Election Watch 26-2023 - The Importance of Polling-Station Returns

ELECTION WATCH 26/2023

[25h August 2023]

The Importance of Polling-Station Returns

In terms of section 64(1) of the Electoral Act, after votes have been counted at each polling station the presiding officer of the station must:

·record the results on a polling-station return in Form V.11 prescribed in the Electoral Regulations 2005 [link]

·show the return to all the candidates, election agents, election observers and officials who are present

·provide the candidates or their agents with copies of the return

·pin or fix a copy of the return on the outside of the polling station so that it is visible to the public, and

·ensure that the polling-station return remains on the outside of the station long enough so that “all members of the public who wish to do so may inspect it and record its contents.”

This last requirement means that members of the public must be able not just to look at the return but must also be allowed to photograph it and write down its contents.

Contents of Polling-Station Returns

A polling-station return must record, in relation to each election:

·ballot-papers received at the polling station before polling begins, with their serial numbers if there are any

·number of ballot papers in the ballot box

·number of ballot papers unused after polling has ended

·number of ballot papers cancelled

·number of ballot papers, if any, that are unaccounted for

·number of votes received by each candidate

·number of votes rejected [i.e. spoilt papers and papers which do not indicate clearly which candidate was being voted for], and

·total number of votes cast, including rejected votes.

Importance of Polling Station Returns

The importance of polling station returns can hardly be exaggerated.  They are official records of the results of an election in the polling stations concerned, and when they are posted up on the outside of the polling station they notify the public of those results.  Members of the public who add up the results from all the polling stations in a constituency or ward can work out for themselves the result of the election in that constituency or ward.

Polling station returns help citizens to monitor elections.  With their aid citizens can guard their democracy.  In Zimbabwe however, collating polling station returns is risky.

Arrest of Persons Collating Polling Station Returns

According to a press statement issued by the Police, 41 persons from prominent civil society organisations such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and the Election Resource Centre have been arrested for allegedly tabulating voting statistics and results from polling stations throughout the country so that the presidential election results could be announced yesterday, in advance of an official announcement by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission [ZEC].  [How they could have planned to announce the results yesterday is anyone’s guess as polling was not completed]

The Police did not specify the crime the arrested persons are alleged to have committed, but it seems to be contained in section 66A of the Electoral Act:

“(1) Subject to subsection (3), any person who—

(a) purports to announce the result of an election as the true or official results;  or

(b) purports to declare any candidate to have been duly elected;

 before an electoral officer, acting in accordance with this Act, has announced the result of that election or declared a candidate to have been duly elected in that election … shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level five [currently US$200] or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to both such fine and such imprisonment.

 …

 (3) Subsection (1) shall not be construed as preventing any person from reporting the number of votes received by a candidate or political party in an election, where the report is based on polling-station returns and constituency returns from the election concerned.”

The crime is probably unconstitutional in that it violates section 61 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression including:

“freedom to … receive and communicate … information”.

The crime is also difficult to understand.  If it is legal for persons to report the number of votes received by a candidate based on polling-station returns, as stated in section 66A(3), how can it be a crime to announce the result of the election as the true result if the announcement is based on polling-station returns?  That is what the arrested persons were allegedly trying to do.

Some of the arrests took place in the same hotel where foreign election observers were staying.  What they will make of Zimbabwean democracy in action one shudders to think.

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