Liberians Voting Abroad: Maximum Participation, International Standards, and Constitutional Prerogative

By John S. Morlu, II


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 17, 2005

Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris
Chair, National Elections Commission
We are going to have the elections in October 2005. All the legal and political maneuverings to postpone the election have failed. We have elections law that pleased the United States, ECOWAS, the United Nations, the EU, and practically all international actors with interests in Liberia. The International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute, two influential organizations in America, have also blessed the election laws. U.S. Ambassador John Blaney is satisfied. UNMIL’s Jacques Klein is satisfied. The Liberian people are satisfied and eagerly awaiting that famous day. It seems to me that we are well on our way to holding this all-important election that will produce only reform-minded leaders to help us navigate our way through the economic and political mess where we find ourselves.

The National Elections Commission is now busy at work developing the rules that reflect the intent of the laws passed by the National Assembly. Information gained from the NEC indicates that the commissioners are contemplating on instituting stringent requirements to limit the growth of the number of candidates, and political parties, including a requirement that parties maintain a minimum of US$30,000 at all times, and that each candidate maintain at least one office in each county. In an article that I published on this website, “How to Constitutionally Limit the Number of Candidates,” I presented some sound recommendations, many of which are already in the Constitution and the Elections Law. We just need to enforce them. I would recommend that the NEC take my recommendations seriously, and refrain from engaging in promulgating rules that are extra-constitutional, as well as disadvantageous to capable Liberian candidates who do not have the financial wherewithal to leave Liberia for a comfortable living in America and Europe.

I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, because these are just discussions within the NEC. But I believe that the NEC is yet again focusing on the wrong issues. The central issues that the NEC should be focusing on are holding credible elections, and securing maximum voter participation through education and outreach. I am glad the voter education aspect will begin January 31, 2005, but the NEC also needs to learn from past mistakes to avoid a repeat of Taylor’s Henry Andrews’ mess, and Doe’s Emmett Hammond fiasco. It would take more than a page or two to discuss how we can avoid the past two general elections in 1985 and 1997. But let’s focus on the maximum participation issue.

Today, we technically have one Liberia. But in reality, we have two sets of Liberians. One living inside the country and the other Liberia scattered all over the world with most of them living in the ECOWAS sub-region, and the United States of America. Dr. Leon Q. Ledlum argued in his article published in The Perspective that the leadership in Monrovia has concentrated its election efforts only on the Liberians living inside the country. That’s partially true. But the two most important issues that held up the election bill were the Census, and the suspension of the ten-year residency requirement. The suspension of the ten-year residency rule was designed to benefit Liberians living outside of the country, who wanted to return home to contest for the presidency, Liberia’s gold mine.

So what is true about Dr. Ledlum’s argument is that the election debate has left out the ordinary Liberians, who fled the country through no fault of their own and cannot afford the $3,000 roundtrip to register and vote in Liberia. Undoubtedly, ordinary Liberians living in the Diaspora are the true victims, and are an astronomically disenfranchised people. Many cannot vote in Ghana. Many cannot vote in Sierra Leone. Many cannot vote in Guinea. And many cannot vote in America and Europe, where they work and pay taxes. Sadly, Frances Morris-Johnson’s NEC now says many of them cannot vote in the Liberian elections either, because the NEC does not want to allow voting overseas, and these people don’t have the resources to go back home just to register and vote. Unfortunately, the NEC had no qualms about arguing that the Assembly vote to suspend the ten-year residency requirement so that some of the candidates who brought the war that drove out these helpless Liberians can stand as candidates in the elections. This is double punishment, and a complete miscarriage of justice. Some of these war mongerers, the perpetrators of crimes of war, and the den of thieves get to participate in the elections, but the victims of the war cannot. Fundamental justice would require that the NEC find a way to allow full and complete participation by all Liberians. But I guess life is not a fair game. Social Darwinism? Survival of the fittest!.

I think there is still room for hope, but we have to make the case. Article 80, (C) of the constitution allows for voting oversees through absentee ballot. It states that “every Liberian citizen shall have the right to be registered in a constituency, and to vote in public elections only in the constituency, and to vote in public elections only into the constituency where registered, either in person or by absentee ballot.” I understand that voting by absentee ballot means you can vote anywhere in the world. And that you don’t have to be physically in the country to register to vote. The NEC needs to maximize total voter participation. Commissioner Morris has indicated that she will not allow voting oversees but if you look at the constitution, Liberians are legally allowed to vote by absentee ballot.

Commissioner Morris can decide to make things easier for all Liberians by having overseas voting, or she can choose the hard way and send out absentee ballots to every Liberian that requests it no matter where they are. It is a constitutional right for Liberians to vote by absentee ballot. They don’t have to pay for it either. The only expense on their part is the cost of postage to request and return the absent ballot. But Presidential Candidate Joseph Korto made a reasonable suggestion in an interview with Winsley Nanka of The Perspective that Liberians in the Diaspora, especially in America be allowed to vote in America but only on the condition that they foot the bill. Fair! But wait a minute. Why can’t the government pick up the tab?

Don’t tell me again that Chairman Bryant says the government does not have money.

I am tired hearing that phrase. Nobody has money, but we see lots of expenditures going on. I guess the spirit is delivering the dole at midnight. Give me a break! Chairman just bought himself two expensive bullet proof jeeps. We also know the Chairman and his government have been spending the Liberian people’s money on all sorts of non-value-added activities…cars and expensive foreign travel. Well, let us do what we are good at - go and ask for more handouts from the U.S. and European treasuries to facilitate overseas voting. But this time we will assure them again for the umpteenth time that we plan to actually spend that money to help Liberians vote in the Diaspora.

A political operative with one of the presidential candidates told me that to vote in America, you must be a taxpayer. So he argued that Liberians abroad have not paid taxes to Liberia so they should not be allowed to vote. He also argued that since Liberians living abroad don’t pay taxes in Liberia, they should pay to vote overseas by absentee ballot. Nonsense! Get real! I have never heard of such a bogus comment coming from a person claiming to be such a political scientist. There is nothing to substantiate that claim that you must be a tax payer to vote in America, or Liberia.

In America, you don’t have to pay taxes to vote. There is nothing on the voter registration card that asks whether you are a tax payer. How about the 18 year old college kid who has never worked but still voted on November 2nd? In America, one has to pay taxes whether you vote or not, or else the Internal Revenue Service will be at your door to drag you to prison. As a matter of fact, this political operative fails to realize that it is the presidential and congressional candidates who are required to provide a tax return; not the voter. I can bet a million dollars that many of the people running have not paid business or income taxes to Liberia. But the Liberian constitution requires that you be a tax payer to run for congress and the presidency. Check it out! Can you imagine in America a presidential candidate, or candidate for any elected office who has not paid taxes? Anyway, Commissioner Morris really has two choices: allow overseas voting or she should be prepared to mail countless numbers of absentee ballots.

We can conduct overseas voting with minimal hassle. We will only need two identification cards. Most Liberians living in the Diaspora have some form of identification proving their Liberian citizenship. For example, a great majority of Liberians in America have a passport, a driver’s license, a lessee passé or a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service issued work permit, which shows a person’s nationality. Many Liberians in refugee camps are registered with the United Nations. We know this because UNMIL is always giving us statistics on the number of Liberians returning home from the ECOWAS sub-region. Anyhow, a combination of U.N. and Liberian embassies’ efforts can issue voter registration cards to any Liberian who needs one. We also have very good statistics of where most Liberians live in America and Europe, so we can establish multiple polling places to enable Liberians to vote.

As a matter of fact, we could even hire an international consulting firm to qualify and facilitate voting overseas to eliminate any potential fraud. The Carter Center, the International Republican Institute, Democratic National Institute, International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), or other non-for profit organizations can be recruited to facilitate the process. Each of these organizations is already in some way involved in the Liberian election. With good planning and logistics, it can be done. We will need to engage in massive public relations efforts to inform Liberians about polling stations. I am sure The Perspective and other Online Liberian news organizations would be more than willing to provide such public service announcements free of charge. But the sooner we start, the better it would be. Being ahead of the curve will prevent some mishaps.

Afghanistan registered more than a million of its citizens in Pakistan and Iran to participate in the elections. Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, against U.S. and U.N. objection, has declared that Iraqi’s living abroad will be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections. Prime Minister Allawi argued on CNN that he wants to do all he can to give every Iraqi the opportunity to participate in his or her country’s election. Prime Minister Allawi put the number of Iraqi’s that would benefit from voting overseas at 2.5 million. But the consensus is that out of the estimated 6 million Iraqi’s living abroad about 1 million are eligible to vote. America alone accounts for 240,000 of that 1 million people. That’s about the estimated number of Liberians living in America.

Today, Iraqis living in America will go to the polls and vote in their elections on January 30. Read the Washington Post article, “Obstacles Plague Absentee Voting for Iraqis in U.S.” The obstacles are merely poor public relations efforts on part of the organization that was recruited to conduct the overseas voting, and the difficulties that most Iraqi’s living abroad have in identifying the myriad of parties and candidates. This is primarily due to the compressed schedule, less than a month. The bottom line is that Iraq’s are going to taste democracy through voting, and the NEC does not want to afford Liberians the same opportunity, and unlike the Iraqis time is clearly on our side. My goodness, even Namibian soldiers that are serving in Liberia were allowed to vote in Liberia.

Of course the United States and the United Nations will argue against overseas voting, because eventually they will have to foot the bill. So the political will to do so must come from the Liberian leadership. In Afghanistan, the political will came from Interim President Hamid Karzai. In Iraq, it is coming from Interim Prime Minister Allawi. In Liberia, Chairman Bryant is missing in action on this topic, and NEC Chairwoman Morris-Johnson does not want to play ball. We are in deep trouble if we don’t figure out a way to make this happen. Liberians living in the Diaspora with no voice, except to complain on the Internet. It will not be a surprise to know that the good people at The Perspective are getting tired filling in the complaint log. We need to act.

So, who do we turn to? ULAA? May be! In my judgment, instead of focusing all of this energy on holding a toothless national conference, ULAA can serve its constituency better by being their advocate. ULAA could mobilize thousands of Liberians it represents to mount some pressure on the NEC and Chairman Bryant to allow full and complete political participation by Liberians in the Diaspora, which includes allowing disadvantaged Liberians to vote overseas. I am glad that Leon Ledlum is talking to Mr. Arthur Watson to take the leadership and do something to help the Liberian people in the Diaspora.

Anthony Kesselly, Chairman of the Board of ULAA, and the entire ULAA leadership should join this cause. This will benefit Liberians living abroad – for example, in such places like Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Rhode Island or Silver Spring. But helping to vote overseas will give them a political voice and some relief from the financial burden of making a trip back home just to register and vote. People assume leadership role to serve a constituency. This is one way for the ULAA leadership to prove that. This is not just a challenge to Kesselly and Watson’s leadership, but it is the right thing to do.

While I applaud Dr. Ledlum’s suggestion that Watson appeal to the NEC to at least extend the registration period closer to election, I think it is a half measure initiative that will only benefit a few people. We need total participation in this election. It is the first time that Liberians are going to make a clear conscious choice for the leadership of their country without Samuel Doe or Charles Taylor looking over their shoulders. Moreover, we are going to be making a fundamental choice in the direction of the country as would be reflected in the leadership we select. So we have to allow everyone the opportunity to be part of that national decision-making, period. Half measures will not do it. It must be full and complete. Every Liberian everywhere must be given the chance to vote. That’s the kind of international standard that the U.S. is always talking about. So let us work together and take the U.S. argument that our elections reforms meet international standard and practice to the U.S. itself.

In my humble judgment, what’s good for the Iraqis and the Afghans is also good for Liberians. I am sure UNMIL Jacques P. Klein, Ambassador John W. Blaney, UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, President Bush, and Prime Minister Toni Blair would agree with me. Each of them would also agree that the amount of money it would take to do this overseas voting at multiple stations would be far less than the benefit received - maximum, maximum, and maximum Liberians participation in the electoral process, especially one that is this important in the history of the oldest African Republic is a benefit that surpasses the cost of conducting the election.

But aside from the United States and U.N. potential opposition to voting abroad, we are going to meet stiff resistance from some political quarters in Liberia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some presidential candidates and their political operatives would be against such a proposal. Why? Because people in the Diaspora are, for the most part, educated and can read between the lines. We also have pretty good ideas of what some of these candidates are, and how some of them have participated to bring our country down. Given the chance, many people in the Diaspora will cast a decisive vote against a significant number of the supposedly presidential candidates. They know that, and that’s why they would oppose it.

But paradoxically, some of these candidates were the direct beneficiaries of the suspension of the ten-year residency requirement that is allowing them to participate as candidates. Some of them have been in America for so long that they have completely lost their beautiful Liberian accent. But now some of them are against other Liberians receiving similar benefit. Hypocrisy? Uh huh. Except Candidate Joseph Korto of LAP, I have not heard any other candidate make an argument to allow Liberians in the Diaspora to vote. I really hope that I am wrong. But can someone let me know which candidates besides Joseph Korto are for Liberians voting in the Diaspora!

Unfortunately, a large portion of our people back home are not that informed, and the NEC is only going to be teaching Liberians how to vote, where to vote, and all the basic information that a person needs to cast a vote. So our people in Liberia will go to the polls to elect people they really don’t know, or never heard of. Liberia is now the land of the most blind people, and dearth people in one room. Who is leading who? It doesn’t matter in my book.

We need to figure out a way to prevent the replacement of “you kill my papa, you don’t kill my papa, I will vote for you” with “you know book, you don’t know book, I will vote for you.” We have to counterbalance this nonsense. Our fellow Liberians living in Liberia are the most immediate threat to this New Liberia that is premised on good governance, sound fiscal management, reasonable macro-economic policies, political and economic freedom, competent judiciary, and shared prosperity. Reasonably assuming that the past is an acceptable predictor of the future, our brothers and sisters in Monrovia and the rest of the country will make the same mistake and elect another corrupt set of people. Some of us are tired whining and complaining on the Internet and in local dailies about this government and that government, and about this government official and that government official.

We have to stop this bickering and do something meaningful to change the situation back home. We can make that resounding choice for change in the right direction. But as I said this before, we cannot rely on the irresponsible segments of our country men and women to do it with their careless boasting “you know book, you don’t know book, I will vote for you.” This is utter nonsense. Think about this. It is estimated that there are 200,000 to 250,000 Liberians living in America alone. That number of people can swing a vote in favor of the most capable and less corruption prone candidate. We have to act now, or else we are going to repeat the same mistake and then complain about it later. We complained about Tubman, Tolbert, Doe, Sawyer, Taylor and Bryant. Rightfully so, since all these people provided mediocre leadership. This is not the place to debate the regimes of any of these presidents and chairmen. But we have a mess on our hands that they collectively left us, and we need to use this election to fix it. Sadly, we, the educated and most informed Liberians in the Diaspora, in particular, can use the power of our vote to counterbalance the foolishness among some of our fellow country men. Where is our so-called leadership?

Clearly, Arthur Watson and Anthony Kesselly’s ULAA needs to act now to represent its constituency, Liberians in the Diaspora. All I am asking is for Author Watson and Anthony Kesselly of ULAA to represent Liberians well, and this would be a measure of the test of leadership that ULAA is providing to Liberians. ULAA can secure the list of the 250,000 people that the National Conference claimed to represent so that we can start a serious mobilization campaign. It can also involve the gazillion county associations from Lofa to Maryland by asking those organizations to work with them on behalf of their constituencies.

I am sure that an online petition process will do the trick. But this must be complemented with intense discussion in Monrovia between ULAA, and the NEC about the need for voting abroad. We cannot tinker on the edges on this issue. We need to think big, and act anew. But thanks again to Dr. Ledlum for thinking about Liberians. I mean real, ordinary Liberians with “inconsequential financial means”, borrowing a phrase from Candidate Varney Sherman who said, “I am not a man of inconsequential financial means.” Yes, he said it in Minnesota. I hope ULAA leadership can accept my recommendations, and act on it immediately. The sooner we act the better we all will see Election Day, October 24, 2005.

Information: Link to the Washington Post Article on Iraqis voting abroad. It is a must read:

About the Author: Mr. John S. Morlu, II is the founder of the Liberian Institute for Public Integrity. He holds an MBA in Finance from Johns Hopkins University, MA in International Commerce and Policy from George Mason University, and BA in Economics and Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. Also, he is a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), Certified Financial Manager (CFM), and Certified Masters in Business Administration (CMBA), Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP), and Level II Candidate in the CFA Program. He can be reached at: