ExplainersFeaturedMedia LiteracySierra Leone

How “Void Votes” could decide 2023 election in Sierra Leone

There will be 3,374,358 people voting in the general election this June, the highest since Sierra Leone started democratic elections in 1996. But will all these votes be counted?

Invalid votes, or “void votes” commonly known in Sierra Leone, could be crucial in deciding elections, especially if you consider the fusion of electoral systems the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) will be used for the forthcoming election.

For the first time since 2002, the country will revert to Proportional Representation to elect Members of Parliament and Councilors. This was finally confirmed last Friday, January 27, following a ruling by the Supreme Court.

The case was a national spectacle, televised Live on national TV and Zoom, among several other media channels.

How has “void votes” performed?

Ironically invalid votes have done well in the election, almost every election cycle since 2007.  These votes have been so significant that they have done better than some political parties.

In 2007, the invalid votes recorded were 144,898, much more than the valid ones for four of the seven parties that contested the general elections that year. Only All Peoples Congress, Sierra Leone Peoples Party and Peoples Movement for Democratic Change, in this order, got a higher number.

In 2012, void votes finished even higher, with 108,898 invalid ballots recorded. Only the All-Peoples Congress and Sierra Leone Peoples Party did better among the nine political parties in that election.

In 2018, during the first round of the general election, 139,427 invalid votes were recorded, better than thirteen other political parties out of the sixteen that contested.

So, there is a track record of high numbers of invalid votes, possibly widening or tightening the margin of loss or defeat. For example, in 2018, Julius Maada Bio defeated Samura Kamara by less than 4% of the total votes in the runoff after both candidates failed to get 55% in the first round of the presidential election.

The run-off saw 31,694 invalid votes recorded.

How does a vote become invalid?

Voting might look simple, but many people have botched it for years, and the numbers indicate that. So, what invalidates a vote?

Director of Media and Communications at the country’s electoral body, ECSL, Raymond George, said there are many instances, but the most common one they keep recording is blank votes.

“We’ve seen people sign their names on the ballot; if you do so, it is invalid. Because you should not mark the ballot in any way that you will be identified.

“We’ve also seen people mark their initials on the ballot; it is invalid. The most common one we keep getting is the blank ballot as well is invalid,” George added.

George further explained that people should only vote for one candidate on the same ballot and check for their ballot’s authenticity before they even cast their vote. Most importantly, voters should ensure their markings on the ballot paper are visible.

“You have to vote for one person on a ballot; if you vote for two, your vote will be invalid. If the commission staff do not stamp your ballot, your vote will be invalid. If your marking on the ballot paper is unclear and runs from one box to another, it will be invalid.”

How will the 2023 election be different?

In 2018, Sierra Leone used only two systems of voting; the Two Round System for the presidential election and the First past the post for Parliamentary, Councillor, Mayoral and Chairman elections.

This year, it will be different because of the declaration of the PR System. Sierra Leone will now use three systems in the June general elections. George also confirmed this in an interview with DUBAWA. 

1. Two-Round System

Sierra Leone has used the two-round system for Presidential elections since 1996. To win the presidency, a candidate must have 55% or more of the total votes in the country. 

If no candidate gets 55% in the first round, then the top two candidates in the first round will head into a runoff.   As stated in Chapter 5, Part 1, section 42 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone. 

George said ballots for Presidential candidates would remain the same as in previous elections, with the candidate’s ace, name and party symbol. And then a box in the same row to mark the vote in.

2. First past the post system

Under this system, the candidate with the most votes will win the election. This system has stayed the same from the last election, so it will be familiar to those who have voted before.

George said it would be used for the other three elections. 

“This is used for the Mayoral and Chairperson’s election. Each party will send one person as their candidate. It has the same features as the presidential ballot; you get to vote for one person,” he said.

3. Proportional Representation System

PR System believes that the seats in parliament should be proportional to the votes cast. ECSL will use the system for Parliamentary and Councillor elections. 

This is the system’s first use for MPs since 2002. 

But how will the system work? George said political parties would have to present a list of multiple candidates, and they must include women. 

“If we want 12 councillors, a political party will have to give us a list of 24 people. And for every three candidates, you should have at least one woman according to our new law. On the ballot papers, you will only see party symbols, no names or faces, and a space to mark your vote. For independent candidates, we will print symbols for independent candidates on the ballot.” George said.

Ballot papers for this election will only have party symbols, not individual candidates’ faces and names. Even for independent candidates, this is the same criteria.

“The ballot papers will only have the party symbol. You will vote for the party you want; you can only vote for one party; if you vote for two parties, your ballot will be invalid. After voting, we will count all the votes, and to get a seat in Parliament, a political party must have 11.9% of the valid votes (in a district), and the councillor of the party should have 4.5% of the valid votes; that’s the threshold. If you don’t meet these thresholds, it means you won’t be considered for a seat in parliament or local council,” he added.

The threshold format means the margin for error is minimal, and now more than ever, void votes could be key in getting people into office.

“So, the invalid votes could play a key role in preventing parties from meeting these thresholds. That is why we will keep educating the electorate about the need to vote correctly,” George told DUBAWA.

 The researcher produced this fact-check per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with Epic Radio in Sierra Leone to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button