The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) hosted a virtual public meeting on; “Voter Registration Requirements: Implications for Inclusion in Electoral Processes” on Thursday 17th February 2022. The major objective of the meeting was to discuss the status quo in relation to the acquisition of identity documents vis-a-vis the ongoing Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) blitz ahead of the delimitation of electoral boundaries and the 2023 harmonized elections. The meeting also sought to proffer recommendations for improved efficiency in the issuance of identity documents with a view of facilitating sufficiently inclusive electoral processes in Zimbabwe.
The panel comprised of civil society experts; ZESN Chairperson Mr. Andrew Makoni, Women Coalition of Zimbabwe (WCOZ) National Coordinator Mrs. Sally Ncube, National Association of Youth Organisations (NAYO) Team Leader Mr. Misheck Gondo and Projects Officer for the Community Youth Development Trust (CYDT) Mr. Leader Zaba.
The meeting brought to the fore issues surrounding the failure by many people to participate in the ongoing voter registration blitz, chief reason was the lack of identity documents needed for registration as a voter. Mr Makoni noted that the purpose of the blitz is to ensure that many people register as voters ahead of the delimitation exercise scheduled for later this year. He also observed that the purpose of postponing this process was to ensure that as many people get the opportunity to obtain identity documents that are necessary for the registration of one as a voter. Mr. Makoni was of the opinion that the blitz should have started earlier to enable as many people in recalled constituencies to register and participate in the by-elections. Once the President proclaims an election date, the voters roll closes two days later so the blitz needed to be conducted earlier than the proclamation date so that those who wanted to participate were able to do so.
Long-distances and inaccessibility of voter registration centres were cited as obstacles for most people. The ZESN Chairperson expressed concern over the non-inclusivity of the blitz and the limited personnel at each centre as well as inadequate voter education to encourage people to go and register. He also highlighted the plight of sections of the population that face stiffer challenges than others, for example “aliens” who are recognised by the Constitution as citizens by birth but find it a nightmare to access identity documents. He noted that this population is significant and has not been able to participate equally in the voting process.
Mrs. Sally Ncube highlighted several challenges, including cultural practices; political violence; limited resources for organising and campaigning; political institution hierarchies and protocols which impede women from participating in voter registration and other key electoral processes. She also explained that COVID-19 further widened the gap for women to participate in electoral processes.
Mr. Leader Zaba spoke on the involvement of the youth in voter registration and other electoral processes. He noted that youths are mostly affected by the lack of access to identity documentation because of the centralisation of the Civil Registry offices. He submitted that youths are now using the failure of the system as an excuse to not register to vote. He gave the example of Matabeleland South where one can only apply for a passport in Gwanda. Mr Zaba recommended the decentralisation of the Civil Registry offices even outside election periods to enable youths to get identity documents to enable them to register to vote.
Mr. Misheck Gondo attributed the increased participation of young people in 2018 who often do not own property to the use of affidavits. He observed that transport costs also hinder young people from going to registration centres which are often far. Mr. Gondo added that eligibility for public office is an issue for young people. They are allowed to vote at 18 years of age but cannot be voted for at that same age, which discourages their participation.
Responding to how best the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) can cater for the needs of the visually impaired during elections, Mrs. Sally Ncube called for the creation of an enabling space for inclusion by representation in Parliament, being allowed to bring in a person of their choice to assist them on voting day and encouraging them to organise themselves in defining the kind of support they need for inclusion in electoral processes. She also spoke on initiatives being undertaken by CSOs to ensure inclusivity of the visually impaired such as; the need for ZEC to introduce Braille readable papers, Draft Electoral Law submitted to Parliament and women organisations’ engagements with multiple stakeholders.
Mr. Makoni bemoaned the $10USD accreditation fee for local observers which limit the participation of citizen observers. He was of the opinion that there is no need for journalists to be subjected to dual accreditation by both the Zimbabwe Media Commission and ZEC.
When the discussion was opened to the floor, most of the participants concurred that the requirements for voter registration like the National Identity card and passport, as well as proof of residence or an affidavit commissioned by a Commissioner of Oaths usually stand in the way of prospective voters. There was consensus that there are administrative inefficiencies by the Civil Registry which has failed to provide relevant documentation to the people of Zimbabwe on time.
The panellists proffered several recommendations among them the scrapping of proof of residence from the voter registration requirements, arguing that the National Identity card must be sufficient proof that a person is a citizen of Zimbabwe. It was also recommended that Zimbabwe must borrow a leaf from countries that automatically add people to the voters’ roll database as soon as they turn 18 years. In addition, panellists also recommended that the country considers migrating to electronic or online voter registration to eliminate huddles caused by the need to travel to registration centres and stand in queues.
Another suggestion proffered was the need to continue reassuring and giving confidence to the voters as well as educating them on their rights and the support mechanisms so that when their rights are violated they know where to report and get support. The need to ensure that elections are not tied to food aid was also emphasized. The concept of National Voter Registration Day, a day on which thousands of volunteers commit to mobilising citizens to vote, as what happens in America on the 28th of September each year, was also considered as a best practice that Zimbabwe may adopt. It was also recommended that the closure of registration take place 2 weeks after the proclamation and not 2 days as is currently the case in the Electoral Act, so that more people have an opportunity to register to vote.
The meeting agreed that there is a need to invest in voter education targeting young people age while they are still in primary school as part of efforts to reduce youth involvement in political violence. Young people’s minds need to be opened so that they are proud of themselves and will do nothing to endanger other citizens. Above all, it was also emphasized that the police and the army need to undergo training specifically on election-related issues and howto protect citizens so that they cannot be used as tools of violence on other citizens.
The virtual meeting was a great success as it fulfilled the objective of gathering views and opinions on the effect of Voter Registration Requirements on inclusion in Electoral Processes. The meeting attracted more than 50 participants on the ZOOM platform and reached 2 872 people on the ZESN Facebook page.