Electoral manipulation through voter registration in Zimbabwe

For a lot of people, the mention of “vote rigging” conjures up images of shady characters in dark glasses busy stuffing ballot boxes and disposing of ballot boxes in rivers, replacing them with pre-loaded ballot boxes. To be sure, vote rigging is a broad and amorphous term which includes a lot of things in its boundaries. It is not a single act and oft-times it involves multiple activities at different times before, during and after the electoral process.

Alex T Magaisa,Lawyer

The primary purpose of those who rig elections is to create the maximum advantage possible for their preferred candidate while reducing the chances of their main opponents in all cases while using unfair means. The difficulty with identifying a lot of the vote rigging is that it is often done using means that have a veneer of legality. This false appearance of legality fools many people, including election observers and courts of law into believing that everything is free and fair.
This instalment looks at one of the more subtle but very effective, albeit understated ways of manipulating electoral outcomes. The issue is about the control of the voter registration system and the voters’ roll.

Political community

Voter registration is critical because it regulates access to the electoral process. Those who control voter registration are the gatekeepers of the electoral process. They determine who votes and who can’t vote. Voter registration determines the composition, quality and size of the political community that is eligible to participate in elections. It therefore presents the first opportunity of controlling and manipulating the electoral process.

While the principle of universal adult suffrage is recognised by the constitution and while the right to vote is protected in the Declaration of Rights, this right is qualified by the requirement that only persons who are registered to vote and appear on the voters’ roll are eligible to vote. The right to vote is therefore dependent upon the realisation of the right to register as a voter. It follows therefore, that if you want to control and manipulate the outcome of an election, your starting point is controlling the population that is eligible to vote. You make sure that those who are likely to support you are registered while excluding those that are likely to favour your opponents. In that way you enhance your chances while diminishing your rival’s opportunities. This explains why voter registration is an important battleground in the electoral process.

In assessing an electoral system, it is therefore important to consider whether it provides for a fair, open and inclusive voter registration system. A voter registration system that is exclusionary and therefore leaves out other sections of society cannot facilitate a free and fair election. Voter registration is an important part of the bargain that is struck between society and the individual. The individual has a right to vote while society has an interest in ensuring the preservation of its political community.

As one of the great political philosophers John Stuart Mill wrote in his treatise Considerations on Representative Government, “it is personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interests as other people”. The underlying belief in the idea of preservation of a political community is that only those people with sufficient interest in a particular society should be allowed to vote in that society.

Historically, the criteria for determining the adequacy of those interests has varied according to race, gender, wealth and residence. Even for Stuart Mill, his preferred political community was limited and excluded those who did not have property or those who depended on the welfare of the state. Indeed, for a long period in Europe only white males with a certain level of property ownership constituted the political community which was entitled to vote.

It was not until 1918 that women got the right to vote in Great Britain. In the African colonies, black people were not allowed to vote although over time a few became eligible if they were able to meet certain educational and property qualifications.

One of the major reasons for the rejection of the 1961 constitution by the African nationalists in Southern Rhodesia was that it imposed restrictive voting qualifications on Africans. The colonial state maintained its power partly by controlling the pool of voters, ensuring that it included most of those likely to favour the preservation of the political community upon which it was based. The idea of black majority rule a threat to the political community of the colonial state.

Independence mirage

At independence, while the principle of universal adult suffrage was adopted, it did not completely transform the political community. Instead, a political bargain was struck at the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference in order to protect the interests of the white minority population and therefore preserve residual elements of the old political community. This was achieved by creating two voting rolls: the White Roll, for the white community and the Common Roll for the rest of the population.

It ensured that, at least for that limited period, the white minority still had a notable stake and representation in the new political community that came with the advent of independence and black majority rule.

Nevertheless, the new electoral system, open though it seemed retained certain qualifications which had the potential to be exclusionary. The major one was the residence requirement, which still remains on the books even under the new constitution.

In terms of Schedule 4 to the 2013 constitution, to be eligible to register as a voter, a person must be at least 18 years old and a law may make an additional requirement for proof of residence. Although it is not a compulsory constitutional requirement, the Electoral Law requires applicants to produce proof of residence. This could be in the form of title deeds, utility bills, letter from the landlord, letter from the village head, etc. This proof of residence requirement has class implications, with potential to discriminate not only the homeless, but also those who have no access to the official documents that are demanded.

Recognising this potential limitation and exclusionary effect, the authorities have expanded the definition of proof of residence to include a sworn affidavit by the applicant declaring a particular address as his residence. Use of this affidavit can help to overcome the proof of residence bottleneck. It’s a measure that can enhance inclusivity in the electoral process where proof of residence would otherwise be exclusionary.

However, it could also be a complete charade if the numbers of affidavit forms and the commissioner of oaths before whom the affidavits are sworn are inadequate. It would give the misleading impression of inclusivity, while actually delivering very little in practice. This was a real problem before the 2013 elections leading to the exclusion of many potential applicants.

Rural predisposition

Apart from the issue of proof of residence, those who seek to control the political community that votes can do so through various means which reflect multiple biases. These biases can be based on regionalism, ethnicity, class or the rural-urban divide. Some regions, ethnic groups or classes may be favoured more than others. This would mean allocating more voter registration facilities in some regions or ethnic communities compared to others.

Electoral patterns in the 1980s showed that of the two major political parties, President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF drew the bulk of its support from the Shona ethnic groups while Joshua Nkomo’s PF Zapu had a near monopoly in the Ndebele ethnic groups. Zimbabwe of the 1980s was divided along ethnic lines. The Gukurahundi policy pursued by the Zanu PF in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions in the 1980s affected the local population’s access to birth and death registration facilities. The effect is that there are still many young men and women who to this day remain without registration documents which are necessary to register as voters. Chronic and systematic under-development in those regions since Independence means young people traditionally trek across the border into South Africa, thereby reducing the voting population.

Of interest is the phenomenon of rural bias, whereby the electoral system is biased towards and tends to systematically favour rural areas compared to urban communities. This normally manifests in the disproportionate allocation of electoral facilities to rural communities compared to urban areas. However, it also shows in the policies championed by the ruling establishment, particularly towards elections.

This rural bias is evident in the voter registration system. Although it may not immediately appear as such, rural bias is part of the election rigging infrastructure because it is designed to manipulate the outcome of elections.

In their 2015 work on rural bias, Boone and Wahman point out that in the African countries they studied, “the electoral game has been systematically stacked against the urban areas”. The reason for this, as Robin Harding writes, is that, “across Sub-Saharan Africa, support for incumbent governments is significantly higher among rural residents than urbanites, although the magnitude of this difference varies across countries”.

Boone and Wahman refer to “the problem of electoral malapportionment”, whereby there is an unequal allocation of parliamentary seats between rural and urban areas, with the result that some votes will end up carrying greater weight than others thereby undermining the “one person one vote” principle which requires all votes to carry the same weight.

When rural areas have a disproportionate number of parliamentary seats compared to urban areas, this distorts the weight of votes since rural votes carry greater weight. This is why in some cases, delimitation of constituency boundaries has resulted in the creation of more seats in rural areas which enhances the levels of malapportionment. In other cases, peri-urban constituencies are merged with predominantly rural constituencies as a way of diluting the urban votes. Although Boone and Wahman’s paper is in relation to malapportionment of parliamentary seats, creating a rural bias, the argument can be applied with necessary modifications in relation to malapportionment of voter registration centres between urban and rural areas.

Diluting urban vote

As Boone and Wahman point out, rural bias in electoral systems matters a great deal because its effect of diluting the weight of the urban vote which usually form the core support base of opposition parties.

As scholars like Mahmood Mamdani have pointed out, civil society activism has largely been an urban feature. Across Africa, opposition support has largely been drawn from urban areas and this has been a pattern even in the anti-colonial struggles where nationalist politics emerged with the new educated urban intellectuals and working class movements in the 1940s and 1950s.

Ruling parties tend to rely on rural support to counter-balance the urban-based opposition movements. They refer to the work of Huntingdon who argued in the 1960s that in developing countries rural support is used by authoritarian regimes as a counter-weight against pro-opposition urban support.

War legacy

The liberation struggle bequeathed a highly politicised and politically active rural population in the new Zimbabwe. Guerilla warfare meant that much of the war was fought on rural terrain. Using Maoist war strategies, the guerillas referred to themselves as the fish while the rural masses were the water that sustained them. Guerilla warfare involved political education and morale boosting all-night sessions called pungwes where the fighters interacted with the rural masses.

In the 1980 elections, the rural areas were a key electoral battleground with Zanla in particular deploying guerillas to do the campaigning for political candidates. Zanu PF structures were formed in that era and they have endured to this day. Naturally, rural areas especially in the Mashonaland provinces have been known to be strongholds for Zanu PF. It is in Zanu PF’s interests to ensure that residual loyalty in the rural areas is properly and adequately registered.

To be continued next week.

Dr Magaisa is a lawyer and a lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. — wamagaisa@gmail.com