Survey Finds One in Three Liberians Do Not Trust the Biometric Voter Registration System for October’s Elections

MONROVIA, Liberia—As many as a third of voters surveyed by New Narratives do not trust the election system to accurately record votes in October’s elections because of their experience with the newly introduced Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system.

The BVR system was introduced in April and May. The rollout was marked by widespread problems, including untrained workers, malfunctioning machines and double registrations. More than 27,000 voters were registered twice, according to the National Elections Commission (NEC). The BVR will not be used for voting on the day – voting will be done manually – but voters are still concerned that the chaotic registration of voters will lead to miscounts and other problems in the poll. 

“We were made to believe that this thing was bio-metric and that there was no means for one to register two times but when I heard that there were people who registered multiple times, I think it created fear and doubt,” said Pastor George Nyumah of the Winners Chapel Church in the PHP community, a suburb of Monrovia.“Right now, I can’t say I fully trust the system.”

FPA/NN conducted the survey when it found no other organization had produced publicly available data on voter sentiment after the BVR rollout. The survey of 60 Liberians in five communities of Monrovia in June highlighted the challenge that elections officials have in restoring trust among the population in the outcome of October’s elections after the botched roll out of the BVR system. Experts say if one third of Liberians do not trust the outcome of the poll that may undermines voters’ participation.

Augustine Tamba, Executive Director of the Liberia Elections Observation Network (LEON), has publicly criticized the process. He said the survey findings did not surprise him.

“It is a concern,” said Tamba. “It is attributed to people feeling uncertain about the governance process. Once you are not a registered voter, you may not turn out to vote and once registered you can vote. I think it is about confidence in the electoral process, this is why we are encouraging the National Elections Commission to give as much information as possible to the public.”

The NEC introduced BVR because it wanted a clean roll of voters after accusations of irregularities marred Liberia’s 2017 presidential and legislative elections. Critics accused the NEC of conducting unfair elections, though international partners have approved of its conduct. BVR is predominantly used in Africa, West Asia, and Latin America to use biometric data – photos and fingerprints – to ensure voters are who they say they are and only vote once. The NEC argued that the new process would enhance voters’ confidence in elections. It has had the opposite impact according to the survey. 

The survey polled 60 people in five parts of Monrovia – West Point, Old Road, New Kru Town, St. Paul Bridge Community, and central Monrovia– in June. Of those surveyed 45 were men, while 15 were women. Thirteen were over 50 years of age, while 17 were under 30. 29 were between 30 and 50.

Participants were asked: Did you enroll? Did you have problem enrolling? Do you trust the system to accurately record votes?’

Washington Gray, one of those surveyed by NN/FPA about the BVR system. Credit: Varney Dukuly/FPA/NN

Of the third who said they did not trust the system, most said it was because of malfunctioning BVR equipment. Others said it was because of low awareness of the process, and BVR centers that were inaccessible to people living with disabilities.

“No, I don’t trust that,” said Razak Kanneh, a commercial motorcyclist in Monrovia. “Presently, there are complaints that two, three persons registered, and it is being placed all over now. In fact, one of my own brothers registered in Bopolu – there is another list in Monrovia with his name is on that list. People are saying that Burkinabe were brought into Grand Gedeh and they register. They are not people of Grand Gedeh, so I don’t trust the process.”

All voters surveyed were eventually able to register for BVR, but half said they had difficulties. Despite concerns that many people had given up registering, the final registration numbers suggest all people who wanted to register likely did so. NEC said nearly 2.5 million Liberians (or 48%) registered this year out of a total population of 5.2 million. That is a statistically comparable number to the registration number given by the NEC in 2017 when nearly 2.2 million (46%) registered from a population of 4.8 million. 

James Fallah, a university lecturer, and a candidate in the Montserrado District #8 election, said inconsistent power supply interrupted his registration.

“The machine went off, so it became a problem,” said Fallah. “I did a tour in the district. It also happened at the YMCA so the fluctuation of the electricity was one of the serious challenges. Another thing, some of those who were trained, I am just asking if they were properly trained or they were recommended by the higher ups? The guys couldn’t type a single name.”

Mary Korsor, 50, a women’s leader in the St. Paul Bridge community, said though she was treated better than others because of her age, she was in empathy with citizens who struggled to register because of problems with the equipment.

 “If they continue this way, during the casting of the votes, many people will be left out,” said Korsor. “I saw so many people leaving because of the time and the line was so long and they could not bear patience due to poor working system.”

The National Elections Commission has agreed with the findings from the survey saying the errors were expected because it was Liberia’s first time using the system and the first time for its temporary workers.

“I think already it is known that there was a problem but those problems we called technical glitches were all one way or the other managed and did not go out of hand,” said Henry Flomo, head of NEC’s communication department. “I can’t question your findings, because they are opinions of real people. The good thing is all participated. The issue of trust is something that you can’t take away from somebody.”

While there was widespread mistrust in the system only one of the sixty respondents wanted to scrap BVR altogether suggesting the voting population believes that the system is an upgrade on the manual registration process. But more than a third said the NEC should redo the BVR if they want to restore trust in the process.

“I wouldn’t opt for them to get rid of the process maybe they find a way to clean up and find a way to build upon it after the clean-up,” said Pastor Nyumah of the Winners Chapel Church in the PHP community.

But Romeo Johnson, the spokesman for the Township of West Point, said he feared those criticizing the system were seeking to undermine it.

“Those who don’t trust the system I don’t think they mean well for this country called Liberia and I don’t think they mean well for these upcoming elections,” he said. “I don’t know how many Liberians I have heard criticizing this system but what I do believe is that majority are satisfied and have trust in this system except for those who want to dupe the system by registering twice.”

With less than three months to go until the polls, the NEC has no plans to redo the BVR, but they are planning an awareness campaign designed to boost confidence.

This story was collaboration with New Narratives as part of the “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Monrovia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.