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Counting on marbles

May 10, 2022
tags:#Gambia, #Africa, #election
by:Frank Odenthal
In The Gambia, parliamentary and presidential elections have relied on marbles instead of paper ballots or voting machines for the past 55 years. But what may appear as a backwards electoral system at first glance is nonetheless persuasive with its simplicity and immunity against voter fraud and suppression.

FairPlanet spoke to Dr. Alieu Sanneh, an expert in electoral processes and regime change in Africa, about a voting system that may well serve as a role model for future elections in order to tackle voter fraud.

FairPlanet: What is the idea behind The Gambia's usage of marbles instead of paper or digital ballots in the elections?

Dr. Alieu Sanneh: This form of voting was first introduced in 1965 when The Gambia gained its independence from the United Kingdom. The British at that time were looking for a way of transition where the Gambians were to have control of their elections and their democratic processes, and where they could vote for candidates of their choices.

One problem at that time was that the illiteracy rate was very high, so they were looking for a system that is locally applicable and would allow for mass participation of people, including those who are illiterate. For them, the most important thing is to be able to identify who they are voting for and exercise their democratic right without hindrance. In other words, they didn‘t want to implement a system that is elite-driven, but one that is open to everybody.

That‘s why they introduced the marbles voting system. And it was and still is something unique to The Gambia, as far as I know. You won‘t find that anywhere else in the world.

Another reason for why this system was introduced in The Gambia - besides the high level of illiteracy - was that The Gambia is a very small country. Today, its population is about two million, but at that time the number was significantly lower. So it was a very efficient way of conduction elections.

How exactly does marble voting work?

The system itself is simple. It consists basically of three items. There is the metallic cylinder which is made in The Gambia by local welders. There are the marbles which are imported. And there is the tray which is a squared box dotted with holes in it that are numbered. So during the voting process the marbes are fitted into the holes for easy counting. In a full-sized tray, people already know how many marbles votes are contained if you spread it out.

"They didn‘t want to implement a system that is elite-driven, but one that is open to everybody."

A fraud-resistant system? 

In one of your recently published articles you claimed that this system of using marbles is more resistant to fraud. Could you explain why?

Yes. The way in which elections are organised in The Gambia, each of the six Gambian regions are divided into voting constituencies, and where you register is where you vote. You get your voting card from the election office where you‘re registered, and after double-checking your voting card with your ID at the time of election, you then get your finger inked to prevent you from double voting, before you are issued the marble to vote.

Then inside the voting booth there are cylinders where you put in your marble. The number of cylinders of course depends on the number of candidates. These candidates are easy to identify with the cylinder painted in their party‘s colours and their portraits being attached to them.

Now, and that is immensly important, each and every party is represented at each of the voting stations by their agents. The polling stations are headed and supervised by a group of individuals representing the Independent Electoral Commission, and local and international observers are given unrestricted access to monitor and report on the voting process. When the polls are closed, the marbles are then being counted on the spot!

Which is important for the integrity of the voting process...

Exactly. And how it is supervised is that the Independent Electoral Commission has representatives who are in charge of the polling procedures, and at the same time candidates have their agents there as well. And on top of that there are observers to monitor the electoral process and make sure there is no intimidation or any other form of harrassment.

The voting cylinders with the marbles inside are opened right in front of all these people and counted right there on the spot. So every candidate and their agents can count their votes right there, so they know the results even before they are officially announced by the Independent Electoral Commission. Then they are sealed, again, right in front of them and are transported to the main election headquarters for confirmation. Typically, in other countries with other voting systems the transportation of the votes is where elections got interfered and rigged. But here the votes are counted on the spot, at the source, in front of everybody.

Was it part of the process right from the beginning in 1965 to count the votes right on the spot?

Counting on the spot was introduced by former Gambian president Jammeh in 2016. Of course you can say he was a dictator, he oppressed people, the elections were not fair, but there you are talking about the process that led up to the elections. But Jammeh didn‘t interfere with the system, because he was confident that he was always winning.

He has even stated that "Gambian election is rig-proof" and believed in the transparency of the process. And as he introduced counting on the spot, that gave even some extra-transparency to it.

At the end of the day, if there are any discrepancies in the way the results are reported by the Independent Electoral Council (any party representative can say he recorded a different figure at that polling station) they can dispute that, and it would be easy to prove that in the court of law.

Would you consider the most recent election in The Gambia in 2021 a successful election in terms of accountability and transparency?

The election was transparent, and it was one of the most peaceful elections. It was free of intimidation, as far as I can tell. Now we can argue about incumbent power. The incumbent has more power than the opposition, as he is able to use state ressources. So you could argue that this wasn‘t fair, because there‘s no even hand when it comes to players. But that‘s a question of reforming the elecoral process. For example, if you want to stop the incumbent from using state resources to campaign or if you want the opposition also to be funded to provide a level playing field.

But when it comes to the process itself, this was the freest and fairest electoral process in terms of the proceedings of the voting.

"The votes are counted on the spot, at the source, in front of everybody."

You‘ve mentioned President Jammeh, who was in power for twenty-three years until 2017. What were elections like during that period in terms of openness and fairness?

In the days of Jammeh as president you could get into trouble when you were working for the government and supporting opposition; you could lose your job, for example or you may have ended up in jail. So there was obviously intimidation of the opposition.

Now, with all the reservations that I‘m having regarding our current president Barrow with regard to rampant corruption, insecurity in the country, the failing healthcare system and the rise of dangerous ethnic politics in the country, he had created a free environment where people could politically associate with whoever they want without being intimidated or going to jail.

Would you say that the electoral system using marbles contributed to the political stability of today‘s Gambia?

Yes, because it provided an avenue for disputing parties to file lawsuits in the court rather than on the streets, provided they have evidence for any voter rigging.

In fact, three opposition leaders came together when the votes were announced, and rejected the results saying it was rigged. But they couldn‘t provide any evidence at all. The results that were counted on the spot exactly matched what has been reported later to the headquarters of the electoral commission. There was no sign for fraud at all, the tallies were seen and cross-checked, the results were exactly the same as has been reported from the grassroots, from the local polling stations.

Therefore the electoral system provides stability to The Gambia. Using marbles is an offline grid, and while it may take some time to tally the results, it cannot be hacked by any external actor to change the results.

The fact that the process is free from inteference, in addition to internal protection mechanisms put in place to protect the vote, served as a boost to public confidence in upholding the integrity of the elections in the country. It‘s more like all hands on deck. 

A role model for other nations 

It is unlikely, though, that all countries in the world will switch to casting votes with marbles. But could the Gambian system become a role model for truthful and fair election processes, at least in other countries in Africa where voter fraud is still rife?

Yes. I think a lot of African countries, especially those riddled with post-conflict situations, should copy The Gambian system of voting. And my reasons for that are that this system of voting is transparent, it‘s off the grid, so it‘s free from internet or external interference and allows for the decisions to be cross-checked right at the source.

If all these mechanisms that are being operated in The Gambia are implemented in any country, there‘s a chance that it will create more transparency; it would reduce post-electoral violence and  increase public confidence in the voting process.

I know that many African countries pay attention to the elecoral process in The Gambia. But many african leaders are not concerned about the question of transparency and accountability when it comes to voting. They want to win the elections at all costs, and continue to stay in power. Their main concern is: How can I retain power?

Some have even changed their constitutions to stay beyond their term limit. In such a situation, it would not be in the interest of those leaders to organise free and fair elections. They would rather worry about coup d’etats or mass uprising than a peaceful democratic transfer of power through the ballot box. 

"Many African countries pay attention to the electoral process in The Gambia."

Has the Gambian system been recommended by the United Nations or the African Union?

The African Union has looked at it with keen interest. But, like I said, it‘s up to individual preferences who wants to adopt the system. They‘ve sent observers to The Gambia, and they‘ve always spoken very highly about the efficiency of this process.

As a scholar that is interested in elections as a process guaranteeing peaceful tranfer of power, one of my primary concerns is the rising anti-democratic forces casting doubts on the results of elections without any factual basis to support the claims of voter fraud.

I am afraid that the allegations of rigged elections are becoming a strategy for losing parties, and this is very dangerous for democracy, as it increases the prospect of creating political instability in a country, just as we have witnessed in the United States with the storming of Congress to prevent the confirmation of the winners of the election.

At the end of the day, election is a game of numbers, when you have them, you win and when you don‘t have them you will lose; any candidate should be honorable enough to accept defeat and move on. And for all those who are concerned about free and fair elections, the Gambian marble voting system may be simple but its simplicity provides a strong appeal for any country to consider. 

Dr. Alieu Sanneh is an independent polical analyst and researcher focussing on elections and regime changes in Africa. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Missouri-St.Louis. He was born in The Gambia.

Image by Commonwealth Secretariat

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Dr. Alieu Sanneh.
© Alieu Sanneh
Dr. Alieu Sanneh.
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The British introduced the marbles voting system as a system that is not elite-driven, but open to everybody.
© SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images