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PNG's unreliable electoral roll

16 August 2017   |   Analysis   |   By Sean Dorney

This is the second of several articles by the Lowy Institute’s Non-Resident Fellow and former long-time Papua New Guinea Correspondent, Sean Dorney, who was in PNG for the elections as part of the Commonwealth’s PNG Election Observer Mission. 

A voter marks her ballot during elections in Papua New Guinea.
Photo: Flickr, Commonwealth Secretariat
A voter marks her ballot during elections in Papua New Guinea.

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    Voting in the recently concluded 2017 PNG Elections went on for more than two weeks but early on the very first day – at the very first polling station I attended to witness voting – I heard a woman being told her name was not on the electoral roll and turned away.

    This was at the Patep Mahomba polling station, in a rural area of the Bulolo Open electorate in the Morobe Province. This woman was among those who had waited patiently while a temporary polling station was erected in the open air by electoral officials who hammered stakes and strung up ropes to define the perimeter. As she left, somewhat frustrated, I approached her and she told me she had been on the roll in 2012. 'We voted over there,' she said, pointing to another clearing on the other side of the Bulolo road.

    It was a story that Lorna Simon – Supervisor of Elections for the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda – and I were to hear again and again in the next two weeks as we travelled to 42 other polling stations across rural Morobe, Lae city and various parts of the West New Britain Province. Together Lorna and I were one of eight teams the Commonwealth Secretariat dispatched to 15 provinces in all four regions of PNG as part of the Commonwealth’s 2017 PNG Election Observer Mission.  

    Complaints about the state of the common roll were the major and most common grievance we heard. While some of the other teams – especially those who went to the Highlands – witnessed exceptionally unorthodox voting behaviour, every team heard from many people who wanted to vote but were told their names were not listed. And this was when the common roll was used: in some places – including some of the stations we visited in Lae – it was abandoned. Anyone who lined up was allowed to vote.

    At the Kuludagi Polling Station in the Talasea Open electorate in West New Britain – almost hidden in a maze of criss-crossing roads on an enormous palm oil plantation – we caught up with the Talasea Returning Officer who acknowledged the seriousness of the electoral roll problem. He estimated that in Talasea as many as one in four intending voters were being turned away, their names not on the list.

    The 2017 electoral roll was developed for the 2007 election, updated first in 2012 and then again this year. The Commonwealth Observer Mission to the 2012 PNG elections reported considerable problems with the roll and recommended 'urgent action' be taken to fix these. Whatever the 'fix' that was attempted, it appears to have made the problem worse; names were obviously culled that should not have been.

    The PNG Electoral Commission was never allocated the funds it needed to conduct a thorough updating and revising of the roll. The PNG Government did launch a national identity card registration system in 2014 but, although millions of Kina went into the exercise, fewer than 200,000 people have been registered. And, anyway, there is no legal or administrative rule to allow the sharing of that information with the Electoral Commission.

    Alongside the unreliability of the roll are massive issues surrounding the number of voters in each Open electorate.

    In Laigap-Porgera Open in the Enga Province in the Highlands, some 129,966 votes were counted, while in Goilala Open in the Central Province (inland from Port Moresby) the number of votes cast was barely one-sixth of that at 21,305.

    Under PNG law, Open electorates should be roughly the same size, with a 20% differential allowed. So, having an Open electorate six times the size of another is not only illegal but is at odds with Papua New Guinea’s international undertakings to follow 'best practice' in its commitment to democracy.

    There have been regular reviews of PNG’s electoral boundaries since Independence, however none have been adopted. This means the 89 Open electorates have the same boundaries now as they did in 1972 – 45 years ago!

    The reason for the lack of change is because the Parliament can either 'accept or reject, but not alter' the Boundaries Commission’s recommendations. And Parliament has rejected every report because the majority of Members don’t want changes to areas where they have already spent their funds, or to have to win over new constituents.      

    Everywhere you turn there are challenges. As already mentioned, the 2017 roll was abandoned altogether in a few of the polling stations we visited. This also happened a lot in the Highlands and so in many Highlands electorates every single ballot paper was used up. In contrast, in the coastal and island provinces, where the roll was followed, quite a few ballot papers were left over when the polling stations closed for the day.

    We witnessed demands by scrutineers in one polling station that these leftover ballot papers be burnt because the scrutineers feared they would be filled out in secret and inserted into the ballot boxes before counting.

    One of Papua New Guinea’s most debilitating problems is a nationwide lack of trust.

    This article was originally published on the Lowy Institute's online magazine The Interpreter, and is reproduced here with permission.