Voter access to Polling Units (PUs) is at the heart of every electoral democracy because PUs are the basis on which citizens exercise their fundamental rights to vote and to make electoral choices freely.
However, the right to vote cannot be effectively exercised without a place to vote, which is polling unit.
The Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) defines a polling unit as “the place, enclosure, booth, shade or house at which voting takes place under this Act” (Section 156-interpretation).
Therefore, PUs constitutes the basic structure of Nigeria’s electoral system and democracy.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is empowered by the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) to establish adequate number of PUs in the country and assign voters to them.
Specifically, Section 42 of the Act provides that: “The Commission shall establish sufficient number of Polling Units in each Registration Area and allot voters to such Pus’’.
Bu over the years, concerned Nigerians observe that voter access to PUs across Nigeria has been on the decline, as the number of PUs remained static in spite of increase in population and the expansion of settlements across the country.
According to INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, voter access to polling units across Nigeria is presently in a state of crisis that needs urgent attention.
Yakubu said the current 119,973 existing polling units established by the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) 25 years ago in 1996 was projected to serve 50 million registered voters, which gradually rose to 84,004,084 by 2019.
“We envisage that by the next general elections in 2023, the population of registered voters may be twice the number projected in 1996. Yet, the number of polling units remains the same,’’ he said.
Yakubu noted that over the years, several challenges have confronted INEC, including the inadequate number of polling units, as a result of population growth, demographic shifts, establishment of new settlements and residential areas.
“Since the law ties registration of voters and voting to specific PUs, it means that voters have to walk long distances on election day to vote. Often, they are not able to do so because of restrictions on movement,’’ he said.
Yakubu added that inadequacy of polling units implied that many of the PUs “are overcrowded during electionscwhich is a recipe for delays, disruptions, violence and apathy.’’
He cited a situation during the 2011 elections, where most of the PUs saw turnouts exceeding the 500 voters designated per polling unit.
“A review carried out by the commission in 2014 revealed that many polling units exceeded the designated figure of 500 voters per PU by a couple of thousands while some had over 4,000 registered voters.
“For the 2019 general election, the average number of voters per polling unit was about 700 voters nationally, rising to more than 2,000 voters in the FCT while a specific polling unit in Nasarawa State had more than 15,000 voters.
“These huge numbers of voters at PUs which constitutes health and safety issues in this period of the global COVID-19 pandemic, pointed to the urgency of reorganising polling units,’’ Yakubu said.
Another problem according to Yakubu is the location of the PUs at difficult places which would not encourage voters to participate in elections, particularly persons living with disability.
“Until recently, some were even located in the homes of important people and religious groups that often have political leanings capable of discouraging some voters from voting.
“Also, some PUs are located in highly charged and contested areas, including areas experiencing communal conflicts,’’ he observed.
All these, according to him have also contributed to violation of election regulations and guidelines, violence and insecurity during elections.
He noted that the problem also made arrangement of voting facilitates to be difficult and encouraged vote buying during elections.
“This particular problem has become even more serious in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic because the constricted spaces available at polling units do not support the necessary social distancing recommended by health authorities,’’ he said.
The INEC boss said the commission had made several efforts in the past to address the problem but were politicised or misunderstood by Nigerians, due to lack of proper sensitisation and the decisions coming close to elections.
According to Yakubu, some of the efforts by the commission to address the problem include the creation of baby units in 2007, voting points in 2011 and voting point settlements in FCT in 2016.
In an effort to address this challenges INEC in February began consultation with stakeholders early ahead of a new electoral cycle (2019-2023), with some major upcoming activities such as the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR) and several off-cycle elections.
At a presentation to the National Assembly Joint Committee on INEC and Electoral Matters, Yakubu solicited NASS’ support to convert existing voting points across the country to polling units and relocate some to underserved areas.
He urged the lawmakers and stakeholders to help de-politicise issues around the intention, noting that existing PUs were no longer suitable for INEC to properly manage election and ensure that rules and regulations were strictly adhered to.
Yakubu disclosed that the commission already received no fewer than 9,000 requests from communities and individuals across Nigeria from October 2020 to February 2021 for the creation of new PUs.
INEC National Commissioner, Okechukwu Ibeanu, also making presentation on: “The State of Voter Access to polling units in Nigeria’’, said the problem was nationwide and not limited to a particular state or political zone.
Ibeanu said the existing 119,973 were no longer conducive to voters to exercise their right to vote, especially in the context of the COVID-19 protocols.
Illustrating the voter turnout decline in Nigeria during election, Ibeanu said between 1999 and 2019, voter turnout in Nigeria dropped by 17 per cent, compare to Ghana which rose by 17 per cent within the same period.
“If you look at Nigeria situation during that same period the number of voters per pulling unit increased by 217. Conversely for Ghana, it decreased by 91 voters.
“So it seems to suggest that there is a strong link, such that the much the number of voters per polling unit, the lower the voter turnout,’’ Ibeanu said.
He said that in addressing the present situation, the commission had proposed three frameworks for permanent solutions, include the possibility that residents of a new area to apply for PU, which will go through a verification and approval process.
“The second approach will be to create what section 13 of the Electoral Act talks about as polling areas, while the third approach is the possibility of converting the existing voting points and voting settlements in the FCT to full-fledged pulling units.
“We think that the first two proposed solutions will take a long time and substantial resources to achieve.
“It seems to us that converting voting points and voting points settlement to pulling units is probably the most visible, the least time consuming and likely to be the least controversial,” he said.
However, various stakeholders have expressed supports for INEC to as a matter of urgency expand polling units across the country.
President of the Senate Ahmad Lawan at a stakeholders forum organised by the National Assembly Joint Committee on INEC and Electoral Matters assured INEC of NASS’s support on expanding polling units across the country.
Lawan said that the National Assembly would always support the provision of safe and more convenient environment for voters.
“I want to assure the chairman of INEC and indeed Nigerians that the National Assembly will support INEC fully, completely and wholly in ensuring that we provide a better voting environment for our citizens.
“We will do whatever it takes, because democracy is about participation and voting is probably the most important thing,’’ Lawan said.
Chairman of Inter-Party Advisory Council (IPAC), Leonard Nzenwa at INEC consultation with party leaders, described the commission’s effort as timely, especially at a time the NASS Joint Committee on INEC was almost completing work on the amendment of the Electoral Act, 2010.
Nzenwa said adequacy of PUs, conduciveness and a good environment was very important in deepening Nigeria democracy.
He advised INEC to begin the process of conversion based on clearly articulated guidelines.
Hajiya Sa’a Ibrahim, Chairman, Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BOS), speaking when INEC consultation with labour unions and professional associations, advised the commission to remove all PUs located in compounds of traditional, religious and political leaders.
Ibrahim, represented by the Executive Secretary, Nigeria Elections Debate Group, Mr Eddie Emessiri, said the action was imperative to ensure that all eligible voters have access to polling units.
Ibrahim commended INEC for providing rich data on the proposed expansion of PUs, advising it to meticulously follow the provided data to avoid unnecessary pitfall.
National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee (IVEC), Festus Okoye said that in the next few days, INEC would conclude the consultative phase and release clear guidelines for the movement of voting points to decongest the existing ones.
Okoye assured Nigerians that no voting point would be moved from one local government to another, nor undue advantage be given to any state or region.
“The primary object of all this is to make the voting experience more pleasant and less tedious for Nigerians,’’ he said.
Stakeholders believe that since declining access to PUs is potentially disenfranchising millions of eligible voters, there is the need for INEC to urgently expand PUs if the credibility of the country’s electoral system.(NANFeatures)