IFES Supports Voter Registration Pilot in Myanmar

Voter education activities in Myitkyina, Kachin State.

Following national elections in 2010 and by-elections in 2012 in Myanmar, national and international stakeholders leveled significant criticism at the country’s voter list, calling it inaccurate. In response, the Union Election Commission (UEC) has committed to improving the national voter list prior to the 2015 national election.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has provided support to the UEC to address this challenge. As a first step, IFES supported the UEC’s development of a five-year Strategic Plan that recognizes that in order to have a more transparent, inclusive and credible electoral process, deficiencies in the voter list must be corrected to make the list both more inclusive and more accurate.

The objectives laid out in the Strategic Plan include developing a centralized, computerized database for the voter list; testing new software; training data entry officers; voter education; observation and stakeholder engagement through a pilot exercise; and holding lessons-learned conferences to gather recommendations for improving the process of updating the voter list before launching the subsequent national registration exercise.

From May to August 2014, IFES Myanmar assisted the UEC in designing and implementing the Voter List Update Pilot in three pilot areas representative of three different contexts: 1) a high-density urban population area home to a number of migrant workers in Yangon; 2) a rural area home to ethnic minority groups in Myanmar in northern Chin state; and 3) a conflict area in Kachin State with a high number of internally displaced persons.

IFES facilitated a series of regional and national workshops following the pilot to capture lessons learned and formulate recommendations. The diverse group of stakeholders involved in the pilot – including national and sub-national UEC staff, ward/village tract officials, Ministry of Home Affairs officials and representatives from 27 civil society organizations (CSOs) – have provided the UEC with useful feedback on the effectiveness of procedures and recommendations to consider prior to modifying the national plan for updating the voter list and launching it in October 2014.

Many of the successes in the pilot can be attributed to the network of stakeholders. Their involvement in educating voters, assisting communities to amend voter lists, observing the process and submitting reports with recommendations for improvement were invaluable. The UEC set a precedent by providing CSOs with accreditation to support the voter education process and to observe the full voter registration pilot.

To facilitate a constructive environment, IFES supported the UEC’s weekly stakeholder meetings with CSOs and local government officers in the pilot locations to coordinate activities, address challenges and jointly find solutions. Stakeholder meetings became a constructive environment that increased transparency, helped build trust and ensured stakeholders were aware of UEC procedures.  

Some of the findings highlighted issues that need to be improved, namely better cooperation between all stakeholders at all levels, especially at the ward/village tract level. The glitches in the database software need to be fixed to avoid any errors or loss of data. More UEC staff training is needed to familiarize them on the software, the data from household lists and logbooks handed over from local government offices needs to be updated, and a  number of names, particularly those from ethnic minorities in the country, need to be updated to correct for misspelling.

Mobilizing voters to check their names on the voter list in an urban environment proved to be more challenging than in a rural settings where it was easier to reach voters through targeted outreach campaigns. In all locations, voter lists need to be easier to read and easier to search for one’s name, voters need more assistance filling out forms and more information on how to transfer their vote to another constituency, and they need more information on how to apply for advance voting and how to obtain a national identity card. The UEC also needs to develop a policy to providing written notices for those whose applications to be added have not been accepted and to inform voters of the appeal process.

Building on the success of the pilot, these useful findings have yielded solid recommendations for improving the voter list in advance of the 2015 elections. The national registration exercise will aim to capture more than 25 million names in 330 townships over the next year and provide a sustainable database that can be updated for subsequent elections.