Polling Units are central to the electoral process and therefore democracy at large. Voter access to Polling Units is at the very heart of electoral democracy because Polling Units are the basis on which citizens exercise their fundamental rights to vote and to make electoral choices freely. Consequently, Polling Units largely shape citizens’ confidence in the electoral process, the levels of either participation or apathy, as well as security and safety during elections.
Voter access goes beyond the number of Polling Units available to voters. It also entails citing Polling Units in places that are conducive to voting as well as the extent to which the environment of each Polling Unit provides a good voter experience and implementation of the regulations and guidelines of the Commission on Election Day. Over the years, voter access to Polling Units in Nigeria has been declining. For the 2019 General Election, the average number of voters per Polling Unit was about 700 nationally, rising to over 2,000 in the Federal Capital Territory while a specific Polling Unit in Nasarawa State had over 15,000 voters. Furthermore, some Polling Units are located in very difficult places that do not encourage voters to participate in elections, particularly persons living with disability. Others are located in places experiencing conflicts or in places under the control of partisan actors. Moreover, because of inadequate Polling Units, many voters have to travel long distances to their Polling Units on Election Day. All these have contributed to low voter turnout at elections, egregious violation of election regulations and guidelines, violence and insecurity. Crowding at Polling Units also constitute health and safety issues in this period of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Repeated attempts by the Commission to expand voter access to Polling Units by establishing new ones and relocating some to better sites have not been successful. Consequently, the Commission resorted to stopgap measures such as the creation of “Baby Polling Units”, Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements. All these have not adequately solved the problem and, in fact, in some cases have created new challenges of their own. The inability of the Commission to routinely expand voter access to Polling Units when necessary has been principally due to politicization of the process by sundry interests in the country, especially by propagating unfounded claims and conspiracy theories about the Commission’s intentions. Delays arising from opposition to the establishment of Polling Units have meant that the process comes too close to elections and therefore is impossible to complete. Also, the level of consultation with stakeholders by the Commission may not have been adequate.
As the Commission enters a new electoral cycle (2019-2023), with some major upcoming activities such as the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) and several off-cycle elections which will culminate in the 2023 general election, it decided to embark early enough on a major programme of engagement with stakeholders on expanding voter access to Polling Units ahead of the activities in the electoral calendar.
Therefore, this Discussion Paper is the Commission’s framework for the planned engagement. Among other things, it presents the Commission’s concerns about the worsening challenge of voter access to Polling Units, provides a historical background to this challenge, outlines some indicative issues to be addressed by the engagements and provides the Commission’s thinking on how to solve the challenge of declining voter access to Polling Units in Nigeria.
As a Commission, we do not take the important contributions of stakeholders to the electoral process for granted. These engagements and this Discussion Paper are indeed a continuation of the commitment of the Commission to always listen to stakeholders and to do our best to carry them along in all cardinal issues of election management in Nigeria. Accordingly, this document should be seen not as an end in itself but as a means to an end for open, genuine and fruitful engagement with stakeholders in the electoral process.
I look forward to both the engagements with stakeholders and to rejoinders to this Discussion Paper in the best interest of our electoral process.
Professor Mahmood Yakubu
Abuja, 26th January 2021