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The tendered vote controversy, again

The tendered vote once again raised questions following the 2009 Presidential and National Assembly elections on November 27 and 28.

Tendered ballots have long been a source of some controversy in Namibian elections and one of the international observer missions, following the elections of November, went as far as calling for a “review” of the use of tendered votes in such important elections.

Critics of the tendered vote system say that in the absence of an accurate and reliable voters roll, ideally digital and encompassing voters across all 107 constituencies, being easily accessible at all polling stations across the country, the tendered ballot can become a means of manipulating electoral outcomes.
Supporters of the tendered vote system point to the fact that in highly mobile societies, such as Namibia's, expecting people to return to their home constituencies just to vote for one or two days once every five years is unrealistic.
While both arguments have strong merits, the fact is that Namibia, or rather the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN), doesn't have an accurate and reliable voters roll, which ECN Director of Elections, Moses Ndjarakana, admitted to in the week before the elections. This is evidenced by the fact that in the weeks prior to the elections at least four versions of the voters roll was released to political parties, the last one on the afternoon before the elections, with the number of voters varying from 1.3 million to just over 820,000, according to which version is accessed.

The state of the voters roll was one of the central issues with which some political parties approached the High Court to have November's election results set aside.
However, the tendered ballot didn't become a source of controversy with the 2009 elections. The used of tendered ballots was questioned in both the 1999 and 2004 elections, and following the 2004 polls, the ECN itself undertook to review the use of tendered votes in the five years leading up to last year's elections. However, the electoral body doesn't seem to have given the issue much thought during that time.

On the elections days of last November, a great many people cast their vote as tendered in both the Presidential and National Assembly elections, but it is impossible to say how many as the ECN has not provided a breakdown of how many votes were tendered. What was striking about last year's elections though was that an extraordinary number of tendered votes, more than in previous elections, were cast in the northern regions of the country.

Why this was questioned was because people from the northern regions, which are Namibia's most populous and probably most underdeveloped areas, have historically tended to migrate south, so when elections have come around the number of tendered votes was proportionaly generally considerably higher across the central and southern regions than across the north itself.

What makes the whole tendered vote issue murky and controversial is the perception that the ECN doesn't have an adequate system available to reconcile tendered votes to their home constituencies. Compounding this is the fact that during the last elections, polling stations only had a voters roll available for the particular constituency in which the station was situated and thus a voter could not be marked off against their home constituency, regardless of where they voted. In light of this, it remains unclear, as it did in previous elections, how the electoral body handles the tendered ballot and whether this is the most appropriate way to handle this particular vote.

Against the background of so much suspicion of the tendered ballot system, maybe it has become time for the ECN to really conduct a “review” of this particular voting system and to either make the use of it more transparent and efficient or possibly drop the tendered ballot altogether.

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Election Watch is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Windhoek, Namibia. Election Watch is funded by the European Union and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.