Twice in the last month, we have addressed the issue postal voting in our system of elections. We raised a red flag over it because it presents opportunities for abuse. We also recommended constant vigilance by opposition parties and election observers.
Today, alarm was raised when it emerged that police officers were voting at a major police camp in Bulawayo. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) denied these reports, calling it "hogwash" and "cheap propaganda". The acting Chief Elections Officer said postal voting applications were still being processed.
However, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) issued a statement and did not deny reports that voting had indeed taken place in Bulawayo, simply confirming that some of their members will use postal voting. In an interview with VOA Studio 7, ZRP spokesperson, Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba is quoted as saying, “Yes there are police who are voting who are using the postal votes which is provided for under the Electoral Act, Section 72 Chapter 2:13 which entitles especially those from the disciplined forces who will be on duty during the voting days to vote prior to the elections."
So the electoral authority is saying one thing, while the police authority is saying a completely different thing.
By the end of the day, video evidence had emerged demonstrating that voting had indeed taken place in Bulawayo with the police in charge of the process.
But if ZEC says the applications are still being processed, how did the police officers vote? Did ZEC not send electoral materials to Bulawayo? It is difficult to establish the truth in what is becoming a murky electoral process. Someone is being economical with the truth and this is partly why people are losing confidence in the electoral process.
It’s important to understand how the postal voting process works in terms of the Constitution and the Electoral Law.
Postal voting is regulated by the Constitution and Part XIV of the Electoral Act. The usual rules provided for in the Constitution and the Electoral Law apply, specifically, the principle of secrecy of the vote and freedom of choice, which are the most critical in the electoral process.
The rules for postal voting are designed to ensure that these rights are protected. Naturally, since this is part of the electoral process, postal voting must be open to observation and monitoring by interested parties and observers. This is to ensure that electoral rules are upheld and respected. This is in line with the constitutional principles outlined in section 3 of the Constitution, which include an electoral system based on universal adult suffrage and equality of votes as well as free fair and regular elections and transparency.
Who is eligible for postal voting?
Postal voting is restricted to persons who will be unable to vote on polling day on account of their official State duties which will place them away from their polling stations. This includes, members of the disciplined forces (for example, soldiers and police officers) but only those who will be on duty on polling day. It also includes civil servants who will be performing duties as electoral officers. Finally, persons working for the government outside Zimbabwe and their spouses may also use postal voting.
However, each of these persons must be registered voters. This means their names must be on the voters’ rolls.
This also means parties must be vigilant regarding staff at embassies abroad, some of whom were, like most people in the Diaspora unable to register when the Biometric Voter Registration process was rolled out.
Application for postal voting
The Electoral Law requires any person who wishes to use postal voting to apply to the Chief Elections Officer.
That process is outlined in Section 73 of the Electoral Act. However, for members of disciplined forces, the application is made on their behalf by their commanding officers.
In all cases, the application must include a certified copy of the applicant’s national registration certificate. (Party election agents scrutinising the process must check whether applications, including those submitted by commanding officers for members of the disciplined forces, have these certified voter registration certificates’ copies).
According to the law, the deadline for these applications is the 14th day after nomination day. Since nomination day was 14 June, the last day for postal voting applications was 28 June 2018. This has been confirmed by ZEC. (Party election agents and observers must check that all applications were indeed received by this date. Any submitted afterwards will be ineligible and invalid.)
ZEC has advised that 7200 applications for postal voting were submitted. It has also stated, correctly, that these applications will be processed and any that do not comply with the law, such as where the person is not registered, will be excluded. (It is important for parties to make sure that this has been done and to make a note of any applications that have been rejected).
Monitoring postal voting
The Electoral Law makes provision to help in the monitoring of postal voting:
The Chief Elections Officer must keep a record of first, all the applications for postal voting; second, all postal ballots issued to voters and to permit these lists to be inspected without charge by members of the public.
In addition, all postal votes received by the Chief Elections Officer must remain unopened until the counting stage at the relevant polling station. They will only be opened in the presence of all parties that are legally required to be present at the counting of votes. Agents are allowed to object to postal votes if there are any irregularities.
(Party election agents and observers must have a check-list to make sure there is strict compliance with these rules. There has to be someone who monitors the postal voting process. This is what we said a few weeks ago on these pages: “These are things that political parties, agents and observers can monitor in order to minimise the abuse of the facility of postal voting. Parties in particular should assign a person or persons dedicated to monitoring the conduct of postal voting.”)
Is this process open to observation and scrutiny?
An issue that has arisen in this context is voting my members of the disciplined forces, namely soldiers and police officers. As already indicated, only those who will be on duty on 30 July and are registered are eligible for postal voting. The applications are (and in the present election should have been made) made through their commanding officers. (Parties can check with ZEC to satisfy themselves that this was done by the deadline, namely 28 June 2018).
As already indicated, normal rules apply, namely the secrecy of the vote and freedom of choice. If there is any evidence that members of the disciplined forces were denied these rights, it offends the credibility of the electoral process and impacts legitimacy. Sections 74 and 75 of the Electoral Act outlines the process of postal voting, where the Chief Elections Officer is required to supply the ballot paper, in sealed envelopes addressed to the applicant. All this is to ensure secrecy of the vote.
It is not the normal voting process where a person gets a ballot paper and marks his or her choice before dropping it in a ballot box. Rather, the ballot is placed in sealed and marked envelopes, which will only be opened at the polling station after the Chief Elections Officer has distributed them upon receipt. All postal ballots must be received no later than 14 days before the main polling date, in this case, no later than 16 July 2018. (It is important, therefore, for party election agents and election observers to ensure that the specific voting process stated in sections 74 and 75 is complied with).
It is very difficult to monitor postal voting in foreign stations because of their scattered nature. However, in the interests of transparency, nothing should preclude parties from observing and monitoring this process if they wish to do so. If anything, ZEC should make this as open as possible to allay any fears or suspicions of rigging. Where, for example, members of the disciplined forces are voting in an open process and at a specific location, election agents and observers must be allowed to observe this process. It enhances transparency.
It must be noted that the law already prohibits the use of military barracks or police camps as polling stations. Postal voting does not normally have polling stations. However, what if there are effectively polling stations established at military barracks and police camps under the guise of postal voting? This calls for transparency. These de facto polling stations ought to be observed and monitored as is the case with de jure polling stations.
The most practicable and reasonable thing to do in such circumstances is to allow party election agents and election observers to observe and monitor the process in the interests of transparency. It reduces suspicion of abuse and enhances the credibility and legitimacy of elections.
The issue therefore is not whether members of disciplined forces should use postal voting. The law allows them to do so.
However, there is a process allowed by law. It must be followed. The issue is over transparency of that process. By denying that there was no voting by police officers in Bulawayo when evidence suggests that in fact there was voting and the police have not denied it, ZEC seems to have once again shot itself in the foot. If the allegations of what happened in Bulawayo are correct and ZEC was not aware of it, then it raises questions whether ZEC is actually in control of the electoral process.
Rather than slam reports of what happened as "propaganda", ZEC could have investigated and verified the reports and taken corrective measures. If those watching the Zimbabwean electoral process want to understand why the opposition are losing confidence in the electoral authority and the process, this episode is a good example of the cause. No-one takes responsibility and legitimate concerns are ridiculed and dismissed.