11th hour SC order means loss of millions, voter education hampered

Published On: November 2, 2017 07:03 AM NPT By: Bhadra Sharma

KATHMANDU, Nov 2: The eleventh-hour order issued by the Supreme Court to arrange two separate ballot papers has caused a loss of millions to state coffers, jeopardized the nationwide voter education program and complicated other poll preparations. 

Just when the Election Commission (EC) had deployed 19,809 officials to educate voters on how to cast their votes, the apex court in the last week of October asked the election body to print separate ballot papers under the First-Past-the-Post electoral system.

 Furthermore, the printing of voter education materials worth millions was about to be completed. 
“As per preliminary estimates,  voter education materials worth Rs 90 million are now to be destroyed. And we need a similar amount of money [Rs 90 million] to print the revised education materials,” said Surya Prasad Aryal, head of the Election Education Information Center (EEIC), adding, “It has also complicated the process of educating voters as the training for key trainers have already been completed.” 

Election officials working on the voter education materials and other logistics said 10 types of education materials, including 1,500,000 pieces of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), were printed when the court order to revise the ballot papers came. Flipcharts, posters, pamphlets and mock ballot papers have turned useless. “Twelve private printing firms were assigned to provide voter education materials by the end of October. They have informed us that all the materials have already been printed. And we are now in the process of destroying them,” said EEIC head Aryal.  

The EEIC is preparing to table a new proposal on voter education. But keeping the invalid vote low remains a tall order. Social mobilizers have already been appointed but this has now become useless. Confused over the changed ballots and voting system, the trainer social mobilizers have not yet moved out to their assigned work areas. 

The EC was preparing to mobilize voter education officials for a month starting November 2 for the first round of elections taking place in 37 election constituencies in 32 districts.  “Even if we manage to reprint the revised voter education materials, they [social mobilizes] will be on the ground for hardly  15 days for the first round parliamentary and provincial assembly elections,” said Aryal. 

The EC is being widely criticized for changing the voter education after having already spent millions. Informed election experts and officials have cited growing misuse of voter education funds as a major reason behind the high invalid vote in recent elections. 

To avoid past mistakes, the EC has allocated more than Rs 1 billion for conducting an effective voter education program. The budget allocated for voter education, according to officials, is likely to go to waste this time.  The officials said a huge amount has already been wasted and there will be few days left to go to the public when the revised voter education materials are ready.  

 The EC spent Rs 750 million for voter education in the recent local elections, but the invalid vote remained as high as 22 percent in some local units. The election body has not made public the integrated invalid vote percentage so far. 

EC Spokesperson Navaraj Dhakal said that they are yet to accurately calculate the loss incurred by the changes made. 

 Dhakal said the election body now has to mobilize an additional 20,000 people to handle the additional ballot papers and 20,000 ballot boxes to accommodate the two ballot papers. The EC should provide 121 percent of total salary as incentive and various other allowances. “Vote counting will also take longer. That means millions in additional funds will be required as salary and perks for officials deployed for election management,” he said. 

Dhakal said the EC estimates that a huge amount will be spent arranging separate ballot papers for parliamentary and provincial assembly elections. Following the court order to print separate ballot papers, the EC needs to print an additional 17.4 million ballots. This alone will cost at least Rs 170 million. On average it costs Rs 10  to print one ballot.

Apart from arranging the election materials, election officials said costs will also increase for transporting the  additional 17.4 ballot papers. Previously, the EC had planned to use buses to transport 80 percent of the materials, with the remaining materials to be transported by helicopter. EC officials say they may have to rely more on helicopters now. Transportation costs will jump when helicopters are used instead of buses. 

After the apex court ordered the printing of two separate ballot papers--one for parliamentary and another for provincial assembly elections--the election body is struggling to manage things accordingly. The supreme court order came just when the EC was about to complete its administrative and logistical preparations.

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