By Yusef Taylor, @FlexDan_YT
After months of waiting, finally, the people of Niamina West are set to reclaim their seat in the National Assembly. With just over a year to go for the 2021 Presidential elections, this election has been given extra importance as a warm-up to next year’s elections. If anything it represents the first opportunity for President Adama Barrow’s newly formed National People’s Party (NPP) to win an elected seat in the National Assembly. This article features first-hand observations of polling stations in Niamina West where people will choose if the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC) will retain their seat after the untimely death of late Hon. Demba Sowe (GDC) who passed away in January 2020.
Catamina Polling Station – Two in One
The first polling station I visited was Catamina which on paper appears to be two separate venues. However, upon arrival at Catamina I observed that there were actually two polling stations inside one venue. According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) data sheet both polling stations will serve 588 registered voters each.
The venue is located just off the red gravel road next to the Market and Bantaba. There were no signs leading up to the polling station. However, what looked like NPP flags were visible above the fence where the polling was to take place in Catamina. This appears to be in violation of the IEC’s Handbook for Polling Officials regulations on unauthorised materials, provision 4.1.6.
When we arrived, we observed IEC Officials engaging polling agents to enhance the privacy of voters in the polling station. We could hear officials recommending the use of curtains to better ensure secrecy of the ballot.
The next polling station we visited was Nana which was further inland. Four of the polling stations which we visited are very remote and in some cases difficult to travel. The vehicle which dropped us off at Catamina was a white NPP Toyota pickup truck. It blazed over the red gravel road easily with such speed and such ease.
As we travelled to Nana, we drove in a different car which was much lower to the ground. We could hear the shrubs between the tyre tracks hitting beneath the car as we drove further inland towards the next polling station. Our trip between polling stations were enough to demonstrate why pickups have an edge over regular lower vehicles if you want to cover most of Niamina West.
Nana Polling Station – Ballot Boxes Being Prepared
Nana is the single polling station with the highest number of registered voters (670 registered voters) in Niamina West. However, when the two polling stations at Catamina are combined, the total is 1,176 registered voters. At the polling station I met one Mr. Kujabi who introduced himself as the Assistant Electoral Officer for Central River Region and the Supervising Officer for that polling station.
Mr. Kujabi gave us a walk-through of what voters on Saturday (7th November 2020) can expect when they cast their tokens. According to Mr. Kujabi before entering the premises, voters will have their temperatures checked by a security officer and then proceed to wash their hands. According to staff I met at all three locations the IEC is expected to provide the necessary hand washing materials for all polling stations.
The walk continued with Mr. Kujabi explaining how voters will then patiently walk through the queue where they will meet Polling Officials who will check the voter’s identity card against the voters’ register. The voter will then be given a coloured indelible ink and a marble token to cast their vote.
When we arrived at the polling station, I could observe that the place looked dark even though the time was just 17:40hrs. I had to ask if the place was bright enough for voters. To this, Mr. Kujabi explained that there would be lamps used to ensure the polling stations were bright enough for voters.
According to the section 4.1.5 of the IEC – Handbook for Polling Officials “the area where the ballot drums are kept is well lit so that voter can easily see the colour, photos and writing on the ballot drums”.
Ancha Madina Ba Polling Station – No Polling Station Observed
The last polling station we visited was in Ancha Madina Ba which has a total of 418 registered voters. There we met one polling staff whom we requested to see the polling station and the Ballot boxes. This time we were met with resistance, after checking my approval was in order, the polling agent only reassured me that all the necessary arrangements were in place and that I could not observe the polling station and the ballot boxes.
In our discussions with the polling staff, I learned that the polling station was actually located elsewhere. Since we were not going to get a walk-through of the polling station, I persisted to identify the location of the school to assess what preparation works had been completed.
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The first thing that anybody can observe is the lack of signs leading voters to the polling station. Instead, voters not familiar with the route will need to ask a friendly local. This means that people who cannot speak local languages or opportune to meet someone who they can communicate with could easily get lost.
The Covid 19 Pandemic has changed how most countries operate with everyone talking about the new normal. When I visited the polling stations I could observe that hardly anybody wore a mask. An effort will be made to observe how many people are wearing masks and observing social distancing on voting day.
One thing which can disenfranchise disabled voters is the lack of disabled access such as ramps. When I asked Mr. Kujabi how disabled voters would be able to make it across the grounds to the polling station, he responded that security personnel present would support them.
Finally, the fact that ballot boxes are only observed at Nana polling station and none at Catamina and Ancha Madina Ba was a cause for concern.