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The state of voter registration in Zimbabwe

Various civil society organisations (CSOs) acknowledged that the voter registration process in 2000 was better than that of the previous elections though some irregularities were noted. According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), the registration process was effective, with challenges on limited time and lack of voter registration cards. A lot of people were […]

Various civil society organisations (CSOs) acknowledged that the voter registration process in 2000 was better than that of the previous elections though some irregularities were noted. According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), the registration process was effective, with challenges on limited time and lack of voter registration cards. A lot of people were enthusiastic about the 2000 elections following the February constitutional referendum. To that end, the government had to extend the voter registration period by up to 30 days. There were also widespread voter education campaigns by various CSOs, including the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) as well as the door-to-door campaigns rolled out by the registrar-general of elections. As a result, the total voter registrants increased from 4,9 million in 1996 to 5 049 815 in 2002. In 2002 voter registration was initiated a few months before the election day. However, the deadline was extended, firstly to January 27, 2002 and later on to March 3, 2002 . However, the extension of voter registration from January 27 to March 3 was only published on March 3. At the end, the total voter registrants in 2002 presidential elections were 5 647 812. Nonetheless, voter apathy was also witnessed with only 55,5% of the total voter registrants turning out to cast their votes. This was probably due to the fact that the 2000 parliamentary elections were marred by a lot of political violence against the main opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which led to loss of lives.

In 2004 the whole electoral management body was restructured. The four bodies which administered elections in Zimbabwe ceded their powers to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) through the amendment of the Electoral Act (Constitutional Amendment No 17). The Electoral Supervisory Commission was abolished in 2005 through restructuring the office of the registrar-general of voters, which was created with the mandate of registering voters under the direct supervision of Zec. In 2005, Zec conducted its maiden elections. These elections witnessed a slight increase in the number of registrants from 5 647 812 in the 2002 elections to 5 658 624. However, voter turnout was only 47,7%. There were many challenges around the voters roll, which affected the credibility of the elections. This was emphasised by Vollan (2005) who argues that the low quality of the voters roll was proved by the high rate of turned-away voters of between 10-15% of the total registrants on the voting day.

In 2008 Zimbabwe introduced harmonised elections where citizens voted for presidential, parliamentary and local authority representatives at the same time. Zec supervised the registrar-general of voters who deployed teams throughout the country to conduct voter, birth and death registration. As of December 5, 2007, total registered voters in the voters roll stood at 5 934 768, a slight increase from the 2005 figure of 5 658 624. Nomination courts sat on February 15, 2008 and the closure of the voters roll was on February 14, 2008. The voters roll was displayed for inspection on February 1, 2008 following the announcement of the date of the harmonised elections. However, voter-turnout was very poor since only 42% of registered voters cast their votes. Many citizens faced challenges during the inspection and registration processes in 2008, including inadequate stationery and material at the inspection centres in some provinces where people were then turned away. In some instances, citizens were registered in their respective constituencies but they were asked to collect their slips from the Zec head office, and obtaining proof of residence was particularly problematic for the youth and a number of them failed to register.

The situation improved in 2013, although not all citizens were aware of the voter registration exercise. There was little publicity due to lack of financing, personnel and a shortage of material to conduct effective voter education. Civil society groups were not accredited to provide voter education, which remained inadequate. Due to these anomalies, there was criticism from various corners both within and abroad. As a result, Zec introduced a second phase from June 10 to July 9, 2013. It is important to note that there were improvements during the second phase which included more publicity, relaxed voter registration requirements and the deployment of at least two voter educators per ward, unlike the previous exercise when there were only two educators per district. This also resulted in an increase in the number of registered voters for the election. Major improvements were recorded with the advent of biometric voter registration which was adopted in 2017 ahead of the 2018 harmonised elections.

Biometric voter registration CSOs working on electoral governance and some political players clamoured for the adoption of the biometric voter registration (BVR) process in Zimbabwe with the aim to achieve a credible voters roll. Questions were raised around the process, whether or not it was going to address inaccuracies of the voters roll. In September 2017 the late former president Robert Mugabe introduced the BVR system through proclamation 6 of 2017, under Section 36A (1) of the Electoral Act. The BVR system was introduced to address recurrent problems with the voters roll dating back to all the previous elections, including inaccuracies through not capturing all those who registered, double entries and entries of deceased persons. The major aim of the BVR system was to prevent duplicate registrations. It was noted that the system was simpler to use when registering and identifying voters, hence easy to search, analyse and audit. Thanks to the BVR system, for the first time, Zimbabwe began using the polling station-based system where voters could only vote at the station where they were registered.

The process captured unique biometric features of all prospective voters with fingerprints and facial photographs being electronically collected and stored as a means of identification unlike in the previous years when voter registration was manually conducted. The BVR process was implemented in four phases countrywide as follows: October 10 to October 25, October 29 to November 13, November 16 to December 1, and December 4 to December 19, 2017.

After the four phases approximately 5,3 million voters had registered, far short of Zec’s announced target of 7 million considering the eligible voter population in Zimbabwe. Zec secured supplementary funding from Treasury for a “mop-up” the BVR exercise with a four-week extension which ended on February 8, 2018, during which an additional 385 192 people were registered. After the exercise the 63 district election offices were furnished with BVR kits for continuous voter registration. Registration for the 2018 elections ended on June 1, 2018, as per amendment of Section 26A of the Electoral Act, which states that registration of voters closes two days after proclamation, which was made on May 30, 2018.

A total of 5 695 706 (78,8% of the estimated eligible voters) citizens were registered to vote in 2018 and the voter turnout was 75%. While the election figures were a subject of dispute, there was an improvement on voter turnout since 2000. The improvement can be partly attributed to CSOs’ efforts in mobilising citizens to register to vote. As much as Zec is mandated by the Electoral Act to be responsible for voter education and registration, various CSOs remain key in mobilising citizens to register to vote with the supervision of Zec.

In as much as the BVR provided some credibility to the voters roll and promoted electoral integrity, there were some grey areas which arose through the misuse of personal private data which was captured by Zec. Towards the run-up to the elections, voters received direct campaign messages through their mobile phones from Zanu PF soliciting for votes. This did not go down well with CSOs who pointed out that ZEC had tampered with the voters roll and leaked it to a third party, thereby violating voters’ digital rights, particularly the right to privacy and personal data. While BVR was a welcome development, without adequate rules and regulations to safeguard private data, it will result in it being compromised, which will affect the credibility of the whole electoral process. In addition, the biometric voters roll for the 2018 elections had anomalies even though the process was digitalised. This was highlighted in the BVR report written by Pachedu (2018) which discovered duplication of ID numbers, names and surnames in the roll. The ERC report also indicated that there were inconsistencies in the distribution of registration kits and schedule of voter registration. Harare province was allocated fewer kits than Midlands province and yet it had 18 911 more potential voters than Midlands. Manicaland province also with fewer voters than Harare was allocated more kits than Harare.

—BY Election Resource Centre