Members of Parliament on the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee have asked Government to ensure that the Electoral Commission comes up with statutory measures that will enable youth who will have clocked 18years by polling day get registered to vote.
The call was made during a meeting held today at Parliament between the MPs alongside Attorney General- William Byaruhanga, Electoral Commission and Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Ephraim Kamuntu.
Electoral Commission Chairperson, Justice Simon Byabakama (pictured) defended the decision to stop registration of voters in December 2019 ahead of the February 2021 general elections saying the Commission needs time to plan for the elections because a credible national voters’ register is cornerstone for free and fair elections.
Quoting the Electoral Commission Act, Byabakama said that the law deals with the present because it stipulates that the person eligible to register for voting is one who has clocked 18years at the time of registration not one who will be 18years by the time of polling.
“How does the Commission budget for an indefinite register, how many ballot papers shall we budget for and when shall we print them? This is a command of the law that you display register for 21 days before elections. If you have an uncertain indefinite register, what are you going to display?” Byabakama said.
He added: “Which polling stations are you going to gazette? How many ballot papers are you going to print? It is Parliament which passed this law saying EC shall create a cutoff date otherwise you create chaos in electoral cycle,” asked Byabakama.
However, his submissions were shot down by MPs like Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda (Kira Municipality), who said that the law the Electoral Commission is attributing to Parliament didn’t say registration of voters has to stop one year before elections.
He added that the revised roadmap isn’t statutory.
“There is no way you are going to stop registration in December last year and hold elections in 2021. The cutoff point can be one month. If you are going to disfranchise a million people, you may go down as one of the worst commissions. There is no reason you can’t have a cutoff date in June,” said Ssemujju.
Wilfred Niwagaba (Shadow Attorney General) said that although there is need for EC to have a cutoff point for registration, there is need for the Commission to look at the practical aspect and ensure that the cutoff date is reasonable and justifiable and there is no need to use the cutoff point to disenfranchise voters.
Aston Kajara (Mwenge County) also rejected EC’s argument saying voting is a constitutional right that can’t be taken away by EC Act or any statutory instrument.
Bugiri Municipality’s Asuman Basalirwa argued that the Section 18 of Electoral Commission Act, Justice Byabakama is relying on as highlighted states; “The commission shall compile, maintain and update, on a continuing basis, a national voters register, in this Act referred to as the voters register, which shall include the names of all persons entitled to vote in any national or local government election.”
Basalirwa said the decision by EC to close registration in 2019 undermines the continuous process of voter registration adding that Ugandans should be in position to walk into EC headquarters and get registered even after elections.
Jovah Kamateeka (Mitooma Woman) warned Electoral Commission that the plan to have nominations in August 2020 and elections in February 2021 would be detrimental to the country because it would amount to condemning the country to electioneering for the whole year.
However, Justice Byabakama stood by his argument saying it isn’t the desire of EC to disfranchise any citizen and that EC is simply operating within the available legal framework saying that the law doesn’t say go ahead and register people who would turn 18 before that time and that whereas one can register for citizenship before 18years, that person can’t be imported into the voter register.
Abdu Katuntu (Bugweri County) told off Byabakama that the EC Act he is citing doesn’t override the constitution, which is the supreme law.
“You can’t cite that provision because that provision is taking away the constitutional right. You must be allowed to register,” Katuntu said.
In response, Byabakama said that when the constitution creates a right there must be an enabling law to operationalize the right and that the constitution isn’t operating in isolation on rights of voters but has the EC Act to operationalsie it.
Justice Byabakama also called on MPs to amend the law to cater for the registration of voters who would clock 18years, a proposal that was shot down by Ssemujju remarking, “I don’t think the law must be amended. The EC Chairperson simply wants to be conservative in his interpretation because he has made a mistake.”
Katuntu asked EC not to engage in illegalities.
“We are having close to a million voters entitled to vote and you are throwing them out of the constitution. These million voters can swing any election. This isn’t a light matter. This isn’t administrative, it is legal,” Katuntu said.
At this point, Attorney General, Byaruhanga conceded defeat and promised to sit down with Electoral Commission and come up with a statutory instrument on the electoral roadmap.