If there is one exercise in Uganda’s electoral cycle that has always bred contestation around elections and election outcome, it is the process of compiling or updating the national voter register. Many times, this contestation has been because of the insufficient time and attention allocated to the making and/or cleaning the voters’ register. We can trace this as far back as in the processes leading up to the1996 general elections.
According to the EC’s Strategic Plan 2013-2017, the general update of the voters register at parish level was scheduled to commence in September this year – this is yet to begin.
Many times, questions around the independence and impartiality of the EC have been linked directly to the Commission’s actions and inactions in failing to address the problems related to voter registration.
In 2001, there were questions around the incredibly high number of voters on the national voters register; out of Uganda’s 22 million people, 11.6 million were on the register – a number that cast doubt on the credibility of the register at that time. Worse still, in that election cycle, only twelve days had been allocated to the registration of new persons; a period that scores felt was too short.
Likewise in 2006, a duplicate analysis conducted by the Electoral Commission itself revealed a number of duplicate voters on the register. In both 2006 and 2011, there continued to be many claims around impostors voting in the names of the dead and absentee voters. Today, such inconsistency in the national voters’ register continues to rear its ugly head especially during by-elections with many being disenfranchised.
Going back to previous electoral cycles, one single common feature that is consistent with past elections is how voter registration/register update and scrutiny processes have always been last-minute work. Prior to the 2011 general elections, registration of new voters was conducted hardly nine months to the polls. Relatedly, similar complaints about not having sufficient time to examine the national voters register were restated from all corners of the electorate. Subsequently, the 2011 voters register yet again turned out to be a key controversial aspect of the 2011 elections – with claims that ‘old’ registers had been merged with a new one to come up with the register that was used for the February 2011 poll. Actually there still remains uncertainty over which register or registers were used in that election.
Two years to the 2016 elections, a very fundamental process that would contribute to a new (potentially) reliable voters register is being undertaken – the registration of Ugandan citizens under the on-going ‘national ID registration exercise’. As reports have it, this time round, the voters register for subsequent elections (beginning with the 2016 election) is going to be extracted from the national ID database – a development which should possibly weed out longstanding problems around the national voters register. It is with pleasure that the foundational process (‘national ID registration’) has been conducted well in time. However there is one thing we must note; that for the EC to be able to extract and use the returns from the national ID database, there has to be an enabling law to back the process – short of which the EC would have to undertake fresh processes to compile a register especially in respect to 2016. Of course as many have argued, undertaking fresh processes to register voters across the country less than a year to the next general election would yet again be the usual last-minute ‘quick fix’ work that would not purge the previous numerous voter registration problems.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard of the Registration of Persons Bill, 2014 being brought to parliament. Beyond seeking to harmonise and consolidate the law on registration of persons in Uganda, this new Bill will also make provisions on how other government institutions and agencies such as the Electoral Commission will benefit from persons’ data collected under the ‘national ID registration’ exercise.
While this law will benefit many other entities, it is very critical that the Bill is considered and passed urgently in order to offer that legally required elbowroom for the EC to use the national ID data in the compilation of the 2016 voters register. Obviously, for the EC, drawing from the national ID database will make the process of compilation of the voter register much more easier, cost effective and should ideally allow for more time to verify voters’ data. This would may be not be the case if the EC hit the field afresh to collect electorate’s data from scratch at this material time.
One caveat however, when the Registration of Persons Bill, 2014 takes effect and the EC extracts data from the national ID database, it must subject the ‘draft’ voters register to rigorous public scrutiny in order to weed out any inconsistences that have bogged down previous voters registers.
What we do not want this time round is last-minute voter register compilation that has previously resulted into collaged voters registers. Now, the ball to pass this important and urgent law is in the very parliamentarians who first and foremost (I think) are interested in a cleaner, transparent, credible and timely national voters register – either because many of them will run again as candidates come 2016 or because all of them are voters and most-importantly, ‘well-meaning’ citizens of this country.
With those few words, let me join the rest of the Ugandans to urge Parliament to quickly look into and pass the Registration of Persons Bill, 2014 for the benefit of a cleaner, transparent and credible voters register ahead of 2016.