Voter Education Needed

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Aashish Mishra

It has been one week since Nepal voted in the second local election to take place under the constitution of 2015. There were some regrettable instances of violence and voting was postponed in 85 polling centres in 17 districts of six provinces. Nevertheless, the national authorities and international observers have deemed last Friday’s election fair, peaceful and successful and voters were noticeably excited to cast their vote for their preferred candidates and parties. But as vote counting began, it became clear that there was a large number of spoilt votes. Even in the capital, voters seemed to have stamped the symbols of parties for posts which they have not fielded candidates for, unintentionally voted for more than one candidate for the same position or made other errors that made their ballots invalid.

This shows just how confused the voters are and the need for the Election Commission to expand voter education programmes.

First, the ballot papers were disorienting, even to those who have voted before. One of the main reasons for this was the papers’ sheer size. They had seven columns for the people to vote for the head and deputy head of their local levels as well as for the chair and members of their wards. The last column had two symbols for reasons not made clear to the normal voters. The ballot in Kathmandu had two sections – left and right – of seven columns each because of the large number of candidates.

At first glance, this does not seem like that big of a problem; and it is not when you are sitting comfortably at home with an uncluttered mind. But when you are inside the booth with the stamp in hand and looking at the paper, things can get overwhelming. You want to make sure you do not choose the wrong person but by doing that, you tend to build an unconscious pressure on yourself. This is almost the same thing that happens to students during examinations. But while students have invigilators to ask for help in their exam halls, the voters are all alone inside the booths.

And this brings us to the second point which is that many people did not get to see the ballot paper for their local level before the election day. The Election Commission did not reach out to voters with awareness campaigns. It did upload the sample ballots on its website and had put out videos on social media but not everyone has access to internet-based platforms and not everyone who sees things online can understand them without in-person explanations and follow-ups. That is why e-learning did not prove as effective in our country as physical classes.

The result of this lack of voter education was clear for all to see in the mock elections conducted in various places before Friday: the votes cast by officials of the Election Commission and candidates themselves turned out to be invalid when inspected.

The various coalitions formed by the political parties also made things complex. For instance, the ruling coalition comprising Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Centre), CPN (Unified Socialist), Janata Samajwadi Party-Nepal and Rastriya Jana Morcha fielded different candidates for different positions within the same local unit. This meant that candidates representing the same side carried different election symbols. So, one could just stamp the symbols of their party present in a row and call it a day. Since the Election Commission does not remove the symbols for posts where there are no candidates, many people ended up voting for symbols that do not represent anyone or worse, voting for people other than the ones they intended.

And this again brings us back to the issue of voter education. There was understandably a lot to be done in very little time and authorities like the Election Commission seem to be understaffed and under-resourced. But this does not mean that they should skimp out on informing the public. 

While focusing on getting the elections done, no one should overlook the need to get them done properly. Polls are the cornerstones of democracy and anything that even vaguely gives the perception of inaccuracies can bring the whole system of governance into question. It may also cause people to lose faith in the process and stir unrest and dissatisfaction. That is why it is the duty of everyone involved to bring the number of spoilt ballots down and educate the voters as much as possible about how to cast their votes.

 
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