Absentee Ballot Is Consistent With The Liberian Constitution


By Dionysius Sebwe

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 13, 2005


Our fledgling democracy may be threatened if sound measures are not put in place. Moreover, we must not underestimate the significance and ramifications of the October elections. Most Liberians and the international community, especially the United States, have a stake in the outcome of the upcoming elections. This is the appropriate time to put into practice the intent of the framers of our constitution regarding absentee ballot.

Unlike the Electoral Reform Bill passed, absentee ballot is not an anomaly to our Constitution or democracy; it is integral to our national elections. Our profound revival ought to be characterized by a commitment to democratic ideals. And despite the inevitable displacement of a huge population of Liberians, the National Elections Commission has ruled out implementing absentee ballot.

The framers of the Constitution were farsighted by adopting absentee ballot to allow a multitude of Liberians scattered across the world to participate in the political process. They reasoned that election be an inclusive process intended to enable every Liberian citizen to partake in choosing the president and other elected officials. Absentee Ballot is not a cosmetic goal, rather a major component and extension of the voting process.

It seems that the National Elections Commission (NEC) did not factor in myriad reasons preventing Liberians from returning home, or did not consider the ramification of disenfranchising a legitimate group of people who have unnecessarily borne the brunt of actions and policies by sham populists, despots, and tyrants. The primary function of the NEC is to promote and facilitate elections by ensuring all Liberians are afforded the opportunity to cast ballots. Not implementing absentee ballot runs afoul of the Liberian constitution, and is certainly a travesty of a functioning democracy. Also, the NEC's decision not to implement absentee ballot is anachronistic. Do Liberians lose their suffrage when they decide to or are forced to live temporarily or permanently in other parts of the world? The NEC, in my opinion, is shirking one of its primary responsibilities.

Despite the good intent of UNHCR, many Liberians in the Diaspora will adopt a wait-and-see attitude stemming from their first attempt to return home in 1996 when they were forced to flee due to resurgence in fighting. Roland Paye confirms the skepticism of many refugees when interviewed: "Some of us went back home after the 1997 elections, but we later fled back into camps in Guinea when fighting started in 1999. So we are still observing the situation." (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, 'Guinea-Liberia: Many Liberians Refugees are Still Afraid to Return Home.' February 3, 2005)

The Chairwoman of the NEC, Cllr. Morris-Johnson, has also made contradictory and perchance callous statements regarding the issue of absentee ballot. In December, 2004, she declared that "There will be no polling outside of Liberia and we are sorry that refugees who are not repatriated before or during voter registration, will not be allowed to vote in camps." At another time she stated, "we will not disenfranchise any Liberian but we will not allow voting outside the country." On another occasion, she concluded, "If IDPs are not fully resettled by the start of voter registration, we will have to find a way where they can register in their respective camps that would allow them to participate in the elections, but those details will be worked out as soon as the process begins in April." (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, February 7, 2005).

The NEC's decision to flirt with or exclude absentee ballot in the upcoming elections breeds skepticism and cynicism. Though Cllr. Morris-Johnson's statements sound callous and insensitive, we should continue to give her benefit of the doubt regarding any political motive characterizing the NEC's decision.

Moreover, there is no justification for denying Liberians their suffrage. The financial cost of the October elections, including absentee ballot if implemented - while not being borne by the NEC - should not be an obstacle to enfranchising Liberians. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN affiliate, can effectively conduct and supervise overseas balloting in collaboration with the NEC. Monetary challenges and logistics should not impede a legitimate election, especially if the international community is defraying the expenses for such worthy goal. What form of democracy are we advocating if we carry out a partial election in which some segment of the total Liberian population is disenfranchised?

Absentee ballot is not a back-burner issue. If not implemented during this historic time, when will it ever be implemented? Or, when will we ever learn about the values of genuine democracy? Making democracy a tantalizing goal only confirms our lack of commitment, progress, and resolve to make Liberia a better country. A partial election neither benefits the masses nor moves Liberia toward sustainable development.

Disenfranchising Liberians in the Diaspora is tantamount to military rulers using selective methods to deny some segment of a society the inherent right to vote. Our "new" Liberia is not Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe manipulates the citizenry, fondly rigs elections, and prevents the opposition from carrying out its democratic functions. Exclusion of Liberians in the upcoming elections should not be allowed because it reflects a lack of commitment to democracy.

If low voter turnout is the ultimate goal of the NEC, then our democracy is a sham. The thought to have a partial election to exclude Liberians in the Diaspora should make a democratically conscious citizen cringe, as it defeats the purpose of reform. Absentee ballot is consistent with our constitution and democratic pursuit. Most Liberians have paid a huge price for an involuntary displacement or situation engendered by mindless wars they didn't create or support.

Absentee ballot is not an appeasement or a breach of the Liberian constitution, rather a common sense approach to augment and legitimize the upcoming elections because almost all Liberians would have been enfranchised - a primary function of the NEC - to support their candidate of choice. Inaction by the Liberian Diaspora is not an option; absentee ballot can be implemented despite the cost. All Liberians, including Liberian organizations at home and abroad, should lobby aggressively across the globe in support of absentee ballot - a major voting component in our constitution that has been dormant in pre civil war Liberia. We should mobilize and intensify the pressure to compel the NEC to incorporate absentee ballot in the October, 2005, elections. In addition, the Supreme Court of Liberia must intervene and oblige the NEC to implement Article 80 ( c) of the constitution.

The voices of Liberians in the Diaspora will give new meaning to our democratic attempts in fostering a more stable and peaceful Liberia. Our local population will be certainly receptive to our input regarding the election of political leaders. The National Elections Commission can play a pivotal role and take us out of a political wilderness by infusing practical solutions to political challenges. Whether we deny it the attention deserved with ridiculous excuses or put it on a back-burner with whatever rationalization, absentee ballot will be a hot button issue every election year because common sense and democratic ideals necessitate its inevitable integration into home-soil voting.

This is our moment of truth, especially those in the Diaspora, to impact the October Elections and bring about sound leadership to our beloved country. Passivity emboldens sham populist candidates to take advantage of the masses. We must not acquiesce about bad decisions regarding the future of Liberia, especially the October elections which are expected to put in place individuals who will guide this country.

History will render us unfavorable verdict if we miss this unique opportunity to adequate prepare and catapult Liberian into the 21st Century by addressing an issue that will be recurring in future elections. Never before have we been fortunate to have received enormous support from the international community (and maybe a donor conference could be in the works upon a successful election). The UN, USA, EU, and AU would gladly assist us in our democratic pursuit, including funding absentee ballot. All the National Elections Commission and the National Transitional Legislative Assembly need are the commitment and the political will to make the request. It's that simple!
Dionysius Sebwe, B.A. Political Science