By Chuks Okocha
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Monday released the guidelines for the conduct of the Edo and Ondo States governorship elections and subsequent elections in the country.
In a 17-page document signed by the INEC Chairman, Prof. Manhood Yakubu, the commission said it shall immediately embark on a review of regulations, guidelines and manuals for elections in the light of changes to the electoral process that were imminent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It also said that it derives authority from Section 160 (1) of the 1999 Constitution(as amended) which empowers the commission to by rules or otherwise, regulate its own procedure or confer powers and impose duties on any officer or authority for the purpose of discharging its functions.
It added that the Commission was also empowered by Section 153 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) to issue regulations, guidelines and manuals for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of the Act.
The commission said it would ensure that Pre-Election Preparation (PEP) activities will be conducted online preferably and where face-to-face activities become necessary, the protocols for COVID-19 prevention would be followed.
The commission explained pilot changes to the electoral process in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic in a bye- election prior to the Edo and Ondo governorship elections in order to learn lessons where necessary.
According to the guidelines, the Commission shall conduct an immediate evaluation of its key election facilities to ensure that they are fit-for-purpose, including Polling Units (PUs), Registration Area Centres (RACs) and Collation Centres. These facilities will be reorganized to make them more optimal to health and cost considerations.
Also, it said, that in order to support improved planning and deployment during the COVID-19 pandemic, two key spatial and mapping activities shall be implemented namely, geo-referencing of RAC locations and mapping of COVID-19 prevalence.
According to INEC, In handling and delivery of election materials, it shall reduce the number of contacts during distribution, when Non-sensitive Materials are procured, they will be delivered directly by vendors to States or purchased by States requiring the materials and packaged according to quantity required by Registration Area. This will reduce the level and number of contacts during distribution.
The commission said that “Ballot Papers and result sheets (Sensitive Materials) shall be packaged to Registration Areas (RAs). Production of Sensitive Materials shall commence early to give adequate time for proper packaging and delivery.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to adversely affect staffing for elections. Consequently:
“The Commission will engage immediately with NYSC and INEC State Offices to evolve modalities for corps members to serve as ad hoc staff in elections during the pandemic. The Commission’s State offices will commence identification of alternative sources of ad hoc staff in line with Commission policy, in case there are shortfalls”, it stated.
Further more, it said that the Commission will “ensure the use of electronic and non-contact means to recruit ad hoc staff by deploying its INECPres portal, as well as in notifying ad hoc staff of invitations and postings (for example, use of SMS) to prevent large gatherings at INEC offices during staff deployment.
“The Electoral Operations and Logistics Department (EOPs) will harvest all past ad hoc staff from its databases and send to each State preparing for elections.
“All ad hoc staff databases in the Commission will be harmonized for better management. To reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19, the Commission shall reduce to a minimum interstate ad hoc staff, for off-season and bye elections. The rule shall be that only shortfalls requested by the States are filled from outside the state. As much as possible, all election staff will be sourced in-state and transportation of election staff shall comply with COVID-19 containment protocols”
Consequently, INEC said that “there shall be a reduction in the number of passengers per vehicle on election day from 14 to 7 for buses, and from 12 to 6 for boats. Motorcycles and tricycles must be used sparingly with one passenger per motorcycle and two per tricycle. All passengers and drivers must wear face masks and it shall be mandatory and the responsibility of vehicle owners to provide hand sanitizers for occupants of their vehicles”.
For its Registration Area Centre (RAC) activities, INEC said that State Offices of the Commission shall conduct a thorough assessment of RACs to determine their suitability for elections.
Also, it said that the designation of RACs and Super RACs shall be on a case by case basis, having due regards for the expanse of territory that they serve, terrain and adequate space in a RAC and no suitable alternative facility is available for a Super RAC option, canopies may be deployed outdoors to increase the available area for use.
The commission said that C O V I D – 1 9 a w a r e n e s s shall be included in RAC brief ing. Handouts, flyers and information kit on the pandemic will be distributed to election staff at the RACs and at the RACs, election staff may be checked by RAC Managers or Supervisory Presiding Officers (SPOs) for COVID-19 symptoms such as high temperature and coughing and that staff showing symptoms will receive medical attention and be replaced immediately from the reserve of staff, on the approval of the Electoral Officer and REC.
In the establishment of Voting Points, the commission said that in order to reduce the number of points in a Polling Unit to be monitored and controlled for COVID-19 compliance, the threshold for Voting Points shall be increased from 500/750 to 1,000/1,250.
On election day activities and at the Polling Units during elections, it said that In the light of the COVID-19
pandemic, the Polling Unit layout shall be redesigned by the Commission to ensure substantial compliance with the protocols established by health authorities and among other things, social distancing, general hygienic conduct and enforcement of COVID-19 prevention protocols shall be emphasized in the redesign.
INEC said that there shall be a two-tier queuing system at the Polling Unit – one outside and the other in the voting area, explaining that voters will be brought into the voting area periodically to prevent overcrowding with Tags and twines may be used to ensure crowd control and maintenance of social distance.
Also, it said that in order to accommodate additional activities in setting up the PU due to COVID-19, polls shall now commence at 8.30 am and close at 2.30 pm and anybody on the outer queue by 2.30 pm shall be allowed to vote, in line with the Commission’s regulations.
“Prior to the commencement of polls, the Presiding Officer or Assistant Presiding Officer (VP), it said, shall ensure that the contents of the Voter Code of Conduct (VCC) are read out loudly to voters and that the VCC Poster is pasted at the Polling Unit.
Also, it said that face masks shall be mandatory at Polling Units and all election locations. Any voter without a face mask shall be turned away from the Polling Unit. However, the Assistant Presiding Officer (APO) II in checking the Register of Voters may request removal of mask to prevent voter impersonation.
According to the commission, there shall be periodic disinfection of chairs, tables and work areas, as well as adequate ventilation at the Polling Units. and that the SCR shall be cleaned with the prescribed disinfectant after each voter’s fingerprint is read.
Also, INEC said that P e r s o n a l P r o t e c t i v e Equipment (PPE) and other safety materials shall be provided for polling staff and at the close of polls, polling unit staff shall ensure that materials are properly disinf ec t ed, car efully packaged and that used PPE are hygienically packaged or disposed of.
For purposes of collation of results after election, it said, “The Commission will cluster RA collation centres where feasible, in order to reduce exposure of people to the risk of COVID-19, speed upcollation and reduce costs.
“There shall be a designated area at each Collation Centre (outdoors) for the implementation of the safety and health measures such as compulsory wearing of face masks, hand sanitizing, body temperature check, etc.
“There shall be 2 metres (6ft) queuing distancing for all seeking to enter the collation hall.
“There shall also be 6 ft sitting spacing arrangement within the collation hall.
“I n o r d e r t o p r e v e n t o v e r c r o w d i n g d u r i n g collation, only one polling agent of a party on the ballot (or the candidate in person) for the election(s) shall be allowed into the collation hall”, the guidelines stated
Post-election Activities and for reverse Logistic, INEC said “Election staff must ensure that used but reusable PPEs are carefully packaged and sent to designated collection points and used PPE that are not reusable must be disposed in the prescribed manner.
“It is now mandatory for designated election staff to collect and deposit all Electoral Operations copies of results with their Supervisors within the prescribed time. Non-compliance shall be treated as dereliction of duty.
“All post-election debriefings shall preferably be done electronically. Where face-to-face debriefings take place, the protocols for COVID-19 prevention shall be followed.
On ICT and training, it said that the Commission recognizes the critical role that ICT will play in an electoral process that is being vastly reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the growing demands by Nigerians for the deepening of the use of technology in our elections. Consequently, the Commission shall:
“Continue to apply relevant, value- for-money technology in all aspects of the electoral process and election management.
“Regularly validate and clean up the biometric Register of Voters by removing multiple registrants and deceased persons”.
On training, INEC said that the methodology for election training will combine face-to- face and electronic approaches. Where the former is used, the requisite COVID-19 prevention protocols shall strictly apply and it shall be the responsibility of trainees to provide their own face masks during training.
It said that all training resources such as the Manual for Election Officials, Synopsis and training DVD will and Suspend the Continuous Registration of Voters (CVR) for the time being to prevent the health risks associated with it in the context of COVID-19.
It said that it will continue to make available its electronic channels for voters to check their registration status.and pilot the use of Electronic Voting Machines at the earliest possible time (not Edo and Ondo), but work towards the full introduction of electronic voting in major elections starting from 2021 and be reviewed to include COVID-19 content and consequent changes to election procedures approved by the Commission while soft copies of these materials will be shared with trainees prior to training to reduce face-to-face contacts and also enhance learning.
The commission said that trainers will receive refresher courses on COVID-19 to improve their ability to deliver new content and handle COVID-emergencies during training and that COVID-19 prevention protocols shall inform the choice of training venues. Considerations such as sufficient size to comply with the physical distancing rule and adequate ventilation will be paramount.
On voter education. Said that the Commission shall, “Engage with the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and other health authorities to develop relevant messaging on COVID-19 and the electoral process.
“C ombine f a c e – t o -f a c e e n g a g e m e n t s w i t h stakeholders with online meetings. Where the former is used, the necessary COVID-19 prevention protocols shall strictly apply.
“Design effective messaging with requisite COVID-19 content for its activities and changes to the electoral process.
“Make extensive use of radio and television broadcasts in several languages on COVID-19 and the electoral process in a manner that balances the health risks of the pandemic and the civic responsibilities of Nigerians.
“E xp an d th e c hann els available to citizens to reach the Commission with their concerns and suggestions, such as the Citizens’ Contact Centre, MyINEC App, etc.
“C o n d u c t e x t e n s i v e grassroots enlightenment, using strategies that fully incorporate the COVID-19 prevention protocols and In its voter education and publicity activities, focus particular attention on new and young voters, women, and persons with disability in order to ensure a more inclusive electoral process.
“Include accessibility features and closed captioning during its online engagements in order to carry along persons with disability and Create an online platform f or a c creditin g m edia organizations and journalists who wish to take part in electoral activities.
On political parties election planning, the commission said that “E-Platforms for Election and Party Monitoring Activities that the Commission will create E-platforms for the following activities:
“Accreditation of Observer Groups and Deployment of their field Observers.
“Submission of nomination forms by Political Parties for Candidates.
“Tracking and reporting of campaigns and campaign finance by/for Candidates and Political Parties”, the guidelines stated.
On the submission of party agents lists by political parties and engagement with stakeholders that is (consultative meeting with Political Party leaders and briefing of Observers), it said that accreditation and deployment of observers shall
“Request and receive applications f or elec tion obser vation exclusively online.
“Reduce the number of accredited Observer Groups based on past performance and compliance with Commission’s guidelines for election observation. This is to reduce crowding and therefore health risks at election venues.
“Reduce the number of Field Observers. Approved number of field observers may be proportionally allotted to accredited Observer Groups.
“Party Primaries and Campaigns: In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission shall encourage political parties to develop appropriate Guidelines and Regulations for conduct of Party Primaries that take into account the COVID-19 prevention protocols.
“Where the Guidelines and Regulations are in conflict with the Constitutions of Political Parties and the Commissions’ Regulations and Guidelines for the Conduct of Political Party Primaries, 2018, the Commission shall draw the attention of the political party to the discrepancy.
On the submission of nomination forms and list of polling agents, that the Commission shall provide Access Codes to be issued to National Chairmen and National Secretaries of political parties for the submission of names and particulars of their candidates for various elections.
“The particulars of candidates will be pasted in hard copies at the Commission’s State offices and also published online.
“The Commission, through Electoral Officers, shall use appropriate technology to receive the particulars of Polling Agents from political parties.
On the briefing and debriefing of Election Observers, it said that the Commission shall, asappropriate, combine physical and online briefings for observers. However, whenever the former is adopted, all the protocols for COVID-19 prevention shall be strictly followed.
On the engagements with Political Parties, INEC said that the Commission shall, as appropriate, combine physical and online engagements with political parties and their officials. However, whenever the former is adopted all the protocols for COVID-19 prevention shall be strictly followed.
Also, it said that the Commission shall develop a framework for these engagements in the context of COVID-19. Engagement with political parties shall be regular and commence immediately.
On the screening of electoral process, the commission said that it shall regularly communicate any policy changes and any modifications to its procedure and process (pre-election, election and post-election) resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic to all Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) members.
Also said that in line with its mandate, the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) will mandate the State- level ICCES to:
“Reassess existing security threats across the States and the implications of COVID-19 for such threats, training and deployment for election security.
“Develop locally focused plans for election security deployments, taking
cognizance of COVID-19 and covering the periods before, during and after elections, and forward same to the National-level ICCES for approval.
“The Commissionincollaboration with security agencies and health authorities, shall review the content of the modules for training security officials on election duty to include COVID-19 specific content.
“ICCES shall review its draft common Code of Conduct for Security Officials on Election Duties in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and ICCES shall develop guidelines for identifying legitimate security officials on election duties to prevent impersonation by wearing masks.
It also said that as well as develop a Voter Code of Conduct (VCC) document detailing how voters are expected to act and conduct themselves at the polling units in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and Review all Election Information Kits to include COVID-19 information.
Also, INEC said that it will expand the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security (ICCES) at all levels to include NCDC (or other requisite health bodies) and NOA on a temporary basis and mandate its State offices to work with local health authorities to do a health assessment of upcoming elections immediately.
It said that it will mainstream COVID-19 in its election risk mapping tools like the Election Risk Management (ERM) and Election Violence Mitigation and Advocacy Tool (EVMAT).and conduct immediate discussion with state governments where elections are to hold concerning lockdowns, curfews, etc. and how they might affect elections.