The agony of being an election official in Kenya

On the surface of it, the job of an electoral official may pass for a regular opportunity to make money. But beneath the rewards that come with it lies a tough test of resilience and bravery, but mostly, a measure of patriotism.

From days of sleeplessness to hunger, physical fatigue and mental exertion, the cold and crowd aggression, being charged with officiating an election is perhaps the most wearisome and thankless job in Kenya.

While delivering a free, fair and credible election is a tall order, merely ensuring a successful election, quality notwithstanding, is a nerve-racking affair. The poll officials forfeit their sleep and comfort and even risk their lives, just to conduct the poll.

The agony cannot even be compared to queuing for long hours in sweltering sun or cold to cast ballots. 

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IEBC officials pore over the results for the fresh Presidential Election at the Embakasi West Constituency tallying centre on the night of October 26, 2017. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The presiding officers and their deputies are charged with the safety of all electoral material and equipment. The officials collect the items on the eve of the election and dispatch them to various polling stations across the country.

While queuing to vote is taxing, a lot more goes on behind the scenes to just get the voting material ready for the voting day. Electoral officials have to work round the clock, traversing the counties in the dead of night, usually under tight police security and sometimes in hostile weather. The officials sometimes run into the path of bandits and other criminals who may want to destroy the voting material. They have to ward these off just to ensure safe delivery of the voting material at the various stations.  

Then there is aggression from members of public on the voting day. Together with the police, the electoral officials are charged with ensuring that the voting process goes on smoothly even in the harshest of conditions, facing insults, jeers and even physical harm from violent voters.

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Returning Officer for Mvita Constituency Hussein Omar with Form 34B after announcing the results at the Tudor Day Secondary School ON October 27, 2017. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The hostilities witnessed in parts of Kisumu, Siaya, Homabay and Migori where electoral officials were attacked, beaten up and the commission’s property vandalised are testament to the height of insecurity faced by those who sign up for the job of conducting an election. 

After the completion of the process, the Presiding Officer (PO) and the Deputy Presiding Officer (DPO) are supposed to account for all the voting material and equipment to the IEBC. This involves the physical counting of the KIEMS kit, the ballot papers and ballot boxes, stationery and other facilities such as gas lamps before returning them to the commission.

The presiding officer in each polling station is penalised for the loss of or damage to any of the electoral commission’s items under his or her custody, which also includes a jail term.

While it is often merry for voters after exercising their democratic right, for the electoral officials, the closing of the voting exercise in the evening marks the beginning of the real work; counting of ballots, verifying the results and tallying them, a tedious process that yields fatigue, boredom and even vexation.

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IEBC officials from various polling centers in Starehe Constituency at the tallying center on October 27, 2017. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

In a country with a history of electoral conflict, and where statistical errors are sure to trigger a vicious cyclone of carnage, no one in their right frame of mind, unless for reasons of malice, would want to err in the minutest way. For fear of erring, the officials sometimes overdo the scrutiny of the results, to the disenchantment of the observers, agents and the public. 

Whereas voting clerks leave for home upon the completion of the counting process, presiding officers (POs) and the deputy presiding officers (DPOs) have to accompany the ballot boxes and other IEBC equipment to the constituency tallying centres for the last and most strenuous phase of the election: tallying of the results.

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IEBC official inks finger of an inmate at Kamiti Maximum Prison on during the repeat presidential election. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

At the tallying centres, the teams from across the constituency are served according to their time of arrival. Then the long wait starts, as the teams queue for hours on end as they await to be admitted and cleared, a process that goes on for more than ten hours.

In a populous constituency such as Kasarani with 146, 701 registered voters, the process could drag on for a dozen or more hours. The agony is six times as much during the General Elections with six representatives being elected.

The election night is perhaps the most tormenting night for the presiding officers and their deputies, and this week was no less unforgiving. Poll officials had to brave the stinging cold and rain, with some being swept in floods following the heavy rains that have been witnessed in the country in the past two weeks.

ELECTION NIGHT

On the election night, the electoral supervisors, the young, the old, men and women alike sprawl in haggard abandon in verandas and cold floors in an attempt to catch forty winks as they await their turn to be cleared.

But the lethargy is nothing compared to the mind-numbing process of tallying the results. This entails crosschecking if the results and figures entered in Form 34As tally with those fed into the KIEMS kit, a sensitive process that is conducted with split-second keenness to avoid clerical and statistical errors.

The Returning Officer, with the burden of delivering a free, fair and credible process, leaves nothing to chance, and often puts the POs and DPOs to task to ensure that figures from their polling stations are free from any disparities and inaccuracies.

FATIGUE

This, the officials do, on sometimes empty stomachs, drowsiness and fatigue. Yet the slightest inconsistencies in the process is unpardonable.

Poll officials who spoke to the Nation on condition of anonymity said that some of these errors arise from the lassitude of working for long hours and the anxiety on them to deliver a credible election.

”It is not practical to work for three days and nights nonstop and still exhibit the same vitality after the third day. It becomes overwhelming, boring and even maddening,’’ said one of them.

That most of these officials work on a temporary basis is even more pitiful. After the job, they receive their dues, after which they cut ties with the electoral agency and move on.

”We do this more out of patriotism than for the money. If it were for reasons of the monetary reward, then the hassle would deter most people,’’ said Brian Mulindi, who was charged with reproduction of electoral documents at the Kasarani Constituency tallying centre.

COLD FOOD

Mulindi is a student of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

”My initial intention when applying for this job was to augment my income as a student. But I later discovered that the money part was in fact not a motivation at all. There is so much pain than joy in the job. I am, however, happy to have participated in the election,’’ Mulindi said.

The refreshments provided to the officers are also not what would normally excite anyone’s palate. Bread, soda, water and milk are provided in plenty.

The caterers hired to provide food at the tallying centres leave the polling officials as soon as they have delivered the food, and many times personnel have to grapple with cold food all night.   

‘NOT FOR THE MEEK’

The officers, nonetheless, have to nurse the available provisions in a desperate bid to quell the pangs of starvation as the night reluctantly wears on.

A poll official who identified herself only as Agnes told the Nation that the job of a poll official is not for the meek.

”You have to forget about all your comforts for a week for you to work here. As a student, it is a good experience for me because it exposes me to the realities of life after university,’’ said Agnes.

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