Wednesday, June 12, 2024

INEC lacks metrics to calculate voter turnout

Given the Nigerian context, INEC’s approach of using accreditation figures as the basis for calculating voter turnout is faulty.

• March 5, 2023
Nigerians queuing at polling centre
Nigerians queuing at polling centre

After the abysmal management of the 2023 presidential and National Assembly elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has released data for the polls. Among the data points, the low voter turnout figure is generating a lot of conversation. With just 27 per cent, it is the lowest voter turnout in Nigeria’s electoral history. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who actually voted in an election. 

It is globally accepted as a metric for assessing voters’ interest in selecting their representatives and is a key indicator of the health of a democracy. A low voter turnout usually indicates voter apathy and does not bode well for any democracy. But does INEC’s voter turnout figure really reflect voter interest in Nigeria? 

To arrive at the voter turnout figure, INEC calculated the percentage of the 93 million registered voters who were accredited to vote on election day. The accreditation figures were then used as a proxy for the number of voters who showed up on election day. While this approach accords with international practice, it doesn’t take into account Nigeria’s unique context in which even voters who show up at the right place and time may not be able to get accredited and vote.

Nigeria’s electoral law provides that voters–citizens 18 years or older who meet the lawful requirements of voting–must be registered by INEC and designated to a polling unit in order to vote. After registration, voters are issued a Permanent Voters Card (PVC) to identify them on election day. In summary, an eligible voter is a person with a PVC. Turnout could be defined in either a conservative or a liberal sense. In the conservative sense, an eligible voter turns out to vote when they are present at their designated polling unit within the time allotted for voting. 

On the liberal side, any eligible voter present at any polling unit during the time allotted for voting should be deemed to have turned up to vote. The liberal definition is most fitting because voter turnout is primarily meant to assess the interest of voters by their presence at the polling units and not the credibility of an election. INEC does not collect data on the number of eligible voters that show up to vote and does not have the metrics to calculate actual voter turnout. 

Given the Nigerian context, INEC’s approach of using accreditation figures as the basis for calculating voter turnout is faulty. Some issues impede the accreditation of eligible voters who show up to vote at their designated polling units. These range from logistical constraints to technical issues and even personal or health emergencies. 

In the 2023 elections, INEC deployed the Bimodal Verification Accreditation System (BVAS), which uses facial recognition and fingerprints to identify voters. BVAS worked 80 per cent of the time, and it is unclear if the other 20 per cent of people not accredited by BVAS could vote. In such cases, those who remain unaccredited despite turning out to vote should be integrated into the voter turnout analysis. Historically, Nigerian elections have been plagued by a perennial logistical dysfunction, which skews voter turnout figures. 

The logistics around the 2023 elections were disorganised at best. INEC’s logistical woes first showed during the Continuous Voter Registration and PVC collection processes. Millions of Nigerians showed up to register and subsequently collect their PVCs, but many couldn’t due to INEC’s logistical lapses. In fact, the period for registration and PVC collection was extended so many times, including by a court order. 

Throughout the PVC collection period, hundreds of thousands of PVCs were found stashed in drainage systems, farms and other places. Again, the enthusiasm and interest of voters were clear long before polling began, but INEC could not meet their demands. On election day, electoral officials bearing the election materials arrived late in over 111,000 of the 176,884 polling units across the country – a 63 per cent lateness rate. In some cases, electoral officers arrived eight hours after the 2:30 p.m. timeline designated for the close of polls. Certainly, voters who turned up to vote and couldn’t get accredited because of INEC’s incapacities cannot be said to be disinterested in the electoral process. 

Electoral violence is another reason why millions of Nigerians who came out to vote could not vote. Polling units across the country witnessed violence at different stages of the voting process, including before and during accreditation. Due to violence, elections were rescheduled in hundreds of polling units, denying voters the opportunity to vote. The violence led to multiple fatalities. Festus Idahosa and Elizabeth Owie were killed during the elections in Edo State. Samuel Arunsi Eze and another person were reportedly killed by thugs in Abia State. 

In a country that doesn’t keep a record of such fatalities or blatantly denies them, we may never know how many voters were killed before they were accredited to vote. In places where voting was postponed, it is reasonable to agree that some voters never returned the following day. INEC just announced supplementary elections in Enugu and Edo State, meaning that the voters who turned up on the original date for the elections are not incorporated into the current voter turnout analysis. 

Finally, ignoring the Nigerian context wrongly attributes the low number of accredited voters to a lack of interest and fosters the narrative that Nigerians’ apathy towards elections leads to the election of bad leaders. It wrongly attributes voter turnout solely to a voter’s decision on whether or not to show up on election day while willfully ignoring other obvious considerations. More importantly, this approach absolves the government and INEC of blame and limits the possibility of the introspection required to understand and address the root causes of the problem. 

If INEC is really interested in voter turnout as a tool to measure voters’ interest, it should adopt the liberal approach for calculation, address the factors that frustrate voter participation, and develop a system that captures the number of people who show up to vote as early as possible in the polling process. INEC could collaborate with CSOs in the electoral technology space to develop applications that capture actual voter turnout on election day. To function optimally, this system must run on low to nil bandwidth, employ multiple data entry modes, and have the functionality to detect multiple entries by the same voter.  

In addition, the polling units must have defined access and exit points to ensure everyone is captured. This will also enhance security during elections. 

Examples of such tech solutions that could be deployed at the entrance of the polling units include: barcode scanners to read PVCs; biometric clock-in machines; use of drones to take aerial pictures of voters before accreditation; an application that voters could use to indicate their presence at the polling station or a toll-free text message-based system through which voters could send a code to a certain phone number to indicate their presence at the polling unit. 

The system must respect privacy and data protection laws. In addition to these solutions, INEC must incorporate other considerations in determining voter enthusiasm and interest beyond the number of votes counted. Data from turnout for voter registration, PVC collection, campaign activities, social media engagement, and fly-ins by diaspora voters should be considered.

Ikechukwu Uzoma is a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights staff attorney and public affairs commentator. He tweets at @iykepfs.

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