In March this year, parliament passed a law on early voting. This is the first time the electoral body, Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone, has had a law on early voting. Unlike in other countries where such laws are passed for essential workers on election day, Sierra Leone passed the law for those going for religious pilgrimage.
What’s the Context?
For the first time in 20 years, the country will be reverting to the Proportional Representation voting system. Sierra Leone will use the district block system, where parliamentary seats will be allocated to parties or independent candidates if they can get 11.9% of the total votes in the district.
There are 3.3 million people who will be expected to vote, the highest so far since the country started multi-party democracy in 1996. So losing votes will be irreparable for any party, given how close the election campaign has been so far.
Advocacy for early voting started as far back as in February, when the Minister of Social Welfare, Baindu Dassama, raised concerns that 1,200 people performing the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage could not vote because they would be in Saudi Arabia during elections.
ECSL took on major reforms last year when it passed the New Public Elections Act, but early voting was not included.
This year’s election will coincide with Muslims’ visit to Mecca for religious rites. The annual pilgrimage is important for Muslims in Sierra Leone because the government funds many of those who travel for the expedition.
Has early voting happened before?
Even though the law was passed this year, early voting had been used in previous elections. Christopher Jones, who is a key member in the ECSL Communications Directorate, told DUBAWA that the Board of Commissioners in the past used their discretion to allow election workers to vote in the polling stations in which they were deployed, even if they did not register there specifically.
“There has never been a regulation for that, but the Board of Commissioners has the prerogative to allow it, but there has been no regulation,” he said.
The previous Board of Commissioners used their prerogative in 2018 to allow early voting for election workers on election day.
Ahmed Tejan Sandy was a Voter Identification Officer for NEC (now ECSL) in 2018. He worked in the eastern district of Kenema and confirmed to DUBAWA that staff working on the election but not registered at the centre were allowed to vote.
“Staff working on the election in the centre were allowed to vote if they had registered to vote for the election. But they were allowed to only vote for Presidential candidates,” Sandy told DUBAWA.
Hafsatu Bangura, who also worked in Freetown as a contract staff for the commission, said she was allowed to vote for Presidential and Mayoral candidates in her polling centre.
“I did not register at the polling centre, but I voted there because I was a Polling Assistant. I was allowed to vote for Presidential and Mayoral candidates, and other NEC staff were allowed to do the same,” Bangura told DUBAWA.
Apha Songa, who also worked as a Presiding Officer in 2018, said he and his five colleagues who did not register at the centre were allowed to vote for Presidential and Mayoral candidates. Songa worked for NEC in Freetown.
“But if you register at the centre where you worked, you will vote at the station where your name falls,” Songa added.
Songa, Bangura, and Sandi all confirmed that all these votes were cast on the general elections day.
Sierra Leone conducts multi-tier elections, so those workers were not allowed to vote for Parliamentarians and Councillors.
Jones said the commission is ready to look into special requests from any group of essential workers and give them the same privilege.
“We are ready to hear from Leaders of Police and the Army if they request early voting,” he said.
What is in the new Early Voting law?
This early voting law is specifically for religious pilgrims. Certainly, the first beneficiaries will be the over 1,000 Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca this June.
To qualify for the privilege, the law states, “He/she is of either Islam or Christian faith who will be out of Sierra Leone on a pilgrimage and would be absent from Sierra Leone on the day scheduled for voting.”
According to the law, applicants must be registered to vote and recorded in the district where they are applying for early voting to the Returning Officer.
Section 4 of the law explains what happens throughout all the stages, including developing a register for early voters, excluding their names from the main voter register and ensuring the process is not abused by preventing them from voting on the general election day.
The new law now means ECSL has a bit more to do. The election has already started, following the conduct and conclusion of Paramount Chief Members of Parliament last week. With three weeks to go, how ECSL will handle this new challenge remains to be seen.