IT is the constitutional mandate of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) to ensure that, at every election or referendum, whatever voting method is used, is simple, accurate, verifiable, secure and transparent.
The commission must also ensure that the results of the election or referendum are announced as soon as possible after the close of the polls. It must put appropriate systems and mechanisms in place to eliminate violence and other electoral malpractices, and to ensure the safekeeping of electoral materials. An Act of Parliament provides for the conduct of elections.
Enter the Electoral Act! Only Zec can map polling stations and site them (determine where to locate) in consultation with political parties, then three weeks before polling day and on polling day, publish in a newspaper circulating in the constituency concerned the polling station sites and opening and closing times of polling stations.
The commission must also ensure that the number of ballot papers printed for any election does not exceed more than 10 per centum the number of registered voters eligible to vote in the election.
The commission is obliged to publish, for the information of electoral stakeholders, where and by whom the ballot papers have been or are being printed, the total number of ballot papers that have been printed for the election, the number of ballot papers that have been distributed to each polling station. The Electoral Regulations of 2005 provide the design and form of ballot papers and the law vests the discretion to decide and design ballot papers in the commission.
The polling station must open at 7am and close at 7pm but a presiding officer has discretion to open or close late, provided the polling station remains open for a continuous period of 12 hours. Thirty minutes before a polling station opens, the presiding officer upends the ballot boxes one by one and requests those present to confirm that they are empty. The ballot boxes are then locked and their apertures sealed using a special seal signed by polling agents of political parties.
The seal will only be broken when the polling station closes and counting is about to begin. The same agents who signed the special seal must confirm that the seal has not been tampered with by checking that their signatures are intact. Before polling commences, the presiding officer, in the presence of all polling agents and accredited observers present, counts and records the number of ballot papers received at the polling station.
Agents are permitted to record the serial numbers of the ballot papers in each booklet. Every time a booklet finishes, the presiding officer will announce that “booklet serial number such and such is finished, we are moving on to the next booklet with the following serial numbers …”
Trained agents will have an exercise book and pen, where they keep track of the ballot paper booklet throughout the day, and even record the time each booklet was opened and the time it finished. Section 61 of the Act provides for the procedure at the closure of the poll. Each ballot box’s aperture is closed and sealed in the presence of agents and observers.
Unused and spoilt ballot papers and their counterfoils are put into special packets and sealed. The seals are countersigned by polling agents and sealed by the presiding officer, similarly with counterfoils of used ballot papers, and the register of assisted voters. When the last packet is sealed, the presiding officer will unseal and open the ballot boxes for counting and collation. In the presence of monitors, observers, and every chief election agent of each candidate present.
The ballot box is opened and each sealed packet containing used and spoilt ballot papers is opened, as well as the register of assisted voters. The ballot papers in each ballot box are counted separately. Any ballot paper without the official seal or mark of the presiding officer or of a registered voter is rejected. Ballot paper not clearly marked by the voter will be rejected. Rejected ballot papers are marked “rejected” by the presiding officer.
After counting, and in full view of those present, the presiding officer shall close and seal the aperture of the ballot box and make separate packets, which he or she will close and seal, of the unused and spoilt ballot papers and counterfoils, used ballot papers and counterfoils of spoilt ballot paper, register of assisted voters and a record of polling station return of the votes obtained by each candidate showing the results of the count for each ballot box.
Clearly, one packet of this polling station residue will be sealed inside each ballot box in full view of all present. That is the primary evidence.
The presiding officer will then display the completed polling station return to those present to afford each and every candidate or his or her agent opportunity to subscribe their signature thereto or decline. The agents of the presidential candidates, 23 presidential candidate as in the 2018 elections, scrutinising the polling station return for accuracy, then signing, other agents and any or all observers present doing the same, for all three tiers of harmonised elections.
The presiding officer must then provide each and every candidate or agent with a copy of the completed polling station return, even if there are 50 or a 100, in longhand and will clearly fill in the returns using carbon paper so some top copies will be original, some will get duplicates of the original copy.
Thereafter, the Electoral Act stipulates that the pressing officer shall affix a copy of the polling station return on the outside of the polling station so that it is visible to all members of the public who wish to inspect it and record its contents. It is important to note that the Electoral Act places no onus or obligation on the presiding officer, or on the commission, to ensure that the polling station return remains outside the polling station where it has been affixed in the presence of observers, for any stipulated period. So if I toddle along an hour later, and the polling station return has been blown away by the wind, or removed by those with nefarious intent, is that any reason in terms of our stipulated procedures, to conclude that the result transmission process is not verifiable? Verification will have come and gone. Inside the polling station!
The polling station return is the V11 form—so named by the Electoral Regulations of 2005. You will find a copy of it there.
After affixing the V11 form to the outside of the polling station, the presiding officer shall transmit to the ward elections officer for the ward in which the polling station is situated: each ballot box, presidential, National Assembly, council, as well as each second packet containing what is sealed as primary evidence inside the ballot box.
The ballot boxes and packets, accompanied by a statement from the presiding officer showing the number of ballot papers entrusted to him or her and accounting for them under the heads of used ballot papers, excluding spoilt ballot papers, unused ballot papers and spoilt ballot papers, and the polling station return (V11) certified by him or her to be correct.
Section 64 does not say the V11 form must be submitted in original. Just that it must be certified as correct by the presiding officer and or a mere polling officer, who was present during collation and counting. There would not even be any breach of the Electoral Act if the V11 form was subsequently filled in because an agent present had lost the copy, provided such is requested within a reasonable time, and that either the presiding officer or a duly authorised polling agent reproduce the V11.
In my view, there would be a problem if such a subsequent copy, though certified, differed materially from the sealed residue inside the ballot box. Sections 1-14 of the Regulations to the Electoral Act 2005 are instructive.
The ward elections officer will then verify and collate the polling station returns at the ward centre and count the postal votes. In the presence of each candidate or agent, each political party with contesting party list candidates, and observers. The V11 forms will be displayed to all those present. Each V11 will be verified by ensuring that it is duly certified by the presiding officer of each polling station, allow each person present to take note of the contents of each V11. This is the form of verification provided by Section 65 of the Electoral Act, not at the Command Centre.
Verification must be done inside each polling station, and at the ward collation centre. After such verification, the votes are added and entered onto a ward return. Postal ballots are verified similarly in the presence of everyone and recorded on the ward return. Total numbers of votes received by each candidate, as extrapolated from the V11 form, are recorded on the ward return, of which a duly certified copy is availed to everyone inside the ward collation center, all 50 to 100 of them. All within 12 hours, 24 hours? You, the reader, can decide what a reasonable time period is, we are still at ward collation and verification. The ward return is affixed outside the ward collation centre as notice to the world of who won in that ward.
A certified copy of the ward return is transmitted to the constituency elections officer, and the process is repeated, this time with all the ward returns, in the presence of all candidates, their agents and observers. Verification of the ward returns takes the form of ensuring that each return is duly certified by the ward election officers. Everyone present is allowed to inspect and make notes. The figures are tallied, and a constituency return form filled in. The winner is declared duly elected inside that constituency collation centre.
What we see on television from the Command Centre is entertainment. The game will have been started and finished in that constituency collation centre, that is where the winner is declared and the V23 form displayed by affixing it outside the centre as notice to the world of the winner in that constituency.
When the constituency returns are verified and collated at the Command Centre notice is given to all candidates of the time of counting and collation. Section 63B requires that candidate be notified. It does not stipulate that the results certified by the provincial elections officer (PEO) inside the Command Centre are invalid if they are not signed by all party agents. It does not say the PEO is obliged to wait until all agents are present.
At the allotted time, in terms of the notice, counting and collation will begin and finish, with those who are present. The provincial return is again displayed by affixing a copy outside and a copy availed to all those present. It does not have to be signed by candidates and/or their agents. That game is for polling station returns, V11.
It is self-evident that our system, though manual and cumbersome, is thorough if not efficient. Clearly two, even three, days is insufficient. Perhaps there is a case for the electronic display of results in the ward collation constituency collation and provincial collation centres and finally inside the Command Centre.
Five days to collate the results of harmonised elections— presidential, National Assembly and local government. If Zimbabweans think that it is too long, they should lobby their Members of Parliament to change the law.
This article is part of a special series focussing on electoral processes and reforms.