Sierra Leone: Proposed Voter Registration Requirements May Exclude Thousands of Eligible Voters

Members of Parliament (MPs) in Sierra Leone are proposing legislation that could affect thousands of votes ahead of next year’s general elections. The proposed new public elections law would replace the 2012 Public Election Act, a ten-year old law governing the conduct of public elections in Sierra Leone. The proposed changes in the new law include revisions to Sections 32 and 33 of the 1991 Sierra Leone Constitution that relate specifically to the Electoral Commission and the conduct of public elections.

The pre-legislative discussions on the proposals to change the Public Election Act 2012 have commenced exactly a year prior to the next presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023.

On Monday this week, MPs tabled the proposed law without public consultation and input. As of Thursday night (22 June), full details of the proposed legislative instrument were still unknown to most people. In fact, copies of the bill had not been seen by any civil society groups, including large sections of the media.

Africanist Press has obtained and reviewed an electronic copy of the proposed law. We discovered that the proposed 2022 Public Elections Act contains 15 parts, including revised provisions on election financing, a fixed timeline for presidential elections, new procedures and requirements for voter registration, and the geographical arrangement of electoral boundaries. Although public discussion has yet to happen, some MPs already believe that the proposed election law would enlarge electoral participation. We explain below why this supposition is erroneous.

On the surface, the new law provides for 30% safe seats for women in Parliament, it opens opportunities for diaspora voting, and it removes restrictions on naturalized citizens from electoral participation. However, despite these seemingly progressive steps, critics have voiced genuine concerns that the proposed legislative changes infringe on entrenched aspects of the 1991 Constitution. A revision to Section 32(8), for example, empowers the President to remove any member of the Electoral Commission on grounds of “gross misconduct.” There is no clear definition of what might constitute “gross misconduct;” a broad proviso that leaves many avenues for multiple interpretations.

Moreover, critics note that the proposed legislation provides the Electoral Commission and the President unrestricted powers to also determine how future elections would be organized. Former Freetown Mayor, Winstanley R. Bankole-Johnson, observed that “a possibility now exists for the government to run the 2023 parliamentary elections both by constituency-based and district block systems in tandem.”

Bankole-Johnson noted that the proposed law provides for situations in which the President, after consulting with the Electoral Commissioner, would have the power to direct that elections be “conducted on the basis of the existing districts in a manner to be known as the district block representation system instead of constituencies.”

While opposition to the new legislation appears to largely focus on attempts to introduce the propositional system of representation, these concerns may eclipse other fundamental revisions that could be interpreted or used to exclude large numbers of eligible voters.

Other seemingly minute, but significant details include additions to the provisions on voter registration requirements, which includes registration procedures. In the proposed legislation, two new sections contain essential revisions warranting public conversation and scrutiny as they could limit thousands from voting. One clear example is the proposal to revise the voter register to include national identification numbers (NINs) of voters as part of the required registration information. Section 13(1)(a) of the pr0posed Public Election Act 2022 makes the inclusion of voter’s NIN a requirement of the registration record.

This new requirement provided for in Section 13(1)(a) is a direct attempt to incorporate the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA)’s registration requirement into the election process. This requirement implicitly provides an instrument to exclude eligible voters who are neither registered by NCRA or do not have an NIN. The addition of the NIN to the voters register in Section 13(1)(a) of the proposed 2022 Public Elections Act could be a voter suppression strategy; it is a registration requirement that many citizens who are presently not on the NCRA’s database would not fulfill before the upcoming voter registration exercise in September 2022. Moreover, those voters who are more economically, socially, or culturally disadvantaged are the most likely to not have an NIN and may be more likely to vote against the current ruling party.

The NCRA , established in 2016, has the responsibility to register all citizens and other residents in Sierra Leone, including the allocation of a unique NIN to each registered individual. In May 2021, the NCRA launched a nationwide registration exercise as part of a new biometric program to digitize and synchronize Sierra Leone’s vital records. Despite the campaign, vital records on more than half the population are still believed to be absent in the NCRA database.

In early May this year, Sierra Leonean MPs unanimously ratified an agreement granting Constrat Systems SL LTD a 15-year contract to digitize the country’s vital records and produce securitized and multi-purpose identity cards with NINs to Sierra Leoneans and other residents.

On 17 May 2022, officials from the NCRA, the Immigration Department, and the Labor and Social Security Ministry issued a joint communique making the use of NINs a mandatory requirement to access “services that include but not limited to immigration services, resident and work permits.”

“All applications for work permit, resident permit, passport, and other immigration services must include the national identification number issued by the National Civil Registration Authority (NRCA) as a mandatory field,” the communique stated.

This joint communique became effective on 1 June, 2022; exactly three weeks before MPs introduced the proposed Public Elections Act 2022 that also seeks to include the NIN as a mandatory field of the voter register.

“Considering the frustrating experiences of citizens who were unable to register during the NCRA registration exercise in May 2021, it becomes more apparent why the proposed elections legislation seeks to include voter NINs as a required information in the voter register,” a lawyer contacted by Africanist Press said, adding that, “the attempt to sneakily incorporate non-existing technicalities into the electoral process is unhelpful to mass democratic participation.”

One civil society activist believes that the inclusion of the NIN as a mandatory field in the voter register “would discourage voter registration, especially in areas of the country where NCRA’s challenging technology has not enhanced civil registration.”

Since Monday citizens have been calling on MPs to organize public consultations to ensure collective input from citizens.

“Civic engagements are required to ensure genuine public interest is reflected in any new legislation,” one observer noted, adding that, “the democratic process must be simplified if we are to get a genuinely elected and truly representative government.”

So far, MPs have largely remained silent on the details and implications of the proposed legislation. About a week ago, MPs jointly supported a controversial Welfare Bill designed to astronomically increase salaries, allowances, and retirement benefits of present and former MPs.

Two opposition MPs contacted by Africanist Press could not comment on the new proposed legislation, claiming they are still studying the details in the bill.

We publish with this article a copy of the proposed Public Elections Act 2022 and the 2012 Public Election Act to help enhance public access and dialogue on the new legislative provisions.

You can download both documents from the Africanist Press website: https://africanistpress.com/2022/06/24/sierra-leone-proposed-voter-registration-requirements-may-exclude-thousands-of-eligible-voters/
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