This week will see the formal implementation of Kenya’s new Constitution to much fanfare. Before looking ahead, I wanted to take time to share by permission this excellent report from a grassroots election observation conducted in Western Kenya by Quaker Peace Network teams through a program called the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams.
For those of you who may not be familiar, roughly half the world’s Quakers are said to live in Africa’s Great Lakes region and Quaker Meeting Houses are common and important in Western Kenyan communities, including in areas impacted particularly by the 2007 post-election violence.
Yesterday we had the debriefing for the fifty observers. The feeling was that the new Interim Independent Electoral Commission did an excellent job of conducting the election. Yet there were some concerns:
1. It was not completely clear the criteria for the validity of the votes so that different poling stations rejected votes that other stations accepted.
2. In some communities the youth voted well, but in others very few youth voted. There needs to be more outreach to youth.
3. In some places the cell phones of the observers were confiscated for the day by the voting officials. This meant that the observer was out of communication and could not report something if needed. We felt that observers should be allowed to keep their cell phones, perhaps on vibration mode.
4. In at least one station, election officials were showing voters how they should vote.
5. There were no good guidelines on how illiterate voters should be handled when they did not come in with a family member to assist them.
6. In areas where there was violence after the 2007 election, some voters left to go back to their home community because they were afraid of violence after this election. This meant that these voters were disenfranchised.
My particular polling station in the hard hit town of Jua Kali had 80% turnout with 81% voting “No.” But it was in one of the 18 (out of 210) constituencies that had electronic registration of voters. Voters put their left thumb on a device that immediately brought up their picture, registration card, etc. on a computer. This worked extremely well with only about 5 people where it did not work These were sent to the Presiding Officer who checked their name manually on the hard copy–in every case the voter was a valid voter and allowed to cast his/her vote. Another significant innovation for most of the country was the Presiding Officer was give a special cell phone so that he/she could send a text message with the results from his/her station to headquarters in Nairobi. Results were being announced two hours after the polls closed and by 10:00 PM it was clear that the Yes side was winning by a landslide. There was no ability or time for rigging of voting returns at the headquarters as happened in the 2007 election. The cell phone results then had to verified by the official documents signed by the Presiding Officer and agents for the two sides.
In other words, as Andrew commented, although not much happened at the polling stations, our presence was a valuable part of the process. We found that most of the polling stations had no neutral election observers and in one constituency, the QPN observer was the only independent observer.
This type of detailed and candid reporting is what is needed to continue to improve the election process and the presence of a neutral peace-oriented group of grassroots observers living and working in the region seems ideal for the challenges presented by elections in this area.