By Prince Kurupati
On 4 December 2021, Gambians from all walks of life travelled to various voting booths in the country to cast their votes in the presidential election. The election was the first since the removal of long-time authoritarian leader Yahya Jammeh in 2016. In the lead up to the election, there were two issues of interest amongst many political analysts as well as the greater community as a whole. First was of course the issue of the contesting candidates – who was going to win the election to become Gambia’s next president. Second, was the issue of the country’s unique voting system – was the traditional marbles voting system going to be preserved in the ‘newly emerged democratic environment’.
With regards to both issues of interest as stated above, everything went according to ‘tradition’. The status quo was preserved with regards to the contesting candidates as the incumbent Adama Barrow garnered 53% of the votes cast while his closest rival only managed 28%. Coming over to the country’s unique marbles voting system, the authorities in the country saw it fit to preserve the system as it was viewed as the best out of all possible alternatives. The reasons forwarded in support of the marbles voting system are solid and thanks to this, they seem as the perfect panacea to Africa’s age-old electoral fraud problems. In this article, we are going to cite these reasons highlighting and exposing how they can be a cure to Africa’s highly contentious elections but first, lets get to understand what the marbles voting system really is.
Understanding Gambia’s Unique Marbles Voting System
The marbles voting system was first used in Gambia in 1965, the year Gambia attained its independence from British colonial rule. Ironically, it was the British who introduced the marbles voting system as they saw it as the best fit for the country’s population which at the time was riddled with low literacy levels. Since that time, the system is still regarded as the best voting system by Gambian authorities.
The marbles voting system replaces paper ballots with marbles (stones). The system also replaces ballot boxes with a metal cylinder with a hole in the top. The metal boxes are placed in the voting booths and they are separated by colour for candidate identification purposes. Also, a candidate’s photo is placed on the centre of each metal cylinder for ease of identification. To place a vote, voters need to drop a marble in the metal cylinder representing the candidate of choice.
Once all votes have been cast, vote counting starts immediately on the spot. The marbles cast are emptied into a square tray that is dotted with holes. Once the holes in the tray are evenly filled, the total is tallied and recorded on the spot. If there are still more marbles left in the metal cylinder, they are also emptied into the square tray and the process is repeated. Once all marbles have been counted, the results are showcased on the spot thus ensuring fairness.
Arguably, the biggest advantage of the marbles voting system is that it is a simple voting system. Owing to this, this system is accommodative to all types of voters regardless of their literacy levels. With the marbles voting system, the issue of spoiled ballots is non-existent. Likewise, the issue of assisted voters (voting) is also significantly reduced. This necessitated by the fact that the elderly and the illiterate need no supervision when casting their votes, all they need is to drop a stone in the metal cylinder of their preferred candidate and the voting is done.
Looking at most electoral races in Africa, many disputes have arisen from the issue of assisted voters. In Zimbabwe for instance, there have been allegations that the individuals tasked with helping the elderly and the illiterate amongst other disadvantaged groups took advantage of the inability of these people to independently cast their votes by placing votes on the candidates of their choice rather than the candidates these people want.
Prevents Ballot Stuffing
Ballot stuffing is one of the most popular forms of electoral fraud in Africa. Though some decisions have been taken by individual states as well as regional bodies to prioritise the use of transparent ballot boxes for easy identification of ballot stuffing, the problem is still prevalent in most countries on the continent. This largely necessitated by the fact that in some remote areas, ballot boxes may arrive late (sometimes done deliberately by the authorities) at voting booths thus forcing voters to cast their votes at night or in the early hours of the day where visibility is still low. When using metal cylinders, the issue of ballot stuffing is significantly reduced as voters as well as election agents can tell if the cylinder is empty by the sound made by the marbles as they hit the bottom part of the cylinder.
Prevents Double Voting
The use of the metal cylinder is also a great aid in preventing double voting. When the stakes are high like in a presidential election, the contesting candidates and their support teams may try by all means to turn the tide in their favour. This includes indulging in unscrupulous tendencies such as encouraging some voters to engage in double voting. When using the marbles voting system, this however is not possible. This necessitated by the fact that when a voter casts his/her vote, the sound is audible to everyone including the election agents. If a second sound becomes audible when the same voter is behind the booth, it becomes clear that an attempt has been made to commit electoral fraud. Right on the spot, investigations will start to rectify the situation.
The adage ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ applies very much to Africa when it comes to national elections. Most countries have adopted while others are adopting the biometric voting system. This system is widely regarded as the best system at the present moment in ensuring credible and reliable polls. However, while this is the case, the biggest shortcoming of the biometric voting system is that its an expensive system. As such, some countries end up ‘selling their souls’ to get and set up the biometric voting machines. Often however, the move sees the distributors of the machines attaching stringent conditions that are in their interest rather than in the country’s interest. Gambia’s unique marbles voting system guards against this as it is an affordable and sustainable voting system that requires less resources to set up hence can be done without the help of external actors who may have their own warped interests in a country’s election.