#2023Election: ‘No mobile phones allowed at voting cubicles,’ INEC reminds voters

Omoleye Omoruyi

The Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, at a session in Chatham House, insisted on its ban on smartphones at voting cubicles while participating in the forthcoming general elections.

He was responding to the issues of the open secret ballot, a method in which voters vote openly, in contrast to a secret ballot, where a voter’s choices are confidential.

“In the polling unit, you have vote buyers. Sometimes, they have legitimate reasons to be at the polling unit because they may be agents of political parties. The law allows for polling agents. And so, when people vote, they tend to show the party that they voted for to the person who is facilitating the buying of the votes before the ballot paper is thrown into the ballot box.”

“What did we do? In 2018, we decided to change the configuration of the polling units by bringing the ballot papers close to the voting cubicles to curtail the time they make their choice in the cubicles to when they throw the papers in the boxes.

Mahmood Yakubu - INEC Chairman
Prof Mahmood Yakubu – INEC Chairman

The INEC Chairman noted that the decision resulted in some progress, but people started using their smartphones.

He continues, “So, instead of exposing the papers, people started going in with a smartphone, snap the marked ballot paper. We then banned the use of, not only mobile phones, but all photographic devices in the voting cubicles.”

In December, to reiterate INEC’s ban, Yakubu said, “Let me seize this opportunity to remind the public that the ban on cellphones at voting cubicles is still in force. We have for some time now reorganised our polling units so that ballot boxes are placed next to the voting cubicles to forestall the practice of unscrupulous voters showing their marked ballot papers to vote-buyers.

“We appeal to voters to draw the attention of our polling officials whenever they observe that these basic rules are not complied with. Let me once again reassure Nigerians that we are determined to ensure a solid election management system and a legacy of credible elections in Nigeria. We believe that every conscientious Nigerian wants us to do so.”

Read also: How to check your name on INEC Voters Register online ahead of 2023 elections

Flashback – INEC bans the use of photographic gadgets in voting cubicles

In a 2018 statement, INEC clarified the reports on the smartphone ban during elections.

“Therefore, it is counter-productive for the commission to introduce a blanket ban on using mobile phones or other photographic devices at polling units on election day.

“We have excluded the use of such devices by accredited voters from the time they collect their ballot papers, mark them in the voting cubicles and drop them in the ballot box.

“In making this clarification, we wish to appeal to voters to bear this short inconvenience for the sanctity of the ballot and the overall credibility of our elections.”

Yakubu noted that the deployment of Information Communication Technology (ICT) has helped reduce electoral fraud, saying most infractions take place before elections and at polling units, with the support of politicians.

Photographing a marked ballot is illegal in part because such photographs could be used as proof of a vote for a candidate in a vote-buying scheme.

Only in Nigeria?

Vote buying is not a Nigerian-only phenomenon, so the ban on smartphones or photographic devices is global.

In Malaysia, the Election Commission (EC) banned the use of mobile phones inside polling stations to uphold the ballot’s secrecy.

The EC highlighted ten key steps that voters must adhere to when casting their vote on polling day.

The sixth step indicates that mobile phones are not allowed, as voters will be required to hand over their mobile phones to the officers on duty when they take the ballot papers to cast their vote.

Also, a rule in South Dakota, US, says that voters are not allowed to use their phones at the polling stations, even if they only use them to access information about candidates and ballot measures.

In addition to prohibiting photos of filled-out ballots, South Dakota law also makes it illegal for people to use phones or any other communication device that “distracts, interrupts, or intimidates any voter or election worker.”

It was reported in 2012 that, in 34 states, including the three most populous (California, New York, and Texas), voters are prohibited, or appear to be prohibited, from taking and publishing pictures of their marked ballot, according to the Citizen Media Law Project. In six other states, including infamous ballot battleground Florida, you can’t record anything inside a polling place.

The bottom line

The ban on photographing ballots is intended to preserve voting anonymity and prevent people from proving how they voted, whether for money, favours, or to avoid harm.

There’s a presumption that the operation of a smartphone in a voting booth is unlawful ‘assistance’.

Decision-making assistance from websites, apps, social networks, etc., is precisely why many people buy mobile phones in the first place. But, at a polling unit, this is considered illegal. However, Nigerian electoral laws don’t cover this side of illegality.

Why this matters

Vote buying in a country like Nigeria begins during primary elections and continues until the general elections. It has been part of Nigeria’s electoral process since the return of democracy in 1999. And there’s no immediate end to systems like that.

This thriving system is, in part, caused by the shift to the use of digital technology by INEC, making it more challenging to manipulate elections and putting the power in the hands of voters who may choose to use it as they wish. One option is agreeing or refusing to sell their vote.

According to Chatam House, data gathered in 2018 in the second household survey conducted by the Chatham House Africa Programme’s Social Norms and Accountable Governance (SNAG) project shows that three-quarters of people believe it is broadly unacceptable for anyone to exchange their vote for money or a gift. At the same time, they assume that at least half of their community’s people would likely sell their vote. 

Therefore, any attempt by INEC to stop vote buying and sanitise the system is one way to go.

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