The chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, has stated the commission’s intention to create additional polling units ahead of the 2023 general election. Unsuccessful attempts had been made in the past to create those additional polling units owing to poor communication and the politicisation of the issue which often rendered them vulnerable to conspiracy theories. The new units have to be created as part of the commission’s effort, he said, to ease voter access to polling units, to encourage more voter participation in the elections.
The commission’s intentions are laudable if it can find its way around it without repeating the mistakes of the past. We remember that in August 2014 the commission proposed additional polling units of which 21,615 units would be in the northern states and only 8,412 for the South. The commission was unable to explain the lopsidedness and the proposal had to be suspended under public pressure. We urge the commission to work harder this time in trying to carry the stakeholders along, from the socio-cultural groups through traditional and religious leaders to civil society groups and the media.
Reasons to expand the polling units are many and most of them are valid and even important. As the commission stated, the country has a fast expanding population and a continuously changing demographics that need to be constantly updated. New voters need to be registered as voters migrate and younger ones attain the voting age. New settlements constantly arise. Our internally displaced people’s camps are a good example why we need to constantly add more polling units. We also need to decongest the already crowded polling units which put greater pressure on the voter to stay away if the effort to vote is too onerous, or to discourage him from voting by taking too much of his time.
The INEC chairman explained further that the need to expand voter access to polling units by creating new polling units all over the country had become urgent because voter access has been declining over the years, putting the average number of voters per polling unit in 2019 general election to about 700 nationally, rising to over 2,000 in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, while a specific polling unit in Nasarawa State had over 15,000 voters. In many of these places, voters have to travel long distances to reach their polling booths.
The current configuration of 119,973 polling units was established by the defunct National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (NECON) in 1996. In nearly 25 years, every attempt to review or reconfigure the polling unit structure has been unsuccessful for various reasons. Consequently, the 1996 poling unit configuration was used for 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019 elections. It was projected that the polling units established in 1996 would serve about 50 million registered voters. However, the number of registered voters for the 1999 general election was 57.93 million. This rose to 60.82million in 2003, 61.56 million in 2007, and 73.52million in 2011.The number declined to 68.83milion for the 2015 voting exercise and 84.04 million in 2019.
Thus the rationale for expanding the polling unit is not in doubt if it can be done transparently so that the left hand can know what the right hand is doing to avoid mutual suspicion which kills elections these days as the American and the Myanmar (Burmese) have proved. Indeed, any measure which can get more people to participate in our elections is welcome. We have discovered that when people have enough space to vote they do. The polling units must be equitably distributed to remove every suspicion which discredited previous attempts. The nearer the polling units are to the voters, the better.
The new units should be made to align with the voters’ register so as not to misdirect the voter on election day. Voters need continuous education to familiarise them with the processes. The exercise should not be abused, or politicised and must not be made to look like an exercise in gerrymandering. The most worrying part of our elections has been the declining number of people who actually go to vote. In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari won the election with 10 million less votes than President Goodluck Jonathan. In 2019, the figures were even worse. INEC must find a way to make democracy popular and easy to do and to remove all the risks of violence, bribery and fraud in the voting exercise.