WHY SPEND MONEY WE DON’T HAVE ON EXPENSIVE BY-ELECTIONS?

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The Editor,

Since the reintroduction of multiparty democracy and involvement of the masses in the electoral process, Liberia has had several multiparty elections, dating back to 1985.

Arguably, the election of 1997 and its attendant results was a true test of our nascent democracy. However, we survived and have gone on to hold several impressive elections over the years. At this stage, it could be said with great confidence that multiparty democracy and mass citizen participation in elections is here to stay. Now efforts to refine the process must commence. 

As Liberia moves towards strengthening its democratic credentials, let us not forget that there are costs associated with the conduct of credible elections. Elections cost money. Good elections universally are very expensive, and By-elections are no exception. 

There will always be a need to replace legislators during the period between major elections, which in the Liberian electoral system is done through a process known as By-Election. By-elections come about due to vacated legislative seats caused by death, resignation, expulsion, a legislator’s move from the House of Representatives to the Senate or from the Senate to the Judiciary or some other position. Regardless of the circumstance through which the vacancy occurs, as it currently stands, vacated seats can only be filled through an election. 

Constitutionally, a By-Election is invoked whenever the replacement of a legislator has to be made between major elections.  

The culture and cost of By-Elections
In recent times, especially since the 2005 election, there have been several By-elections as would be expected. In fact, since following the 2017 General and Presidential Elections, a total of five (5) By-elections have been held, including the simultaneous Senatorial By-election which were held in Montserrado and Bong Counties to fill seats vacated by President George Weah and Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor respectively. The estimated cost of By-elections over the past 18 months is in excess of seven (7) million United States Dollars – surely a strain on an already anemic economy. And it is possible there could be more By-elections before the next Senatorial election scheduled for 2020. 

Do we have the millions of dollars required to keep up with the increasing number of By-elections? Is there a less-costly way to fill vacant legislative seats and protect our young democracy? Perhaps.

Democracy and the Law
By-election is a sure way of exercising our democracy from time to time, but it is not the only alternative. If the purpose of a By-election is to fill the vacant seat(s) in the Legislature, this could be accomplished at a far lesser cost. Of course, it may require amending existing laws and adopting new processes. 

Twice within the past 18 months, Constitutional deadlines for holding By-Elections were missed. According to official reports, this was due to lack of money. Whatever the reason, it clearly was in violation of Article 37 of the Constitution of Liberia and compromised the integrity of the elections. In spite of the breaches, the National Elections Commission (NEC) on each occasion proceeded to conduct the missed elections outside the Constitution. 

Rather than continue to break the law by holding extra-constitutional elections because of financial constraints, perhaps we ought to seriously consider amending the law and doing away with By-elections entirely. 

Political parties retain vacated legislative seats
What harm is done if a political party designates an individual to fill a legislative seat vacated by one of its partisans? Nothing. So why then must there be an expensive election every time a vacancy occurs in the Legislature? It is high time laws supporting By-Elections in Liberia are amended and a new methodology is adopted for filling seats that become vacant in the Senate and the House of Representatives between major elections.

Following are recommendations that could substantially reduce the cost of filling vacated seats in the Legislature and maintain the integrity of our democracy: 

1. Whenever a vacancy occurs in the Senate and the NEC is officially notified, it will become the responsibility of the political party whose member has vacated the seat to present a replacement. In doing so, party delegates from the various districts within the county shall convene and nominate qualified candidates residing within the county. Following thorough vetting and approval by NEC, the candidates will be voted upon and the winner shall occupy the vacant Senate seat for the duration of the term. 

2. Whenever a seat that is occupied by an Independent Legislator becomes vacant in the Senate and the NEC is officially notified, it will become the responsibility of Community and Opinion Leaders of districts throughout the county to present a replacement. In doing so, the Leaders will convene and nominate qualified candidates residing within the respective county. Following thorough vetting and approval by the NEC, the candidates will be voted upon and the winner shall occupy the vacant seat in the Senate for the duration of the term. 
Elections for replacement of independent legislators will be coordinated, supervised and certified by the National Elections Commission.

3. Whenever a vacancy occurs within the House of Representatives and the NEC is officially notified, it will become the responsibility of the political party whose member has vacated the seat to present a replacement. In doing so, party delegates from the district will convene and nominate qualified candidates residing within the district. Following thorough vetting and approval by the NEC, the candidates will be voted upon and the winner shall occupy the vacant seat in the House of Representatives for the duration of the term. 

4. Whenever a seat that is occupied by an Independent Legislator becomes vacant in the House of Representatives and the NEC is officially notified, it will become the responsibility of Community and Opinion Leaders of the district to present a replacement. In doing so, the Leaders will convene and nominate qualified candidates residing within the respective district. Following thorough vetting and approval by the NEC, the candidates will be voted upon and the winner shall occupy the vacant seat in the House of Representatives for the duration of the term. Elections for replacement of independent legislators will be coordinated, supervised and certified by the National Elections Commission.

5. Elections to fill vacated seats in the Senate or House of Representatives that were occupied by members of political parties shall be conducted by the party officials and observed by representatives of the National Elections Commission. NEC shall certify the election results and announce the winner. 

Conclusion: There is no need to continue holding By-Elections that the country cannot afford. Having political parties put forth individuals that will complete the unfinished term of their partisan will in no way undermine our democracy. Liberia’s forward march towards a stronger, inclusive and transparent democratic culture is progressing well. And the electoral process since the rebirth of multiparty democracy has been promising and engaging. We must therefore constantly seek improvement by making adjustments as needed. 

While election is not the only rung on the democratic ladder, it is an important tenet. That is why we must do everything possible, including amending the law when necessary to eliminate bloated, non-essential expense from our electoral budget and streamline the process.

TQ Harris

[email protected]

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