VOTING DAY!  civic action, not time reduction!

Esther A. Armah

Close the polls one hour early. Instead of 5pm, they should close at 4pm. That is the suggestion of the Electoral Commission Chair, Jean Mensah at the opening ceremony of an ECOWAS-UN Workshop. Their idea is related to security and safety of electoral officers.

Their issue: many voters wait until the last minute to vote.

My question: what about full participatory democracy? What about favorable conditions so citizen’s can exercise their civic duty?

7am. That’s opening time. Complaints often arise that citizens arrival does not coincide with an open polling station. Instead, they line up for hours, wait under Ghana’s unforgiving sun to exercise their civic duty. What about this perennial lateness by polling stations? Why do they consistently open late – in some regions or districts voters lament waiting 2-3 hours for a polling station to open.

The challenge with this close polling stations earlier suggestion, is it fails to fully reckon with the extent of the multiple issues that regularly occur during voting day of a presidential election.

What consequence should there be for polling stations that open late? Telling citizens to be on time, when it is you who are late, is not a satisfactory answer. It is like you telling the doctor you broke your leg, and him suggesting he bandage your arm. The response is unrelated to the issue.

Closing stations early will arguably interfere with millions of citizens’ ability to actually cast a vote for their chosen candidate. It also short-circuits a democracy’s rite of passage – the act of a person going into the ballot booth, casting their vote, making their choice, striking a note for their chosen leadership in the country in which they live, love, build, and contribute to.

Change is necessary. Change is usually unwelcome. Change can be hard. Change that disenfranchises those it is supposed to enable should be treated as unnecessary and unwelcome.

There have been calls to make Voting Day a holiday. Certainly, that suggestion is understandable after President Akufo-Addo approved the Public Holidays (Amendment) Act 2019, in May.

It came after a bill was laid before parliament to amend the Public Holiday Act 2001 to provide for three different holidays. The three new holidays were 7th of January which will be observed as the Constitution Day, the 4th of August will be described as the Founders Day and 21st of September will be Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Day.

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I disagree with making voting day a holiday. Voting is action. It is about participatory democracy. It is about leaving your home to travel to a space where you are engaging in the act of choosing your political leadership for the next four years.

There is an alternative.

Let’s make Voting Day a National Day of Civic Action.

We could match and elevate that action by recognizing that voting is partially about how a country runs, who runs it and what they stand for. Voting Day could instead become a wonderful opportunity for some much-needed civics lessons.

Imagine. Led by the National Commission for Civic Education, and with participation from civil society organizations it could become a day of civic engagement. We could have lessons on our Democracy, and our independence movement.  Restaurants could engage in using food as an act of learning. There could be organizing around sanitation, waste-management and our environment. We could learn about our mineral wealth. We could do the work – we so often don’t do – of ensuring it is a full learning. That means learning about the brilliant women as well as men leaders who engaged, changed, fought for, and reimagined our nation in multiple ways. There are multiple creative methods to do this.

What a day it could become? How transformed might we be as a people when a day in this African nation became about Civic Engagement, Civic activity, civics education. We would truly be a participatory democracy of engaged citizens. We could set an example for the rest of the Continent.

Losing an hour to vote is a bad idea born of a misguided approach to problem solving. Creating a National Day of Civic Action is an act of leadership that would ensure Ghana stands taller with its reputation of political stability. Crucially, it would move beyond  casting a vote to a call for a full day of pure, uninterrupted civic action.

Just imagine.

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‘Committed’ Republic

‘Committed’. That’s the word our President used at the annual three-day Ghana Bar Association conference in Takoradi. He was referring to his commitment to media freedom.

‘Commitment’ is a word that communicates dedication, loyalty, steadfastness, pledges, and promises. In the hands of a politician, its meaning can shift. Indeed, ‘committed’ can be a great political word. Its aim is to silence critique, nullify dissent, and suggest that your commitment means action.

Except it does not always. Not in the practice of politics. Too often the ‘we are committed to’ is classic political speak aimed at diffusing headlines and anger about a given issue, topic, outrage. It works, temporarily. It should not, but it often does.

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One way to really demonstrate that commitment to media freedom will be in the implementation of the RTI Bill. The Right to Information (RTI) Bill is a tool for the media. It is likely to feel like a weapon to our politicians.

The murky mix of press freedom and politician-owned media houses may clash as journalists seek access to documents that enable a better understanding of deals, meeting results and articulated action on past scandals. We may have a scenario of one politically-leaning media house only seeking access to documents aimed at casting political opponents in a bad light, and another retaliating by doing the same. Yes, that could happen. However, if the result is the public are better informed about this often hidden and shadow world of deal-making and politics, then it might not be the worst result. It is certainly not ideal, but idealism and politics are non-existent bedfellows.

How our president, and his government manifests this commitment to press freedom matters. This comes at a time when journalists continue to face harassment and assault on the job. President Akufo-Addo referenced the death of investigative journalist Ahmed Suale, who worked with award-wining undercover investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas.

There are other outstanding alleged assaults on journalists by police officers and civilians – they continue to go either uninvestigated or unresolved.  Press freedom is interconnected with press security. If you are unsafe on the job, you are unfree.  It is that connection – between safety and freedom – that matters in understanding how free our media truly is.

When our journalists lack security, how free are they?

‘No effort is being made to suppress freedom of expression in Ghana. Indeed, the continuing vitality of the Ghanaian media and the intense diversity of our public discourse remain some of the most internationally admired traits of Ghanaian democracy,” said the President.

Press security is becoming a fragile reality. It is made more so by a failure to call to account those who assault journalists on the job.

International admiration is all very well. It cannot and does not replace local security.

Freedom to do your job must also mean security in exercising it.

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