A new survey on voter registration experiences carried out by Open Zambia has discovered that 83% of respondents struggled to register to vote for elections in August 2021.
The survey found that the two main issues with voter registration were long wait times and a lack of resources at registration facilities. Zambians reported waiting hours and sometimes days to register their details, at facilities which were chronically understaffed and under-resourced.
The findings confirm concerns at the time of voter registration – carried out between November 9 and December 16 last year – that the process was being carried out in too short a timeframe and with too few resources to adequately capture all eligible voters.
Open Zambia have heard from several individuals who complained about the length of time which it took them to register their vote, with some waiting up to thirteen hours in a single day to exercise their human right.
It was found to be fairly common for individuals to try and register their vote over a period of several days, whether that involved camping out at one polling station or visiting several different polling stations over a number of days.
“I went to the civic centre as a voter at 03:30hrs. In my mind I thought I wouldn’t find many people because of the awkward time. To my surprise I found a multitude of people who had slept overnight in the long queue” one voter said.
With no luck that day to register his vote, he tried again the next day, hoping his fortunes may change at a different polling station over an hour’s drive away. He said that the issue was just the same in this district too. On his third attempt, after queuing for an entire day and utilising his contacts within the district council, his vote was finally registered.
However, such a wait was not at all possible for those citizens with full time jobs and families to look after. Long, seemingly never-ending queues left another voter with no other option but to return home.
“Since we work, I couldn’t afford to stay” they said. “Even when they extended it, it was just the same and I lost interest”.
Some voters did have a more straightforward experience in registering to vote, however these were very much in the minority.
“It was fine and quick for me” and “I didn’t have any problems” stated two individuals, while others reported wait times of only 10 to 45 minutes.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of voters said they experienced long queues and agonising waits in the hot sun.
Long queues were not the only issue for voter registration, with many respondents reporting equipment failures and electrical malfunctions at registration centres, slowing the process down even further.
For example, a number of people complained about the lack of internet connectivity within the registration facility:
“The queues became worse when they lost [internet] connectivity and it would take an hour, not less, to reconnect,” said one.
Similar problems were caused by generator failures: prompting electrical blackouts and forcing individuals who had already queued for six or seven hours needing to venture to a different registration facility.
Adding to this, another respondent said that after they complained to a member of staff about the length of time that it was taking to register their vote, the office workers admitted that “their system was too slow”. This comment demonstrates clear awareness from the registration officers of the issue which they were causing. There are no accounts of work being done to resolve these issues in spite of this.
On top of these technical issues, problems around basic management and staffing made many registration centres practically useless.
“Some of my friends gave up because of how slow the process was moving” one individual claimed.
Other facilities, it was reported, were not even carrying out a fully day’s work, with a voter complaining that “One office closed at 10am, saying that they had reached their target for the day”.
When registration closed on December 16, following an emergency four day extension, the ECZ had only managed to register some 7 million eligible Zambians – 2 million short of its original stated target.
The significance of this was not lost on voters, who were appalled at the ECZ’s decision to scrap the previous voters roll from 2016.
“If you could deregister almost 200,000 potential voters who were cumulatively registered over a period of 5 years then your voter registration exercise wasn’t positive. It has disenfranchised Zambians,” one complained.
Another lamented that “this was the worst voter register from way back of UNIP days to MMD days there was too much skimming. I don’t understand why they did away with old voter register only to reduce numbers”
These concerns echo those of University of Zambia lecturer Sishuwa Sishuwa, who in February pointed out that the new voters roll is massively biased in favour of the Patriotic Front.
In analysing the data from the ECZ, Sishuwa found that the number of registered voters in provinces likely to vote for the PF had increased, while those provinces likely to vote for opposition parties saw a downgrade in the number of eligible voters.
In President Lungu’s home seat of Eastern Province, for instance, the number of registered voters has increased by 120,324 voters. Meanwhile in Western Province, which voted for the UPND in 2016, the number of voters decreased by some 51,772.
This has prompted both opposition and civil society groups to demand an audit into the voters roll and a re-opening of the registration process.
Until then, Zambians can only hope that the 7 million voters who are registered are enough to bring about the change that is sorely needed to revitalise the country’ democratic institutions.