Much Ado About Creating New Polling Units

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Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Chuks Okocha write that the resolve by the Independent National Electoral Commission to create and expand existing Polling Units across the country ahead of the 2023 national elections has been received with suspicion in some quarters, while the commission advances compelling reasons for the exercise

The ongoing effort by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to get the understanding of all stakeholders in order to have a smooth increase in the number of Polling Units in the country is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges facing Professor Mahmood Yakubu as Chairman of the electoral body. This may yet become a significant milestone when he succeeds in what he has set out to accomplish. As he has already set a record by getting an unprecedented second tenure, the INEC Chairman has a good opportunity to carry out many of the reforms that have been suggested across board to give the nation a better chance to get electoral processes that are devoid of needless controversies.

Justifying Need for More Polling Units
In the last few weeks, Yakubu has pursued the issue of increase in Polling Units with his famed single mindedness. He has sought collaborators; from political parties to electoral advocacy groups and the civil society. Last Thursday took his campaign for more Polling Units to the National Economic Council (NEC). Knowing the methodic approach with which the INEC Chairman prosecutes his campaigns, the discourse on Polling Units will be thoroughly discussed at all fora and places that are needful.

The National Economic Council is a body presided by the Vice President and consisting of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, the 36 state governors and the Minister of the Federal Capital Teritory(FCT), among others.
It looks like the INEC Chairman has won with many compelling arguments. What his critics may be looking for is an underlying crooked motive, which may be difficult to find and even more difficult to prove. Indeed, it is true that all parts of the country are affected by limiting voters access to Polling Units. One of the fears is that a political party or a section of the country can take advantage of the increase in Polling Units, but such concerns were addressed by Mr. Rotimi Oyekanmi,Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman. He vehemently said this was not possible, for the simple reason that “the number of registered voters is known and cannot be changed.” He adduced further reasons. ” If, for instance, you allocate 100 more Polling Units to Taraba State, you cannot have more than the total number of registered voters – 1,777,105 – cast their ballots in an election.”

Yakubu’s briefing at the NEC began with a poser. ‘What is the state of voter access to Polling Units in Nigeria?’ It was a spellbinder that got their attention. The answer, he told them, is that voter access to Polling Units, ‘is in a state of crisis, and it has been so for some time. ‘ Justifying the need for more Polling Units, he said, ” existing Polling nits can no longer substantially guarantee the exercise of that fundamental right to vote by citizens.”

No one hearing his next point will fail to stand by his corner. According to him, “Existing polling units in Nigeria, numbering 119, 973 were established in 1996. They are a quarter of a century old. They are no longer adequate in number, they are no longer conducive for voters to freely vote, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also unsuitable for the Commission to properly manage elections and to ensure that rules and regulations are strictly followed.

Controvery Over Number of PUs in North and South

There are 57,023 Poting Points across the country. The current structure of Polling Units was established in 1996 and INEC subsequently created Voting Points prior to the 2011 general election to enhance efficiency in election management by decongesting Polling Units that had more than 750 registered voters. Voting Point Settlements (VPS) were also created in the Federal Capital Territory in addition to Polling Units and Voting Points.

The issue of additional Polling Units which was shelved ahead of the 2015 general election seems to have come to the fore again. It will be recalled that in August 2014, INEC under the leadership of Prof. Attahiru Jega sought to create 30,027 additional polling units ahead of the 2015 general election, with 21,615 in the north and 8,412 in the southern part of the country.

This led to the suspension of the proposed plan by the Commission. Nigeria’s rapidly growing population and changing demographics, as well as, registration of new voters, creation of new settlements, including camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), the need to decongest crowded polling units in urban areas, may be some of the reasons that have given rise to plans for the creation of more polling units.

Yakubu, last week disclosed that as at February 15, the commission had received 9,777 requests from across the country for the establishment of additional polling units. He observed that the requests, which were 5,700 as at October, 2020, had spiralled by over 4,000 in just four months.
Concerns have continue to mount on how INEC plans to create and expand the existing 119 973 polling units in the country. So far, INEC said that it has received 9777 requests for the creation of new polling units. The request came from 25 out of the 36 states.

The concerns, according to stakeholders from the two main political parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is how INEC would allocate the new polling units without necessarily giving any advantage to either of the political divides- North and South because of the stakes at hand by 2023.

A source from one of the main political parties said, ” In 2014, the idea was jettisoned because out of the 30,027 additional polling units ahead of the 2015 general elections, the north got 21,615 and 8,412 in the southern in the sharing of the polling units.

“This was quite disproportional in the sharing as the North got 21,615 and the South considered as densely populated receiving 8, 412. This was the controversy that led to killing the idea of creating and expanding the polling units in August 2014.

At the meeting with INEC a fortnight ago, a member of one of the leading political parties, said, “We agreed that the creation and expansion of the polling units is welcomed but, we don’t seem to know the criteria for this. This is the fear most of us expressed at the meeting

“But in principle, we agree on the expansion and creation of new polling units, we still wait for the criteria and hope it will not be like what happened in 2014. This is particularly due to the coming 2023 presidential election,” the source said.
With 8,462, Lagos State has the highest number of Polling Units, while Nasarawa stands at the bottom with 1,495 PUs.However, when it comes to the number of voters per PU per state, Nasarawa is on top with 1,082 voters. So, there is a very strong likelihood of creation of more Polling Units in Nasarawa State. However, the case advanced by Yakubu favours other states, as well. Showing maps to the NEC, he cited, Surulere, Lagos – 1996 (Satellite Image showing PUs and unserved areas); Karu LGA of Nasarawa State (Only 4 polling Units serving the entire population there. Mararaba Garage 1 has one PU and 18 VPs; Mararaba Garage II, one PU, 19 VPs; Mararaba White House – 1PU, 29 VPs; Mararaba Sharp Corner – 14 VPs; in the areas, 4 PUs, 80VPs ); Edo State, Adamawa (a crowded PU in Yola on 23rd February 2019) and Video (Karu, Nasarawa State. Crowded PU). “The problem, the INEC Chairman argued, “affects all parts of the country. Our Polling Units are clustered in a few areas and they are very large areas adjoining the location of Polling Units that are completely unserved.”

What are the manifestations of this crisis in the Polling Units?

The first one is overcrowding. Virtually all the polling Units in Nigeria are over-crowded. Because of that, the Polling Units are prone to violence, they are unhealthy for voters and officials, some are located in conflict areas, some in homes of political chieftains, in forests and in shrines. The Commission has moved quite a number of them from unsuitable locations to more suitable locations, but there are still some of them in problematic locations and they contribute to poor electoral services rendered by the Commission, which include late commencement of polls and the disruption of elections. There is also a decline in voter turnout which we believe is partially related to the issue of Polling Units.

In a communique released after meeting wirh INEC, the political parties has asked INEC to immediately commence the process of converting already existing Voting Points and Voting Points Settlements into full fledged Polling Units.

The advice was contained in a six points communique signed by leaders of seventeen political parties including the APC and PDP at the end of a one day engagement and consultation with the Commission on the need to expand voter access to polling units.

The communique, further stated that given the current state of voter access to polling units, in Nigeria, expanding access to polling units is fundamental to the exercise of the right to vote and to free, fair and credible elections.

Meanwhile, the INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Electoral Operations and Logistics Committee, Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu in a paper “The State of Voter Access To Polling Units in Nigeria “, made available to THISDAY said that the current configuration of polling units in the country is grossly inadequate and cannot guarantee the fundamental democratic right of Nigerians to vote.

Prof. Ibeanu said that since polling units give meaning to the right to vote, this automatically connotes that a place to vote gives meaning to the right to vote.
According to Ibeanu, a Professor of Political Science, if an individual has a right to vote without a place to cast the said vote, then the supposed right is at best superficial. His words: “if you have a right to vote, but you don’t have a place to vote, then that right is essentially academic.”

He stated the Commission believes that the polling units, as they exist in Nigeria today, are not fit for voting purpose. The interesting thing, he quickly added, “is that this problem is nationwide. It’s not about one part of the country or another; east or west, north or south.”

He reiterated the INEC Chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu’s assertion earlier at the meeting that the current 119,973 polling units were created “a quarter of a century ago” while the situation has remained the same since then.

Putting the issue in context, Prof Ibeanu said the polling units were not only inadequate in number, they were also not conducive to voters in terms of exercising the right to vote, especially in the context of the ranging COVID-19 pandemic. Besides, he added, they are also not suitable for the Commission to properly conduct its work in terms of ensuring that elections are properly conducted according to rules and regulations.

His words: “It is important to note that voter access to polling units is not just about having adequate numbers. It’s not about just establishing more polling units. It’s also to ensure that those polling units, when they are established, are fit for purpose, conducive to voters in terms of exercising their democratic rights and also, perhaps as important, that they are suitable for the Commission to do its work.

“Unfortunately over the years, it’s just the first aspect of access to polling units that is emphasized, that is creation of more polling units. But if the problem is just about creating more polling units, then it is clear to me that some of the solutions that the Commission had tried like the use of Voting Points, would have solved the problem. But it hasn’t solved the problem, which means it’s not just about creating polling units. It’s also about locating them in places that are conducive for voters.”

Prof Ibeanu listed some of the manifestations of the crisis of voter access to polling units as overcrowding and electoral violence. Many of the PUs, he noted, are also located in conflict areas, homes of political chieftains, deep forests and shrines. The crisis “also manifests in poor electoral services such as late commencement of polls, disruption of elections and the declining voter turnout at elections.”

He added: “To illustrate the declining voter turnout at elections, between 1999 and 2019, voter turnout in Nigerian fell by 17 percentage points. But compare that to Ghana: between 2000 and 2020, voter turnout rose by 17 percentage points, the direct converse of the Nigerian situation. We think that this is strongly correlated to the average number of voters per polling units. If you look at the Nigerian situation, the average number of voters per polling unit increased by 217. Conversely for Ghana, it decreased by 91 voters. So, it seems to suggest that the more voters per polling unit, the lower the voter turnout and I think there is a logic to that.”

The INEC National Commissioner had posited that over the years, INEC had tried a number of interim solutions. He explained that in 2007, the Commission introduced Baby Polling Units in 2007, Voting Points (VPs) in 2011 and Voting Points Settlements (VPS) in 2016 in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

He said: “The VPs and VPS have been in use since 2011 and 2016. The critical thing is that these have been stop-gap solutions. In many cases, these interim solutions have constituted their own problems. The Baby Units, for example, entailed bringing results from them to the mother units for collation. And each time, there was a major crisis because people were wondering where those results were coming from. The same thing applies to the Voting Points when in some cases, you had over-voting in them, people were wondering whether the results of the entire Polling Unit would be valid. A permanent solution has remained elusive.

“The Commission had tried to establish more polling units in line with the Electoral Act. Section 42 of the Act talks about the Commission establishing adequate number of polling units and allotting voters to them. The Commission had also tried to relocate polling units to more suitable places and also to reorganize polling units on election day. But this has been met with resistance. Stakeholders have politicised the issues and there have been all sorts of conspiracy theories about the actual intention of the Commission. Perhaps, the Commission should have consulted more widely before embarking on those attempts.”

To be sure, Prof. Ibeanu said the idea behind the engagement with leaders of political parties was to lay all the issues on the table in order to encourage the stakeholders to work with the Commission to build a genuine national consensus and to try and find solutions to what is clearly a national problem ahead of some major activities in the electoral calendar, such as the Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), a number of off-season elections and the 2023 general election.

Proposal for Solving the Problem

Yakubu has put forward a lot of proposals to solve the problem. The first proposal is for residents to apply for Polling Units, and the application goes through verification and approval. This is consistent with the powers of the Commission under Section 42 of the Electoral Act which empowers the Commission to establish Polling Units and to allot voters to them. But this process is going to take a long time. So many groups have been writing the Commission asking for Polling Units, but the Commission did not request communities or individuals to apply for Polling Units. Not just Polling Units, citizens have also been asking for more Wards to be created; some have been asking for more State Constituencies to be established in some cases, even the things that we cannot do under the Constitution – creation of additional Federal Constituencies and even Senatorial Districts.

So, the first option will be for us under Section 42 of the Electoral Act to create and populate those Polling Units. It will take time to receive requests, it will take time to process and between now and the next General Election, it’s 729 days, one day shy of two years. The next election will hold on Saturday 18th February 2023.

The second option is to create Polling Areas under Section 13 of the Electoral Act and align them with the Registration Areas of the National Population Commission (NPC). We have been working with the NPC on this, but we haven’t made much progress. We have been working with the Population Commission since 2017 to align the enumeration areas to the Registration Areas but so far, we have covered a little over 240 local government areas out of 774. If in four years we have only covered 240 LGAs, it will take the next 10 years to cover all the 774 LGAs. It’s a good thing for the Commission to aspire to and for the nation as well, so that next time there is a population census, we’ll just adjust figures accordingly. But we’ll continue to work with the NPC. This is an option, but it is also cumbersome. It will require time and substantial amount of resources.

The third option is for us to consider converting the Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements into full-fledged autonomous Polling Units.

We believe that there are unserved areas of the country that can be better served by distributing the existing Voting Points and Voting Point Settlement into full-fledged Polling Units and relocating them to areas of need in the underserved areas. If that is done, we believe it will ease the pressure. And what is the justification? We are looking at five reasons why we think that is the most feasible option.

The first one is that the Voting Points have been used since 2011, therefore, they are well known and have been accepted as the basis for conducting elections since 2011. Citizens are familiar with them.

Number two, unserved areas can be easily verified using maps and the good thing is that we now have satellite imageries of the location of all our Polling Units nationwide.

Number three, conversion will require less time and resources. This is something that we can do easily on the basis of the information that we have.

Number four, it will address the substantial number of requests that we have received so far for the creation of Polling Units.

And number five, it is likely to be the least controversial of the three options.

As at now, Professor Yakubu stated, the congestion which bedevilled existing Polling Units and their abject non availability to those who deserved them had assumed the proportion of a crisis, adding that the 119,973 existing Polling Units were created in 1996, twenty five years ago.

New Polling Units by March 2021
Prof. Yakubu disclosed that once a national consensus was forged by stakeholders around the conversion of existing VPs and VPS to Polling Units, the Commission could proceed to establish new Polling Units by March 2021.

He explained that it was necessary for the new Polling Units to be created next month to pave way for the re-commencement of the Continuous Voter Registration(CVR) exercise which was suspended shortly before the conduct of the 2019 General Elections.

He said, “The creation of new Polling Units can be accomplished before the end of March(2021). This is because PUs have to be determined before the re-commencement of the Continuous Voter Registration exercise.”.

The commission is yet to meet the Southern socio-cultural groups like the Pan Niger Delta Development group, the Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo and other groups.

One thing is clear, INEC is keeping criteria for the sharing and allocation of the new polling stations to it’s chest. It has also assured all of equity and fairness. How this would be, will certainly depend when the commission eventually release details of who gets what from the sharing of the 57023 polling that will bring the total number of polling units in the country to 176946 polling centres.

It is expected that the commission will continue with it’s consultations with tribal groups, civil society groups, security agencies and media this week.

INEC has continued to endeavour to douse fears expressed by political parties that the planned polling units expansion will add a political advantage to any group.

Reacting to the worries and concerns, the INEC National Commissioner in charge of voter Education and Publicity, Festus Okoye told Thisday that “The Conversion of Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements to Polling Units will not confer any advantage to any section of the country but rather it will guarantee better access and safe voting environment to the Nigerian people.

“Our aim is a national consensus on the conversion and agreed guidelines of actualizing the intendment of section 42 of the Electoral Act. Thereafter, the establishment of new polling units will become a routine ” he said.

Okoye further said that the present Commission believes that the previous Commission did not map out an adequate process of engagement and stakeholder mobilization before embarking on the exercise and this led to misunderstanding relating to its true intent.

According to the INEC Commissioner, “In 2016 the Commission conducted the FCT Area Council elections and created Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements to serve new and unserved areas and settlements.

“For the 2019 general election, the Commission used and created a total of 57, 023 Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements as off shoots of the existing 119, 973 polling units. These congested Polling Units, Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements are clustered in the same locations leading to congested polling units, low voter turnout, voter apathy, voting in unsafe environment,disruptions and violence.”

Okoye explained that “In Mararaba Garage 1 and Mararaba Garage 11 in Karu, Nasarawa State both have a total of 25, 275 registered voters and 70 Voting Points all clustered together. People come as far as 10 kilometers to these polling units and voting points on election day.

“The surge of people wanting to vote sometimes leads to violence, over voting and cancellations. Because of this inability to exercise powers granted it by section 42 of the Act, the Commission could not address this apparent anomaly.”, he explained.

Accordingly, Okoye said, “The issue of expansion and access of voters to polling units is not a matter of allocation that must be determined based on politically motivated and entitlement consideration. We must therefore discard allocation and palliative mentality and considerations in the expansion of access to polling units.

“The Commission has used the 57,023 voting points and the voting point settlements and it has worked and the Commission wants to convert them into polling units.

“Polling Units must go to the people that deserve them rather than the people chasing polling units. The Commission will no longer allow overcrowding of polling units and people trekking long distances to access polling units with all the restrictions on election day.

“The Commission will no longer condone people travelling long distances from new settlements and over populated areas to assess polling units. The Commission will no longer condone election disruptions and violence leading to inconclusive elections.

“The Commission is therefore proposing the conversion of the 57,023 Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements to Polling Units and the standardization and routinization of establishment of new polling units through a veriable and inclusive process involving the key stakeholders in the electoral process”, the INEC Commissioner declared

Okoye further said that INEC decided to engage in broad, nationwide, inclusive and consultative approach to the expansion of voter access to polling units, explaining that this strategic and consensus approach to a national challenge is informed by a careful review of past reports and approaches at establishing sufficient number of polling units in response to growing population,demographic shifts, safety and security concerns and response to regional and international standards in election management and organization.”

To the Commission, he said, “access to the polling units is at the heart of the exercise of democratic franchise. The polling unit is the base of the democratic process and any form of bottleneck at the base level discourages the voters from exercising their fundamental democratic right of engaging in regime affirmation or change.

“It is regrettable that a purely administrative and routinised act could not be carried out since 1996. In 1996, the Commission projected a total of 119, 973polling units to serve a registered voter population of 50million.

” In 1999 the registered voter population in Nigeria rose to 57million and the number of polling units remained at 119, 973. In 2011 the registered population grew to 73millioin and the polling units remained at 119,973. In 2019 the registered voter population increased to 84million and the polling units remained at 119, 973. Based on this trajectory and in order to decongest overcrowded polling units and lessen the challenges of voters in accessing polling units,,” he said.

In 2007 because of the problem of access, the Commission created what we call the Baby Polling Units. These are Polling Units attached to the main Polling Units but apart from the Units. Usually, problems arose when results were being collated. By the time the results of the smaller polling units were brought, some people questions where those votes were coming from.

In 2011, the problem grew and the number of registered voters in the country also grew, resulting in the creation of Voting Points. In 2016, because of the crises of Voting Points in the Federal Capital Territory, it is the only place where INEC conducts local government elections, we had to create Voting Points for new settlements. You can imagine that in the whole of Apo, there is only one Polling Unit. Any other thing you see there is a Voting Point attached to the Polling Unit.

In Gwarimpa, we have a maximum of four Polling Units serving what is the largest housing estate in Africa. So, on election day, if you visit the Government Secondary School, Apo, you’ll come face-to-face with the crisis, but it is not just peculiar to Apo.

The Commission, he said created baby polling units in 2007 with their mother units, explaining, that “This did not really solve the problem of congestion and access and in 2011 the Commission created voting points andclustered them in the same location. This still left the polling units overcrowded, rowdy and led to a lot of cancellations and voter apathy.”

Thus, he stressed, “As a means of decongesting overcrowded polling units,the previous Commission in 2014 proposed the creation of 30,027 polling units and it faced the storm of politicization, allocation and accusations of disproportionate distribution and at the end, the commission and the commission abandoned the idea.”

However, from all these explanations, the commission has refused to disclose the criteria for the expansion and increase of the polling units. But, one thing is clear. The expansion and increase would be based on population and need to decongest the already over crowded polling units.

The commission have concluded meeting with the critical stakeholders like the political parties, civil society groups, the security and media house.

It was just last week that it met the socio-cultural bodies. In its meeting the Pan-Arewa group, the Arewa Consultative Forum, (ACF), the group urged INEC to use administrative fiat to create the new polling stations, but the election management refused.

At the meeting in Kaduna, the pan northern socio-cultural organization, Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) had advised the INEC to convert existing Voting Points and Voting Point Settlements into Polling Units (PUs) as an immediate measures to decongest and expand voter access to Polling Units.
But the INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmoud Yakubu said that though the commission has powers to create new polling stations but it must not be by administrative fiat.

He explained that in a democracy, there is always need to carry everybody along through consultations, stating that it is in carrying everyone along that controversies are removed.

The Secretary-General of the ACF, Murtala Aliyu (Mutawallen Gombe) gave the advise after a presentation by the INEC Chairman.

The ACF members were unanimous in the advise, explaining that the commission should use its powers in Section 42 of the Electoral Act (as amended) to create Polling Units.

However, the INEC Chairman disagreed to create polling units through administrative fiat, but pointed out that even though the National Assembly had the power to make laws, it still held public hearings.

Professor Yakubu argued that creating Polling Units in the past by fiat and without sufficient consultations resulted in crisis and controversies which the Commission wanted to avoid.

According to the INEC chairman, “This is a democracy. And there is a place for consultation in a democracy.”

The INEC Chairman said the commission will hold similar consultations with socio-ciltural organisations such as the Afenifere, Ohanaeze Ndigbo to harvest their inputs.

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Once a national consensus was forged by stakeholders around the conversion of existing VPs and VPS to Polling Units, the Commission could proceed to establish new Polling Units by March 2021. He explained that it was necessary for the new Polling Units to be created next month to pave way for the re-commencement of the Continuous Voter Registration(CVR) exercise which was suspended shortly before the conduct of the 2019 General Elections. He said, “The creation of new Polling Units can be accomplished before the end of March(2021). This is because PUs have to be determined before the re-commencement of the Continuous Voter Registration exercise.” The commission is yet to meet the Southern socio-cultural groups like the Pan Niger Delta Development group, the Ohanaeze Ndi Igbo and other groups. One thing is clear, INEC is keeping criteria for the sharing and allocation of the new polling stations to it’s chest. It has also assured all of equity and fairness

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Existing Polling nits can no longer substantially guarantee the exercise of that fundamental right to vote by citizens.”
No one hearing his next point will fail to stand by his corner. According to him, “Existing polling units in Nigeria, numbering 119, 973 were established in 1996. They are a quarter of a century old. They are no longer adequate in number, they are no longer conducive for voters to freely vote, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also unsuitable for the Commission to properly manage elections and to ensure that rules and regulations are strictly followed. There are 57,023 Poting Points across the country. The current structure of Polling Units was established in 1996 and INEC subsequently created Voting Points prior to the 2011 general election to enhance efficiency in election management by decongesting Polling Units that had more than 750 registered voters