The impact of invalid votes in African elections requires careful consideration. Invalid votes often result from errors or unclear markings on the ballot. Such ballots might reflect the voter’s intention, but due to incorrect markings or other issues, they are deemed invalid. Invalid votes can have a significant impact on the outcome of an election, especially in close races. Invalid votes can also have a negative impact on public confidence in the electoral process. When many votes are thrown out, it can lead to allegations of irregularities and other malpractices. This can undermine public trust in the legitimacy of the government. There are several factors that can contribute to high rates of invalid votes, but there are also several measures that can be taken to reduce them.
- In 12 of the 15 counties (excluding Margibi, Monsterrado and Grand Gedeh), the number of invalid votes for the Presidential elections were higher than the Senatorial or House of Representatives ballots.
- The highest number of invalid votes recorded at a single polling place was 140 invalid votes in Monsterrado in District 1.
- During counting and tallying processes NEC took measures including recounting procedures and potential corrective measures for specific polling centers.
National Electoral Commission Chairperson Davidetta Browne-Lansanah pronounced the final election results of the 10 October 2023 Liberian Presidential and Legislative elections on 24 October 2023. She noted the record-high turnout of 1,949,155 voters out of 2,471,617 registered, a voter turnout percentage of 78,86%. With the completion of tallying in the re-held elections in two polling places in Nimba District 4 in Beo Luntuo, the Chairperson confirmed that no Presidential candidate had received the constitutionally required 50%+1 vote needed to win in the first round. President George Weah (Coalition for Democratic Change) received the most votes, 804,087 (43.83%) and Ambassador Joseph Boakai (United Party) received 796,961 (43.44%) votes. The NEC announced that a run-off between the standard bearers of CDC and UP would take place on 14 November 2023.
For the Presidential election, NEC announced that 114,597 votes were marked as “Invalid”, constituting 5,89% of the total voters. This was a significant number of votes, and it could have potentially changed the outcome of the election in some races. For example, in the presidential election, the margin of victory was only around 7,000 votes. In such circumstances, the old saying “Every vote counts” is proven to be true.
When many votes are thrown out, it can lead to allegations of irregularities and other malpractices. This can undermine public trust in the legitimacy of the government.
Some stakeholders raised concerns regarding the number of invalid votes, for example, the Liberia CSO Council was quoted as describing the number of invalid votes as “appalling”, while the Women’s Situation Room (WSR) blamed “inadequate” civic and voter education (CVE) for the “staggering” number of invalid votes. However, comparisons with available data suggest that such reactions may be overstating the concerns.
During the 2017 elections, the number of invalid votes was 83,427 (5,14%) out of 1,539,502 votes. While the number of invalid votes did increase relative to 2017, the change in invalid votes does not indicate a new problem, rather a failure to improve. The International IDEA voter turnout database for elections since 2000 indicates that globally, the average invalid vote for all elections is 4,3%. Thus, while the 2023 invalid votes percentage may be higher than the global average, Liberia’s figure is within a normal range.
Responding to media enquiries at the announcement of the results, Chairperson Browne-Lansanah offered several reasons for why votes are considered invalid. These included:
(1) Budget constraints impacted the NEC’s Civic and Voter Education efforts to educate voters on voting procedures.
(2) Illiteracy and poor education levels, particularly in more rural areas of Liberia.
(3) Voters spoiled their ballots intentionally to protest the options on the ballot paper.
(4) More candidates on ballots in 2023 than previous elections, this may bring confusion for voters.
EISA’s Long-Term Observers also noted several complaints submitted to the NEC regarding the number of invalid votes that called for re-counts of specific polling centers. In some cases, after recounts, the number of invalid votes were reduced slightly and changed on the NEC results portal in accordance with election regulations.
While there are many reasons for invalid votes during national elections, and reducing the number of invalid votes in elections is a worthwhile goal, it is important to balance concern over this number against the historical performance of a country’s previous elections, and to benchmark invalid votes against international averages. The importance of civic and voter education as a measure to reduce invalid votes should recognize the importance of supporting budgets that enable this crucial function in electoral democracies like Liberia. Election officials should also be properly trained on how to process ballots and identify invalid votes. Whenever election budgets are tight, electoral commissions often cut funding to civic and voter education. In some cases, international donors fill the gap, but the importance of CVE in strengthening electoral democracy is too important to rely only on external support, and electoral commissions and national governments should review their financial support to the vital function that voter education plays in reducing invalid votes. In this way, governments invest in their most important resource, the voters themselves.
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 by 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.