Voters queue at a polling station in Harare, Zimbabwe; courtesy Kumbirai Mafunda
By Guest Blogger
Last week, on 31 July I woke up early, excited about the day that lay ahead. Zimbabweans were going to cast their votes in the 2013 harmonised elections and as an election observer l was going to witness firsthand the voting process at any polling station I chose to visit. When l arrived at the first polling station l was shocked that hundreds of people had braved the cold and the wind to stand in queues. It was 6:00 am, an hour before polls were scheduled to open to the public, and polling officials were already setting up.
A positive feeling
Most of the voters in the queue looked excited. There was a positive energy that l sensed even from the distance. Many were optimistic that the outcome would make a huge difference in their lives. Relatives and friends that I had spoken to the night before had also been in high spirits and excited about the 2013 harmonized elections. They were positive that Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai was going to win the elections.
My fellow observers and I huddled together around a gas lamp and candles to witness the inspection of the ballot boxes, taking down each of their serial numbers. I witnessed that the following ballot papers for all the relevant elections were available, ballot boxes empty, voting booths set up, a certified segment of the voters’ register, authorised stamps available, indelible ink and stationary was available to ensure that the voting process would go ahead smoothly.
Shortly before the elections, I attended a WITNESS training to learn about using video to document the electoral process. However, I was unable to do any filming on election day because it was prohibited. A man has just been sentenced to 10 months in prison for taking a picture of his ballot paper. Phones had to be turned off and at some polling stations they were taken away.
Voting frustrations and irregularities
As soon as people started to vote l noted that there were some challenges with the lighting in the room. It was very dark and the overcast skies yielded no natural light. Some voters removed the ballot paper from the booth so that they could see it better, a violation of the principle of secrecy of the vote. Only a brave few requested a candle inside the voting booths.
Within 10 minutes of the polls opening, two people failed to find their names in the voters roll. The majority of the people whose names were not found in the voters roll were newly registered voters. The electoral commission’s national command centre had to be contacted to see if their names were on the constituency register.
The process was long and tedious, which voters and polling officers found frustrating. Of concern were the 132 voters turned away by the end of the day at one polling station. Only six had their names found and confirmed at the command centre and returned to vote.
Other voters were turned away because their names were misspelt; they brought wrong identification documents, had photocopies of proper identification and turning up at the wrong ward for voting. At another polling station at least 80 people were turned away for the same reasons. In addition, it appeared that some polling officers were not properly briefed on voter identification requirements and dismissed eligible voters. Many believe that the high numbers of voters that were not allowed to participate could have compromised the electoral process.
Police presence at polling stations
According to Zimbabwe law, police officers should not be allowed into the polling station unless they are called in by the presiding officer in instances when there is a voter who needs assistance to vote. However, in all the polling stations that I visited police officers were stationed in the polling station and others congregated outside. The role of the police must be restricted to maintaining order outside polling stations. The fact that police officers at some polling stations took an active role in the voting process was illegal and has sparked suspicions that something sinister was transpiring.
It would appear to me that while the electoral process seemed peaceful overall, there were challenges as many potential voters were turned away and not permitted to vote. This resulted in the disenfranchisement of people whose voices and choices mattered in the election. An electronic voter’s roll should have been available at every polling station to ensure all eligible voters could vote.