Polithinks — Voter Apathy: Another Look at Different Voting Methods
Can the adoption of a new voting system increase participation in voting by electorates, especially the younger ones?
●29th April 2023
The 2023 general elections in Nigeria has come and gone. In one of many areas, it has left a lot of people disappointed, and that is voter apathy. In terms of voter turnout, the 2023 general elections witnessed the lowest turnout of voters since the return to democracy in 1999. In 2019, 29 million of the 84 million registered voters turned out to vote; this represented 35 percent of registered voters. By 2023, despite the number of registered voters rising to 93.5 million, only about 24 million of them came out to vote; representing 26 percent of registered voters. In many quarters there was hope that the enthusiasm shown by the younger voters will translate to turnout on Election Day, alas, the turnout this period was worse. Could this be as a result of the voting method Nigeria uses, which requires physical presence at polling units, in an age where one can sit in their home and have food delivered to their doorstep after making online orders?
Nigeria’s voting method is the secret ballot method. Before the secret ballot method, Nigeria had a voting method called “Option A4”. Option A4 was an open ballot system of voting introduced by the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida as part of a transition to civilian rule, and it was first used in Nigeria during the 1993 general elections.
The term “Option A4” refers to the format of the ballot paper used in this system. The ballot paper consisted of a list of candidates or parties, each with a square box beside their name. To vote for a candidate or party, the voter had to write the name of the candidate or party in the box and then queue behind it, the results of the vote were tallied on the spot in full view of everyone present.
The Option A4 system was considered to be a simple and transparent voting system because it allowed voters to directly choose their preferred candidate or party without the need for ballot papers or complex voting machinery like we currently have. It was also believed to reduce the incidence of fraud and manipulation, as the results were tallied in full view of everyone present.
However, the Option A4 system was also criticized for its lack of privacy and the potential for voter intimidation or coercion. Some critics also argued that the system was unsuitable for large-scale elections and could result in long queues and delays at polling stations. These limitations led to the reintroduction of the secret balloting system which had been used in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 1964, 1979, 1999, and thereafter.
Nigeria’s secret ballot voting requires that eligible voters appear physically on Election Day at their polling units to cast their ballots. Given the potentials for voters to be assaulted as they physically come out to vote, and issues around trust of the electoral umpire, including the potential for those who could not move their polling units as a result of relocation, a lot of voters are discouraged from coming out to vote. Could considering other variants of secret balloting, or voting method encourage more voters to vote? Let us take a look at some of these other voting methods:
1. Absentee voting: This system is used in many countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. Pros include increased access to voting for people who are unable to go to the polling station on Election Day, such as those who are ill or traveling. Cons include the potential for fraud, as it can be difficult to verify the identity of absentee voters.
2. Early voting: This system is used in many countries, including the United States, Australia, and Canada. Pros include increased access to voting for people who are unable to vote on election day and shorter lines at polling stations on election day. Cons include the potential for lower voter turnout on election day and the potential for voters to change their minds after casting their votes early.
3. Electronic voting: This system is used in some countries, including Brazil, India, and Estonia. Pros include increased efficiency and speed of vote counting and the potential for increased accessibility for voters with disabilities. Cons include the potential for technical glitches and hacking, which could compromise the integrity of the election. This method of voting has long been advocated for, and by Nigerians.
4. Proxy voting: This system is used in some countries, including the United Kingdom and Denmark. Pros include increased accessibility for voters who are unable to attend the polling station on Election Day. Cons include the potential for abuse, as it can be difficult to verify that the person casting the proxy vote is doing so with the permission of the original voter.
Can the adoption of any of these voting methods increase participation in voting by electorates, especially the younger ones? Perhaps. Once in a year, the Nigerian airwaves and social media space is wrapped up in the enchantment of Big Brother Naija (BBNaija). The show is made in Nigeria, but consumed by audiences across Africa and beyond. It is a popular Nigerian reality television show. It is the Nigerian version of the global reality TV show Big Brother, where a group of contestants (referred to as “housemates”) live together in a house for a number of weeks, with their every move being captured by cameras and microphones. The housemates compete in various tasks and challenges to win immunity from eviction, with one or more housemates being evicted from the house each week by public vote. The 2020 edition of the show – Big Brother Naija: Lockdown – saw a total of 900 million votes cast throughout the 71 days the show lasted. Voting in BBNaija is usually through SMS, online, mobile app, and via social media. In some instances, voters pay to cast their votes for their favourite housemate, and not once has the outcome of voting in BBNaija been subject to scrutiny or disputations. While we agree that the stakes in BBNaija are not anywhere as high as general elections, even elections at the local government level, we can agree that the Nigerian electoral umpire may have a few things to borrow from the voting method of BBNaija. One of such is convenience in voting.
For a long time, we have continued to use the voting method of asking people leave their homes and move to a physical location to cast their votes. In some instances, people who have moved out of the areas where they registered as voters and were not able to complete the transfer to their new location are disenfranchised; others who manage to physically present themselves to vote are beaten or killed at polling units or told point-blank they cannot vote except it is for a particular candidate or party. A voting system that obviously does not afford the voter convenience and safety will be discouraging to prospective voters.
A voting method should be noted for its safety and convenience. BBNaija has shown that young people are ready to be involved in issues that concern them. They do not just show such concern when shows like BBNaija are held, but also showed it by coming out in their numbers to get registered to vote. They (young Nigerians) and other voters may have been held back from voting by the perennial issues that have bugged our electoral process in Nigeria, yet given options for convenience such as ability to vote early, ability to vote electronically, and ability to vote by proxy, despite their shortcomings, more Nigerians may be willing to participate in the electoral process on election day.