Part 1 : Election Agents and the Security of the Vote
By Ignatious Sadziwa and Tinashe Gumbo
The security of the ballot is a very important ingredient in the promotion of free and fair elections.
It satisfies and guarantees electoral credibility and integrity. The role of election agents (also known as polling agents), is very key in any election. Election agents play a gatekeeping role in ensuring that the electorate’s vote is secured. In this article, we seek to discuss the role of election agents in Zimbabwe. Our focus is on the gaps that have manifested during the previous elections with regard to the effectiveness of election agents’ work in the promotion of credible polls. We then reiterate some already-known recommendations for consideration by political parties as they recruit, train and deploy election agents. This is the first of the ten-part series of articles that are meant to contribute to the deconstruction and demystification of fears associated with being an active citizen in electoral processes.
Legal Provisions for Election Agents.
Election candidates are mandated by law (Section 93A, Electoral Act, Chapter 2:13, As Amended up to 28 May 2018) to appoint election agents for a particular poll. This should be done before, on, or after nomination day, but not later than seven days before polling day. The political party that sponsors the candidate is involved (or is an interested party) in the appointment of the election agents. Chief Election Agents are appointed to coordinate other agents (based at polling stations or in constituencies and wards as roving agents). The election agents have to be accredited by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Thus, it should be noted that they are legitimate stakeholders in elections and are guided by the prevailing laws of the country (Section 83, Electoral Act). Zimbabwe has 210 constituencies,1958 wards, and 10985 (at least in 2018) polling stations. A political party that is serious about challenging for power must aim at deploying election agents at all the stations.
The Role of an Election Agent.
Election agents are representatives of both the candidates and political parties taking part in an election contest and their designated area of work is the polling station in the case of polling agents while the Chief Election Agents may be mobile. Election agents “monitor” and ensure that the election is being conducted in a transparent manner that does not disadvantage their candidates and by extension their political party. They witness all aspects of the voting and counting processes. Thus, prior to the opening of the polls, election agents examine the voting equipment including ballot boxes to ensure that they are empty and inspect the voting booth to determine if there is nothing that may influence the voter. They should, thus, be present during the unveiling of the ballot paper, the voting process, counting, and the collation and tabulation of final results.
To an extent, election agents also play an observing role by checking if the prevailing environment is conducive to free and fair elections. They can also assist their candidates and party with parallel voter tabulation (PVT) as witnessed in jurisdictions like Malawi and Zambia during their latest Presidential plebiscites.
Notable Potholes in Previous Elections
The current authors, being active practitioners in the electoral processes in Zimbabwe, noted that election outcomes are always contested because of an axiomatic belief that they are rigged all the time. Without committed, vigilant, willing, and well-trained election agents, it is always difficult to confirm any alleged election rigging. Yet, we have observed some limitations that are associated with recruitment, training, deployment, and the work of election agents in Zimbabwe. The observations in this article were informed by our direct involvement in electoral work and a review of election observation reports by local civic and faith-based organizations. Media reports were also consulted. Below, we attempt to summarize some of the issues noted in previous elections.
1. While an election agent must be a bona fide, loyal, committed, and willing member of a political party, it has emerged that in most cases, parties hastily recruit agents at the very last minute, thereby targeting the “wrong” agents for the task. This explains cases where some election agents went “AWOL” on election day thereby compromising the security of the people’s vote. Others were “bought” on the eve of an election; hence, they would give excuses leading to their failure to do the job. Claims of infiltration by the opponent elements are real as confirmed by one of the authors of this article who witnessed it during his contest for Mberengwa West Seat in 2013.
2. Research has shown that as of 2018, only one political party had the capacity to deploy election agents at all the polling stations. Opposition parties were yet to build their capacity to enjoy 100% deployment. The issue of financial resources and the “security” of the election agents remained a major factor in this regard. Alleged cases of rigging were normally raised at stations where some political parties had not deployed election agents, yet, no scientific evidence could be accessed to back the claims. In such cases, complainants would not be able to access the V11 Return Forms and this weakened their court cases when they subsequently decided to challenge the outcome.
3. The welfare of polling agents also remained a critical factor in previous elections. Some political parties failed to fully support their agents with food, communication means, and other logistical issues such as transport to and from the polling stations. Thus, the agents would be exposed to all forms of manipulation by those with adequate support. A visibly hungry agent could be sent out of the polling station to buy food or “cigarettes” (for mutual benefit) and in the process, some fishy things happened in his or her absence which he or she could not account for. The “poor” agent could also be offered some other “goodies” including communication gadgets to talk to his or her party about an issue that would have happened at the polling station. In such a tricky scenario, the agent could not be vigilant enough to report any critical developments caused by the “generous” opponent at the polling station through a “borrowed” phone. These were realities observed in the previous elections.
4. Polling agents are supposed to be bona fide voters at their designated polling stations. However, some of them have not managed to exercise their right to vote in their entire life as they would have been deployed outside their wards. To be a polling agent calls for commitment, willingness, and vigilance. Therefore, some political parties were forced to deploy some of their agents away from their polling stations as they (election agents) were deemed the “only suitable cadres who can deal with challenges in the other wards. Such cadres are deployed in hot areas where the party does not have a strong membership and where there is the possibility of intimidation from the opponent”, argued one candidate in the 2018 elections. While the argument was valid, it was equally true that the same election agents, who were legitimate voters, would be deprived of their voting rights. Furthermore, they were strangers in the areas they were deployed to, hence they could not provide that much-needed confidence to their party members who, in fact, did not know them.
5. Late arrival at the polling stations was also another major challenge. While the agents were supposed to be at the station at least two or so hours before the opening of the poll, in several cases, they were late due to some logistical challenges that were real. Therefore, they missed some critical processes such as witnessing the pre-poll preparations, examination of voting equipment as well as examination of ballot boxes, and other voting materials.
6. Illiteracy and inadequate training of polling agents were also visible gaps. Election processes are political in nature, but they are also majorly scientific. They involve a lot of figures, calculations, thinking, discussions, negotiations, and making serious resolutions. This requires a lot of prior training on the part of election agents. It emerged from the previous elections that in several cases, election agents were not well trained for the task, and in worst-case scenarios, they were illiterate. This became a fertile ground for rigging as statistics could possibly be manipulated in favor of a particular candidate at the expense of others. Such limitations manifested mainly during the stages of counting, reconciliation of ballot papers, tallying of results, and verification of figures.
7. Absence from the polling station: Some election agents left the polling stations during voting, closing, or counting, thereby allowing “forces of rigging” to rule. The principle is “polling agents should not leave the polling station”, as, in such an instance, illegal activity can happen in their absence. Monitoring the polling process and safeguarding polling boxes is their primary duty. Anything fishy can happen if they leave the polling station even for a moment. Yet, the law empowers the Election Officer to proceed with electoral processes in the absence of an election agent (Section 84).
A Few Recommendations
Our conclusion is that election agents are a critical component of the electoral process in Zimbabwe. Anyone can be an election agent once formally appointed by a particular candidate and political party. It, however, remains critical that political parties address the noted gaps in their recruitment, training, and deployment of election agents. Therefore, below are some recommendations we make particularly to the candidates and political parties:
1. Political parties should deliberately invest in the recruitment, training, and deployment of election agents. They should not wait to fulfill this investment at the last minute as doing so may expose themselves to possible infiltration or engagement of “wrong” agents. Election agents’ teams should be made up of people who are well versed in electoral processes, who are literate, committed, dedicated, willing, and available for the task. Most importantly, they should be bona fide members of that political party, who are ready to defend its interest and that of the candidate. Well-trained, and equipped agents are a near guarantee for effective monitoring of the election process against any form of rigging. Training should not be “generic” as we have witnessed in previous elections. There is a need for specialization based on one’s competence and experience in electoral processes.
Loyalty to the party is not enough for one to be an agent! It is not about money but the security of the people’s vote! Neither should relationship with the candidate be the main factor for participation as an election agent!
2. The “welfare of an election agent should remain the welfare of the party”. An ill-equipped and insecure polling agent is “dangerous” for the concerned party. He or she can easily be manipulated by the opposite party as he or she can be offered money, food, or transport to and from the station, thereby making him or her a compromised player. Parties should feed their agents (literally feeding them), equip them with efficient communication means, and guarantee their security in and outside the polling station. By doing so, they would have guaranteed the agents’ presence in the polling station at all critical moments hence the security of the vote. Adequate election agents should be deployed at each station. The law allows three agents per station of which only one should be in the polling station at each particular moment. The other two (either of whom may relieve the election agent entitled to be present in the polling station) shall be entitled to be present in the immediate vicinity of the polling station concerned (Section 95).
3. Vigilance remains a key characteristic of an effective election agent. While on duty, the agent should keep his or her eyes on the polling boxes, on the figures, and on the interest of his or her party. This will ensure that he or she has access to the key data including the final documents such as the V11 Return Forms.
4. Election agents should be deployed in their areas of residence to allow them to vote, but also to give confidence to their party members who come to cast their vote at that polling station. It is indeed cost-effective too to deploy locally as no transport is required to ferry the agents. Furthermore, it is very convenient as the agents will be at the polling stations, on time to witness all the pre-poll preparatory processes. Members of their political parties will feel confident when they see some of their own being part of the team of election agents. It will not help a polling agent to be defending his or her party’s vote “somewhere” when his or her vote does not count at the end of the day.
5. Political parties should be deliberately inclusive in their recruitment and deployment of election agents so that youth, women, and people with disabilities can also be active participants in electoral processes. Although no immediate scientific evidence was available to show the statistics for participation of different categories of people as election agents, we reiterate the importance of inclusivity.
Ignatious G Sadziwa, Executive Director @ Zimbabwe Election Advocacy Trust. He is a Social Democrat and an Election Expert. He can be contacted @ Mobile/WhatsApp +263772706621; Facebook: Ignatious Sadziwa; Twitter: Ignatious Sadziwa; Email: [email protected]
Dr. Tinashe Gumbo is a Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice activist. He writes on elections, the environment, mining, and music. He can be contacted on Mobile: at +254 702 523 940/WhatsApp at +263 773218860; Email: [email protected]; Blog: tinashegumbo.wordpress.com; Twitter: DrTinasheGumbo1; Facebook: Tinashe Gumbo