufficiently ahead of the voter registration process to ensure that citizens are aware of the process and how to participate; and
  • The Liberian National Police and other security agencies should increase the presence of uniformed security personnel across the country to help enforce the law, troubleshoot problems that arise and enhance confidence in the process.

Recommendations for Upcoming Exhibition of the Voter List

  • The NEC, political parties and civil society should conduct voter education campaigns on the exhibition process to give applicants prior information on procedures, rules and regulations relating to making changes on the list;
  • Political parties should actively participate in the exhibition process including educating party agents on when and how to file complaints;
  • The NEC should fairly and expeditiously respond to complaints filed;
  • The NEC should provide information about the exhibition process to citizens, political parties and observers sufficiently ahead of the process, and avoid making changes during the process to avoid confusion; and
  • The NEC should provide the full preliminary voters list in an electronic format to political parties and accredited observation groups to enhance the transparency and accountability of the process.

Recommendation for Election Day

  • The NEC, political parties and civil society should conduct wide spread voter information and voter education campaigns to prepare and encourage registered voters to vote on Election Day.
  • The NEC should ensure that polling station staff adequately understand voting and counting procedures, rules and regulations including the role of observers in the process.
  • The NEC should accredit observer groups and print accreditation badges in a timely manner;
  • The NEC should provide information about the voting and counting process to citizens, political parties and observers sufficiently ahead of Election Day;
  • Political parties should recruit, train and deploy party agents to monitor voting and counting processes on election day; and
  • Security agents should ensure the adequate presence of uniformed security personnel at polling stations and tally centers on Election Day.

Conclusion

Overall, reports from ECC observers in all 15 counties showed that the process was generally well conducted across the country. The vast majority of registration centers at which ECC deployed observers opened on time, had the necessary materials and generally followed procedures. While there were recurring challenges with equipment including cameras and printers, late openings of centers or missing materials, this only effected a small number of centers observed by the ECC. In addition, the number of these incidents observed decreased as the process progressed. ECC observer reports did find that registration staff unevenly required applicants to provide proof of eligibility and where they ordinarily resides. Ensuring that only eligible voters register and register in the correct location remains a challenge that the NEC should further address in future elections. ECC observers reported few incidents of violence during the process.

Download pdf version of report here: ECC Voter Registration Final Report_Final Version