Lying voters face jail term

HARARE - Government has gazetted a new law which jails people who falsify information on proof of residence during the voter registration exercise which the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) is expected to open to the members of the public ahead of next year’s crucial vote.

The new regulations come as legal experts and civic society groups have expressed their disquiet over the requirement to show proof of residence during the voter registration exercise — arguing that this is exclusionary and would discourage people from participating in the eagerly-awaited 2018 polls.

In new regulations carried in Friday’s government gazette it is an offence to provide false information during voter registration and offenders would face jail of up to a year. 

“Any person who makes a false statement in a residence affidavit shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level ten or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding level 10 or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding a year or to both,” reads part of the new regulations.

The regulations also include the control of persons in premises used for registration whereby any person who disobeys an instruction of a voter registration officer given to maintain order shall be fined of jailed for up to a year or both According to Zec, prospective voters can obtain an affidavit to confirm their residency from a landlord, parent, friend, hospital, school head, and public institution, employer, councillor, farm owner, traditional leader, or any other documents with and address.

Civic and opposition groups have accused Zec and the government of discouraging potential voters from casting their votes due to their insistence on proof of residence.

“Most urban youths do not own homes and find it difficult to obtain proof of residence being demanded by Zec while those in rural areas will be exposed to the whims of compromised traditional leaders to obtain proof of residence which will be given on condition that each headman will vote with his/her village in the now famous ‘Sabhuku nevanhu vake/usobhuku labantu bakhe’ tactic.

“The disproportionate distribution of registration centres under the proposed biometric voter registration (BVR) is designed to make it cumbersome to register in urban areas while making it easy but albeit much more exposing to register in rural areas,” said Crisis In Zimbabwe Coalition in a statement.

Constitutional law expert Alex Magaisa, while admitting that the proof of residence as a qualification for voter registration was in the Fourth Schedule of the Constitution, it did not make residential requirements mandatory. “Section 2 of the Fourth Schedule states as follows: “The Electoral Law may prescribe additional residential requirements to ensure that voters are registered on the most appropriate voters roll, but any such requirements must be consistent with this Constitution, in particular with section 67.”

“It is on this basis that the Electoral Law and regulations provides for residential requirements but it is important to scrutinise the meaning and impact of this provision. 

“First, this provision does not make residential requirements mandatory. Rather, it says “the Electoral Law MAY prescribe additional residential requirements …” which means it is optional.

There is no obligation to impose residential requirements and they can be done away with if they are inconvenient to voters.

It is arguable that where such residential requirements may lead to exclusion of voters, these requirements may be excluded,” Magaisa argued in his blog yesterday.

“Second, the decision to impose residential requirements is subject to an important qualification: they “must be consistent with the Constitution, in particular section 67”. 

The use of the word “must” means it is mandatory for additional residential requirements to be consistent with the Constitution and specifically section 67.

“Section 67 is part of the Declaration of Rights and provides for political rights. One of these political rights is the right to vote as provided for in section 67(2). The right to vote is a fundamental right which enjoys precedence and special protection.

“The intention behind the qualification is that additional residential requirements must not unduly interfere with or compromise the right to vote. If therefore additional residential requirements dilute and affect the right to vote, they can’t be consistent with the Constitution or section 67.

In my view, there is a strong argument against the imposition of additional residential requirements that compromise the right to vote,” added Magaisa. 

The former advisor to MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai during the inclusive government, when he was prime minister, said the additional residential requirements affect the exercise of the right to vote.  Magaisa said there were gender, class and age implications attached to the additional residential requirements which the Electoral Law imposes. 

“First, most young people, the youth, have great difficulty providing proof of residence. In the past, these rules have had to be relaxed to ensure that the requirement does not exclude the youth. Second, most women, suffer the same difficulty as the youth since the majority of properties or even rent documents are registered in the names of men.  

“The class issue is relevant in that compared to their wealthier and property owning counterparts, most poor people struggle to provide proof of residence. Most would have to rely on the cooperation of their landlords. 

“Indeed, there are also homeless people who do not even have proof of residence. A voting system that discriminates between the rich and poor is not fit for that purpose,” said Magaisa.

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