By Dr. George Wah Williams, Civic Activist and an Int’l Electoral Observer & Engineer
October 2023 Abstract: Liberia’s most recent presidential and legislative elections have ignited numerous topical issues thumping the headlines in conversations – private and public. Across party lines, the issues lifted, but not limited to the slowness of the data center processing of votes, the excessively high number of invalid votes, and inadequacies in the vote counts from centers closest to the headquarters of the National Elections Commission (NEC) in Monrovia. As valid as these issues remain, the Appleton factor in Liberia elections has left more questions than answers and perhaps will continue spotlighting future elections for decades. This paper is an attempt to make sense of the Appleton mystery and its implications for future elections in Liberia.
Edward “Eddie” Appleton, I got to meet in the early 80s, through a brother who was then a student at Cathedral High School on Snapper Hill. The two were strong buddies and have maintained that relationship even today. The last time I saw Eddie was at this brother’s 50th birthday in North Carolina. Eddie the character has always impressed me to want in on the social spotlight. Like many others in our generation, had never projected any semblance of political ambition or desire to partake in national or community politics. The truth is, Eddie and I interacted in passing, so my observations are limited by my rare interactions with the gentlemen.
But here is a larger story. While there were 20 contestants in the race for the presidency of Liberia, NO one I have spoken to had heard of Eddie in any way. Eddie, dad, Cllr. Wade Appleton came more prominently into the limelight, I believe after the Tolbert assassination and the incumbency of Samuel Doe. Always nicely cut and decked, Eddie’s crowd-pulling strength circled around Central Monrovia. He did play basketball but didn’t cement himself as a brand in basketball circles. Schooling in Brewerville meant only the stars were known to us, Jessie Harmon, D-Jaal, and Siafa Varney…
All of this begs the question, how did an unknown candidate attain the number of votes over and beyond other much-publicized candidates? A number of theories abound, explaining the probabilities.
In no particular order, the first of the theories that come in handy is that of mistaken identity. Many purport that checking the box in favor of Eddie could have been a case of mistaken identity. Whose identity could have been mistaken? There is a possibility, considering Liberia’s increasing literacy levels, that Eddie could have benefitted from a Weah look-alike or an Alexander C. name similarity. While these propositions might seem improbable to the scrutinous eye, the likelihood of a vision-poor or illiterate voter examining the ballot from the top and checking the box near the picture or name resembling his choice is practically high. Even educated people routinely make such mistakes in other areas of life like sending the wrong text to someone seemingly bearing near similar identities.
Notwithstanding, another proposition – bordering on technology – is that of the quality of the tallying booklet imported by the NEC. Pundits have proffered that the defect of the booklets was such that writings on the duplicates lower down in the pile tended to spill over to other sections leading to votes misallocation. This suggestion is less plausible considering that instances, where such occurred, would rather spill downwards and not above. Appleton is positioned at the very top of the ballot invalidating this proposition.
Meanwhile, there is an improbable electoral fraud circulating which – for all intents and purposes – seems most unlikely since this writer does not believe the candidate to possess the quality of infrastructure required to influence electoral fraud on the belly of the widespread votes he’s attained so far. The reason for this is simple. Had Appleton the resources to finance the scale of fraud, he would have chosen to publicize himself better than he did. Moreso, the candidate has never been known – to me at least – to be a risk-taker on the opposite end of the law. So this proposition, I rule out this until proven otherwise.
Finally, there is an advantage of placement on the ballot that might explain why so many votes could have represented Eddie in the results. With the many long queues at voting centers, commentators suggest that voters might have been increasingly worn out and once given a ballot, checked the very first candidate they saw. Now this is possible, but not like considering the systematic collection of votes received across the country.
So where does this leave us? Several factors might explain why a little-known Eddie Appleton could have accumulated an unexpected number of votes over his better-known rivals. By far the strongest argument likely informing the sudden rise of Eddie may lie in his apparent charisma and appeal – but to whom?
Eddie is indeed a flashy crowd-puller, but to a community that almost does not exist in these times. Whether the votes received were a combined protest against the leading candidates and the incumbent still does not explain how Appleton the phenomenon outclassed Gongloe and Cummings.
Though it remains inarguable that Mr. Appleton is the unknown factor in these elections, his unexplained 1 rise in the vote count raises election concerns and could spike motivations for electoral reforms going forward. “What are the implications for future elections in Liberia?
Implications: Having served in several electoral capacities over my short professional life, a number of changes have to be effected to safeguard future elections from any similar situations. The first of many that pops up is:
● Ballots and Candidates: A system to streamline the number of candidates at all levels of the electoral process has to operationalize in helping our mostly illiterate populations deal with the innumerable maze of options from which to select. Perhaps a framework that filters the top five ranking candidates for a presence on the ballot. Setting a ballot performance threshold could prove useful to the process. Most folks heard of any association of Appleton with the electoral process only after the NEC’s first announcement of results – which was unfortunate. Another area of reform – though indirectly associated with the “Appleton Phenomenon” is the centralized vote processing currently employed by the NEC.
● The Over-centralization of the tally processing is susceptible to infringements since the overall results ultimately rest on the accuracy of the data-entry personnel. Perhaps a framework in the operationally centralized in the counties rather than in Monrovia. This will help with the disaggregation of data for healthier public access. In terms of the “Appleton Effect” this decentralization could ensure that ballot a more localized scrutiny of the votes is undertaken. From an institutional reform standpoint, situations such as the “Appleton Phenomenon” and the increasing quantity of invalid votes and turnout present ample opportunities for research and engagement.
● Operational Transformation: Transforming the NEC into a knowledge generation and management entity rather than simply an operational vehicle for gathering and counting votes will enhance the “operationability” and responsibility of the NEC to the execution of its mandate. Setting up a structure focused on the understanding of electoral operations, administrative, and programmatic challenges and seeking local opportunities for improvement and overcoming identified problems.