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Understanding Role of Elections Magistrates in Conducting Elections

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Introduction

When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf nominated members of the Board of Commissioners of the National Elections Commission on March 20, 2013 in keeping with Chapter 2, Section 2.2 of the New Elections Laws of 1986, the nomination was greeted with mixed reactions. There were those who were impressed by the president’s nomination. At least 16 political parties and some stakeholders endorsed the president’s nomination while the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC) called for the annulment of Chairman Jerome Kokoya’s nomination.

On the heels of the president’s nomination, the National Legislature staged a confirmation hearing to vet the suitability of the newly reconstituted board of commissioners. In general terms, the vetting and scrutinizing at the Liberian Senate were without glitch except for one major concern that was raised by some members of the august assembly. That concern was, in the minds of some lawmakers, the need to reshuffle and or swap NEC’s Magistrates of Elections spread across the 15 political sub-divisions of the country.

Some of the lawmakers at varying stages charged that some of the Magistrates of Elections did not perform their duties upholding best practices as they (lawmakers) anticipated during the 2011 Presidential and Legislative elections. Hence, they wanted to know what the nominated NEC commissioners will do to ensure that Magistrates of Elections are reassigned to other magisterial areas other than where they are currently assigned.

This write-up will essentially attempt to look at the constitutional provisions giving rise to the recruitment of Magistrates of Elections and the role that is expected of them in the conduct of elections and elections related activities. Moreover, yours truly will posit why it is not politically prudent to shift Magistrates of Elections from one electoral magisterial area to another or remove them without a cause.

But before going any further, we must observe that the lawmakers concern is apparently predicated on mere allegation and no substantial evidence. Reliably, yours truly is informed that there is no formal complaint against any one magistrate that the complainant (s) followed through to the end using the complaint mechanism put in vogue by the Commission for the adjudication of complaint (s). I am told, all the complaints filed against the NEC relative to the alleged misconduct of some magistrates were abandoned by the complainant (s).

We must understand that the National Elections Commission is an independent institution and the Magistrates of Elections work at the will and pleasure of the Board of Commissioners. Calling on the Board of Commissioners to remove or reshuffle Magistrates of Elections amounts to interfering with the workings of the Commission.

Laws Regarding Recruitment of Magistrates

Prior to considering laws in respect of the recruitment of Magistrates of Elections, it is germane for us to understand who is a Magistrate of Elections.

According to the New Elections Law approved in 1986 and amended in 2004, “Magistrate of Elections” means “an elections officer representing the National Elections Commission in the areas of his appointment to perform such duties and functions prescribed in this title under the direction and supervision of the National Elections Commission.” By extension, the Magistrate of Elections is the front line foot soldiers of the commission.

That said, the function and mandate of the Magistrate of Elections is shrouded in constitutional provisions. For example, Section 2.24 of the New Elections Law states that “In accordance with the provision of Section 2.9 (i) of this title the Commission shall appoint within each County/ District as many Magistrates of Elections as shall be necessary, who shall serve as liaison between the Commission and the County/District they represent in respect of all Election activities within their County of assignment. Each such Magistrate shall comply with all general as well as special instructions issued to him by the Commission…”

Additionally, Section 2.25 stressed inter-alia that “each Magistrate, before assuming such office, shall make and subscribe to an oath before the Chairman of the Commission or his Commissioner designee for the faithful discharge of his duties…”

Noticeably, there are 19 Elections Magisterial areas across the 15 political sub-divisions of the Country. There are two magisterial areas in Montserrado, Lofa, Bong and Nimba counties respectively owing to the population density in these counties. In these densely populated counties, magisterial areas are divided into upper and lower. Each Magisterial area has a Senior Magistrate and Assistant Magistrate.

By analogy, the elections magistrates in the counties are to the Chairman (and by extension the Board of Commissioners of the NEC) what County’s Superintendents are to the President (and by extension the Executive Branch of government).

To ensure that all magistrates work within the confines of the law and policy framework of the Commission, each magisterial area is being supervised by a Commissioner with oversight responsibility of a number of assigned counties. Each NEC Commissioner has oversight responsibility for assigned elections magisterial areas as determined by the Board of Commissioners.

Working of the Magistrates

As stipulated above, the magistrates are the key foot soldiers of the Commission and their work is so cardinal and vital to the realization of the commission’s mandate to conduct free, fair and transparent elections. The credibility of the commission is upheld fundamentally by the workings of the Magistrates of Elections and other elections technicians. Section 4.4 of the New Election Law spells out the duty of Magistrates of Elections.

In Paraphraseology, one can safely opine that, an appreciation of the work the Magistrates of Elections carryout is reflected in every sphere of the electoral cycle. For example, during the conduct of presidential and legislative elections and or national referendum, the Board of Commissioners through its Chairman, instructs the Writ of Clerk to serve the writ of elections on the Elections Magistrates to conduct the elections or the referendum.

In this instance, the Writ of Elections is served on all of the Magistrates simultaneously at one major program in keeping with the calendar for the particular electoral event at the Commission’s headquarters.

In the case of a by-election, the Clerk of Writ, acting on the order of the Board of Commissioners, serves the Writ of Elections on the Magistrate in the affected county (s).

The Writ of Elections, according to Section 4.3 (1) …“shall be in the prescribed form and shall specify: (a) the date of the election; (b) the last date for the nomination of candidates by political parties and nomination of independent candidates and (c) the date for return of the election writ, with the results of the several elections within the county/districts endorsed thereon….”

By virtue of the writ, the Magistrates of Elections with supervision from their oversight commissioners and assistance from other headquarters elections technicians will immediately take charge of the recruitment and training of pool workers, the implementation of Civic Voters’ Education plan, the setting up of voting precincts and polling places, the negotiation for the use of public and private facilities, the overseeing of voter registration among other key tasks in the lead-up to the conduct of the elections.

Other tasks the Magistrates of Elections perform, working in sync with electoral experts and headquarters technicians include constituency or electoral boundary delineation depending on the legal provision proffered by the National Legislature. All of these tasks plus the day to day running of the local magisterial office falls within the purview of the Magistrates of Election.

Moreover, the Magistrates of Elections is the chief organizer of all regional consultations in their magisterial areas be they Civic Voters’ Education delivery, constitutional reform consultation or otherwise, the prime driver is the Magistrates of Elections. And now, with the decentralization of election activities in vogue at the NEC, the role of the magistrates is even more involving.

For expediency in the attainment of palpable and credible results in the conduct of elections, it is prudent to recruit Magistrates of Elections based on his or her knowledge of the local geography and terrain and said individual should be able to communicate fluently with the local dwellers in the language, dialects or vernaculars they understand. This recruitment matter is not grounded in law anyway, but certainly has the proclivity and trappings of making the Magistrates having leverage in the discharge of his/her duty in the county.

If you took a magistrate from say Lofa and out of political emotion swap them with one from Grand Gedeh it could be a misguided adventure that could lead to abysmal ramification for an electoral event owing to the lack of knowledge of the local vernacular (s) and not having a deep seated perspective of the geographical scene of the terrain.

Note though, Magistrates of Elections, as a matter of institutional policy, are taken from one magisterial area to assist in the effectuation of an electoral project in another magisterial area under the direct watch and supervision of senior election technicians, the Magistrates in the host county, the oversight Commissioner and the Board of Commissioners.

In understanding the crucial role that Magistrates of Elections play in conducting elections and carrying out other elections related functions, one will have to scrupulously and meticulously peruse the controlling laws and statues governing elections in Liberia. The haphazard posturing of some folks parading themselves as intellectual guru and running to town with ill-prepared political argumentation will do our body politic no good. It is our fervent hope that we have herein provided some useful factual tools that will stimulate the debate on whether it is politically correct to exert undue pressure on the reconstituted independent National Elections Commission Board of Commissioners to reshuffle or reconfigure the Magistrates of Elections across the country.

By Nathan N. Mulbah, mulbah.nathan@yahoo.com

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