PNG common roll remains vulnerable to manipulation

27/02/2012 14:15

Papua New Guineans checking their names on the common roll in 2007.


By Dr Michael Unage

There are many reliable reports in the media that the electoral roll update of the 2012 General Election was not done to expectation.

As in the case in Mendi where over 80,000 people have protested that the process was hijacked to favor certain intending candidates, claiming deliberate inflation and deflation of numbers in the electoral roll. Similar sentiment shave also been expressed by people from different electorates in PNG. If there is any truth in these allegations then it’s an aberration from the systems and processes put in place to promote a free and fair election that promotes ‘one person, one vote’.

Vulnerability of the Electoral Roll

The so‐called common roll was altered in the 2007 General Election, and was replaced with a ward roll to sign up eligible voters in each respective polling venue. The ward roll is being referred to as the electoral roll today. The significant change did manage to deplete the numbers by around 1.4 million from 5 million. From reports, the change may be notable in some places. Even so, real problems do continue to exist as the new roll appears to be just as vulnerable to manipulation and contained mistakes as the previous one, at just about every stage of the enrolment process .

In the decision to register voters in the last election come too late in the election cycles, and as a result, there were not enough time for any thorough verification and updating of the electoral roll just before the June election in 2007. This was revealed by the study conducted in the 2007 Domestic Observation Report.

In the Eastern Highlands, the villagers reported that the visits of the enumerators were unknown and not many people have seen the enumerators, or filled in a claim f or enrolment form. As a result, the enumeration process was heavily criticized.

Also from the 2007 Report, the electoral roll was stuffed with gross irregularities in many electorates. There were highly inflated numbers in some wards, many citizens were disenfranchised and their names were not recorded on the roll. Furthermore, some people were allocated to wrong wards, while thousands of under‐age voters were enlisted, and included fictitious and duplicate entries as well.

Failure of the PNG Electoral Commission in last 5 years

Upon realizing those discrepancies, absolutely nothing was done to cleanse the electoral roll in the subsequent 2008 Local Level Government (LLG) Election, and even the allegations contained in daily papers, as repetition of the 2007 experience is envisaged. The question here is, what has the PNG Electoral Commission (PNGEC) done over the last five years to implement the series of recommendations contained in the election report published by the National Research Institute (NRI) in 2009?

According to the NRI report, the first recommendation says that the government implements a new system of voter registration and voter identification for the 2012 election. It further states that the system should be supported by an immediate pilot study on the feasibility of a biometric system, informed by the experience of such systems elsewhere in the world. And the implementation plan for voter registration should be in place by the beginning of 2010.

The idea of issuing voter’s identification was mooted before. It arose time and again when the variation between the figure on the electoral roll and the real eligible voters is discovered to be blown out of proportion. Narrowing the variation between eligible voters and figures on the electoral roll seems to shun the intelligence of the PNG Electoral Commission, despite the availability of technology that can effectively mitigate the problem.

The issue of electronic registration, voting and counting came up in a forum held at the NRI in 2009, and conducted by the PNGEC. Of the many issues raised in the forum, the possibility of having electronic registration of voter identification, including face photo and palm prints were available and were demonstrated to the participants, most of them staff from the PNGEC.

These technologies were employed in many countries, such as Bangladesh, which has 80 million people, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, and Venezuela. Some of this countries share similar geographic and infrastructural challenges to PNG. The biometric system will be a great relief to the tedious manual process engaged by the PNGEC, which are often vulnerable to manipulation.

Challengers of the New System

There are experts and people in the system that would oppose new attempts to solutions to maintain their status quo. Their resistance has nothing to do with the fear of unfeasibility of the new system, but rather the fear that they will be thrown out of business, if a near accurate electoral roll becomes achieved. With the availability of technology, electoral roll update and cleansing can all be done on polling day as well. It just needs some time for demonstration and explanation, strong political will to fund, and the need to remove dead logs in the system.

The writer is of the view that the most convenient time for the update of the electoral roll is during the LLG elections. The persistent mistake by PNGEC was that electoral roll update was executed during the General Election.

Rational behind this argument

A ward in Simbu had 1100 voters registered on the Electoral roll. During the 2007 General Election, all the 1100 ballot papers have been marked as the ward had a candidate contesting. However, in the 2008 LLG elections, around 400 ballot papers have been marked out of the 1100 issued. After all the "warm bodies" in the ward area have had their turn once at the polling booth, around 700 ballot papers remained. A decision was made by the contesting candidates that the extra 700 ballot papers be burnt and witnessed by the presiding officer. Does this scenario provide the necessary opportunity for an electoral roll update or cleansing in the Highlands region?

One important lesson learnt is that the process of electoral update or for that matter the cleansing of the roll will not be done by the PNGEC officials but by the people themselves. As in the example employed above, eligible voters cast votes only once, meaning that there was “one person, one vote” being practiced, voter identification by the use of electoral roll was discarded as it contained irregularities which the people themselves confirmed, and other polling irregularities were minimized. Community sanction played a crucial role, which may even make the use of the biometric system unnecessary. Some personal and communal ethic is required for such outcomes.

What does that say about the manner of the enrolment process? Firstly, any electoral update should be carried out during the LLG elections. If the electoral roll update was done during that time, the above mentioned ward would only enlist 400 eligible voters rather than the 1100.

Raising people’s awareness for community sanction is crucial. Perhaps, village recorders should be given the task to update the roll and be placed on a fixed honorarium, than to throw millions of  PNG Kina into corrupt officials and the devious schemes that they employ, which really do not serve a helpful purpose.

End Remarks

People are out to fight corruption and want to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. Manual enumerations over the years have led to inconsistencies and would require the assistance of electronic registration devices, with the assistance of village recorders. Perhaps, the PNGEC and interested parties should look to having a near accurate ward roll during the next LLG election, presumably in the 2013 LLG election. If they were to start in this year’s General Election, would mean a delay to the 2012 General Election.

  • Dr. Michael Unage is a Senior Research Fellow and Program Leader of Improving Basic Service Research Program at the National Research Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and does not necessarily reflect that of the National Research Institute.