Liberia's 1984 Elections Law

Mohamedu F. Jones

The Perspective

February 20, 2002

§ 3.1 Who may register

a. Every citizen of Liberia who shall be 18 years of age or older, may register as a voter up to and including August 1, 1985…. (Liberian Elections Law, 1984)

This provision of the 1984 Elections Law immediately caught my eye as I was preparing for my scheduled presentation at the January 2002, conference of the Movement for Democratic Change in Liberia (MDCL). I was concerned because the law contained a date certain for registration, “August 1, 1985,” which had long expired. This was unusual; ordinarily, laws of this nature provide for a period, say, 60 or 90 days before an event, and not a specific calendar date in a given year. I decided to look to the intention of the legislating authority. As a result of my further research and analysis, I concluded that the 1984 Elections Law was obsolete, inadequate and not valid for the purposes of holding constitutional elections in 2003.

Several very good Liberian lawyers have disagreed with me: Cllr. Charles Brumskine in his February 2002 interview with “The Perspective,” and Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, who has told me that he will soon publish his analysis and conclusions that the law is valid. I welcome these developments, because I may have reached the wrong conclusions about the law. My purpose was to offer my theory to the public for deliberation and discourse, and not to score legal points, or even more ridiculously, because of some “hidden political agenda or vendetta.” Since the MDCL conference, several persons have suggested that I should clarify my contention, because my comments on the 1984 Elections Law were only a small part of a larger discussion of multiple issues. This is my purpose here.

Legislative Intent
When a law is not very clear, or confusing or contradictory, one method of analysis to understand the law is to look to the intent of the legislation. What were the lawmakers trying to do? I first examined Decree 75, which authorized the 1984 Elections Law. This is what Decree 75 provides in the relevant passage:

§ 4 That the Special Commission on Elections shall have the power:

(a) to propose to the People’s Redemption Council a new elections law and any other laws, rules and regulations which shall govern the first elections of public officials for assumption of public office and the return to constitutional government in accordance with the schedule prescribed by the People’s Redemption Council and to administer such laws (my emphasis).

I then looked to the law itself, which the Special Commission on Elections had proposed pursuant to its Decree 75 authority. Section 1.1, Title of the Law, is instructive. It states:

§ 1.1 Title of the Law

The title of this law herein cited shall be called the Election Law of Liberia to govern the First Election and all provisions therein shall be in conformity with this title. (I have italicized the word “First” for emphasis. Readers should note that in the text of the statute, the “F” in “First” is capitalized. I conclude that this was done deliberatively.)

My reading of these provisions led me to conclude that it was the intent of the legislating authority that the 1984 Elections Law was applicable only to the 1985 special elections. Note the PRC stated unambiguously that all “provisions therein shall be in conformity with this title”; a title which uses the phrase “First Election.” In discussion with a number of persons, they have suggested that perhaps my argument is primarily legal-technical. I agree. Notwithstanding, it is important that we fully examine laws governing elections in Liberia, including what might be consider merely technical provisions to ensure that elections are held consistent with the spirit and letter of the 1986 Constitution. Beyond the so-called technical arguments, there are substantive defects with the 1984 Elections Law.

Substantive Inadequacies of the 1984 Elections Law

a. Absentee Registration

One of the substantive deficiencies of the 1984 Elections Law is that it does not allow for absentee registration. The statute would allow a voter who would be absent from Liberia on elections day to cast an absentee ballot. However, there is no provision for absentee registration, unlike say, South Africa. Every Liberian who resides out of the country, and who wants to vote will have to go to Liberia to their constituency and register. I believe this is inconsistent with Article 77 (b), which provides in relevant parts:

“...every Liberian citizen not less that 18 years of age, shall have the right to be registered as a voter and to vote in public elections and referenda under this Constitution.”

Under Article 77 (b), an 18-year or older Liberian need not be in Liberia to register and vote. Article 80 c) likewise provides:

“Every Liberian citizen shall have the right to be registered in a constituency, and to vote in public elections only in the constituency where registered, either in person or by absentee ballot, provided that such citizen shall have the right to change constituency as may be prescribed by the Legislature.”

Note that to be “registered in a constituency” does not mean you have to be physically present in that constituency. Because the 1984 Elections Law does not provide for absentee registration contrary to the Constitution, it is not valid in my view.

b. Political contributions

Article 82 (a) provides in part:

“The Legislature shall by law prescribe that guidelines under which such contribution may be made and the maximum amount which may be contributed.”

The 1984 Elections Law does offer some guidelines for political contributions, albeit, insufficiently; it, however, does not set any maximum amount for contributions as required by the Constitution. This is another substantive defect in the law.

c. Change of constituency

Article 80 (c) grants the right to registered voters to change constituencies in the form prescribed by the Legislature. The 1984 Elections Law contains no provisions regarding change of constituency before or after registration as a voter. This is a major defect in the law.

d. Penalties for violations of Chapter VIII of the Constitution.

Article 84 of the Constitution provides:

“The Legislature shall by law provide penalties for any violation of the relevant provisions of this Chapter, and shall enact laws and regulations in furtherance thereof not later than 1986; provided that such penalties or regulations shall not be inconsistent with any provisions of this Constitution.”

Chapter 8 of the 1984 Elections Law speaks to “Elections Offenses.” However, it does not provide penalties for violations of Chapter VIII of Constitution, which the Constitution directed the Legislature to pass “no later than 1986.” The 1984 Elections Law does not provide penalties for the following:

· Violation of secret ballot by elections officials under Article 77 (b).
· Violation for unlawful denial of registration by elections officials under Article 77 (b).
· Violation of Article 79 regarding functions of political parties.
· Violations of Article 80 (c) regarding unlawful denial of registration or right to vote.
· Violations of Article 81 regarding the right to canvass for votes.
· Violations of Article 82 (a) regarding contributions by corporate and business organizations and labor unions.

So these are the perspectives that I bring to the 1984 Elections Law. As I told a friend of mine the other day, if I am wrong, it will cost me nothing. But if I am correct, and we do not fix the defects, it will cost all of us a great deal. As it stands now, no Liberian residing out of Liberia is able to register to vote in the 2003 elections. Go figure! In the very least, there is a need to change the last day of registration from August 1, 1985.

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