Implications of underage Registration: The Collective Responsibility to Protect Minors

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Quick Facts

  • During the deduplication of the provisional figures from the BVR exercise NEC identified 529 suspected underage voters.
  • Only individuals who were born on or before May 11,
    2005, are allowed to register and participate in the elections.
  • Liberia requires a registrant to be 18 years of age at the time of registration, not on election day as is the case in some countries.
  • The Youth bracket in Liberia is 15-35 years of age, the United Nations defines youth as 15-24 years and African Union defines youth as 15-35 years.

The story of underaged registrants captures one’s imagination in several ways. Is it a strange occurrence? Has this happened before? Are underage registrants being manipulated by adults or do they genuinely feel a strong desire to exercise the right to vote reserved for 18 years and older? The Liberian Constitution grants every Liberian citizen aged 18 years old and above the right to vote. Furthermore, as per Section 5.0 of the Voter Registration Regulation, 2022, any citizen aged 18 years of age or older not disqualified by law, has the right to register during the voter registration process.

During the 2023 Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) exercise, the EISA mission noted that the National Elections Commission (NEC) identified 529 suspected underage voters in its Provisional Registration Roll (PRR). This election will be the first time that Liberia utilizes the BVR system, which employs advanced software algorithms capable of deduplicating registrations and identifying potential underage voters using facial recognition and age-detection software.

In the field, EISA’s observers reported: 

“At a Market BVR center in Lower Bong County, a group of five young ladies formed a short queue following the designated markings. The eldest among them, who appeared to be above 20 years old, went through the registration process successfully. However, when the immigration officer asked the next young girl about her age, she hesitated and was unable to provide satisfactory answers. The registration officer requested her to bring a birth certificate or someone who could vouch for her age. The queue disbanded as it became evident that none of them were even 17 years old. The young girl did not return with the
required documentation.”

“In Bong County a registration center encountered a situation where a 14-year-old boy appeared to be physically mature enough to be mistaken for an 18-year-old. The registration staff asked for a witness, as per the procedure for such cases. The boy’s mother
supported him, but when the father arrived, chaos ensued. This case highlights the integral role parents played in the process with regards to the verification of suspected under-age registrants. Raising critical questions about the consequences for minors and
parents that commit electoral offences.”

During its interactions with election stakeholders, EISA observers reported concerns from political parties regarding their lack of involvement in the deduplication process and removal of underage voters from the register. It was argued that NEC being responsible for registering the suspected underage voters should have included independent stakeholders in the process

In Upper Bong, the NEC magistrate suspended staff who had registered underage voters in several centers on the last day of training exhibition officers. Similar directives were received and implemented in Lofa, Grand Bassa, Nimba, Margibi and River Cess. Problematically, the implementation of this directive lacked consistency, with different Magistrates executing the instruction in vastly different manners. Some Magistrates excluded the officers involved while others reassigned them based on factors like the number of underage voters registered (3 or fewer were retained). Some Magistrates sent the BVR officers to locate the suspected underage voters and retrieve their cards while personally visiting the families of the suspected underage voters.

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It is crucial to note that the decision of whom to register does not rest solely with the NEC officer. Age verification relies not only on documentation such as National ID or Birth Records but also on the testimony of a family member among others. An essential aspect of promoting the universal and equal suffrage principle of inclusivity in the electoral process is the practice of including eligible persons when there is doubt about their eligibility (age or nationality), rather than excluding them outright. In the case of Liberia, the deduplication and exhibition processes are meant to ensure that the Final Voters Roll (FRR) is cleaned as much as possible using technical expertise and public scrutiny.

EISA noted that where suspected underage voters showed up at BVR centers, they were sent home and asked to return with either birth records, parents, guardians, or witnesses to verify their age. While bringing a witness was a prudent strategy, those that testified on behalf of suspected minors did not fill out an affidavit or document that could establish a trail of accountability for the inclusion of these minors in the voters’ roll. Penalizing only the BVR officer may not provide a comprehensive solution to the problem of underage voters. Such an approach assumes that the system was deceived solely by the BVR officers, overlooking the possibility of others who provided false witness to include the suspected underage individual on the voter’s register.

Initially, the NEC announced that the list of underage voters would be submitted to the Ministry of Justice for violating the law, but this decision was later rescinded. Instead, the NEC opted to place the suspected underage voters onto an exclusion list during the exhibition of the Provisional Registration Roll (PRR). The specific punitive measure to be taken by the Ministry of Justice to address the issue of underage voters are not currently public knowledge. The Election Law calls for fines of up to $500 or imprisonment for those who commit election offenses. A legal framework that addresses the challenges associated with underage voter registration is needed to deal with this issue effectively. While the law does not specifically address underage registrants, fraudulent registration is considered an election offense. This means that if a minor provides false information about their age during registration, it could be interpreted as a false statement to election officials.

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It is worth noting that Section 11.42 of the Judiciary Law provides special treatment for minors who come into conflict with the law. This section states that a juvenile over the age of 16 cannot be placed in prison, jail, lockup, or police station unless there is no other safe and suitable detention place available or if it is necessary for their protection or the protection of the public. However, the Elections Law does not provide a clear solution for dealing with underage registrants who violate the law, making it difficult to enforce Section 10.2(a), which prohibits making false statements to Elections Officers during the registration process.

Despite the seriousness of the matter there has been limited sensitization by stakeholders to educate citizens on the implication of underage voters. Liberia’s transition to a BVR system means the voter’s register will be a permanent record that will be updated periodically. The software can de-duplicate multiple registrations, potentially prejudicing current underage voters who may seek to correct their records in the future. If the national registry records are merged at some point, many will be faced with a dilemma of not only being underage but on the wrong side of the law. Minors manipulated to register as adults may be opening themselves up to unwittingly being treated as adults in criminal and civil matters.

Liberia’s BVR system has flagged more than 500 instances of suspected underage registration to the 2023 elections. While it is not clear what has inspired this phenomenon, systematic and well-thought-out interventions are necessary to protect minors in such cases. Collaboration among stakeholders is vital in finding a lasting solution to this issue. As the saying goes, “it takes the whole village to raise a child” and it is the collective responsibility of society to safeguard and protect minors from abuse. In doing so, Liberians will also be safeguarding the credibility of the Final Registration Roll, and the October 2023 elections.

About USAID Support to EISA-IEOM to Liberia: The USAID-funded EISA International Election Observation Mission (EISA-IEOM) Activity seeks to enhance the integrity of the 2023 Liberia Presidential and Legislative elections through the deployment of an independent international election observer mission (EOM) to monitor, assess and report on all phases of the electoral process in accordance with international and regional benchmarks. The IEOM is implemented in close coordination with the financial support of USAID/Liberia and will complement the efforts of other electoral stakeholders.