ZAFOD Preliminary Statement – 12 August 2021 Election Day Observation for Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities

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Justine Bbakali

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ZAMBIA FEDERATION OF DISABILITY ORGANISATIONS

Preliminary Statement on the Observation of the 2021 General Elections

13 August 2021

  1. Summary

The Zambia Federation of Disability Organisations (ZAFOD) observed both the pre-election environment and election day processes in 60 districts across all 10 provinces of Zambia as part of the organization’s thematic observation of the 2021 general elections. In the pre-election period, ZAFOD deployed 20 long-term observers (two per province) and for election day, ZAFOD deployed 74 short-term observers as well as 20 mobile observers to polling stations across the country. The short-term observers, all of whom were duly accredited by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), arrived at their assigned polling station and polling stream at 05:30 hours and remained there throughout the polling station setup and opening, voting, and counting until the official results for all electoral races for the entire polling station were publicly announced and posted. The goal of ZAFOD’s thematic observation of the 2021 elections was to assess the accessibility of electoral processes for persons with disabilities andto make elections more transparent by providing systematic factual information on the conduct of the process, with a particular focus on the inclusion of persons with disabilities.

While ZAFOD welcomes the incremental progress that has been made by the ECZ, political parties and other electoral stakeholders over the last two electoral cycles to improve the accessibility of elections, ZAFOD notes with concern that the organisation’s initial observation findings indicate that electoral processes in Zambia remain inaccessible for many persons with disabilities, undermining the right to equal participation and in contravention of the Government of Zambia’s legal obligations under domestic and international law.

  1. Accessibility and Elections in Zambia

September 2021 will mark the ten year anniversary of the landmark Sela Brotherton vs. ECZ court case, in which the High Court ruled that persons with disabilities were being unlawfully discriminated against and prevented from freely exercising their right to vote due to the inaccessibility of polling stations, and that the ECZ must implement measures to remedy this. The ruling stipulated that, among other actions, the ECZ should install ramps, ensure that polling stations are located on the ground floor and in places that are accessible for persons with disabilities, and provide a tactile ballot guide for voters who are blind or visually impaired. The ECZ was also required to develop a detailed action plan and budget for the 2016 elections to ensure the equal participation of persons with disabilities.

In 2016, ZAFOD took part in election observation under the umbrella of the Foundation for Democratic Process (FODEP) observation activities. As noted in the 2016 final observation report of the EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), “ZAFOD commended ECZ for its efforts to increase accessibility,” including moving polling stations to the first floor and installing ramps in some locations. As a result, the EU EOM assessed that 72 percent of polling stations were accessible for persons with disabilities. However, the report also noted several shortcomings, including inadequate voter education for persons with disabilities, and a lack of sign language interpretation during voter registration.

Unfortunately, despite the progress made between the 2011 Brotherton ruling and the 2016 general elections, ZAFOD’s observation of the 2021 general elections found that the measures in place to ensure the equal participation of persons with disabilities have not improved since 2016 and, in some areas, have worsened. While directly comparable data between 2016 and 2021 is not available, 62 percent of ZAFOD observers reported that the observed polling stations were accessible for persons with disabilities in 2021, a decrease from the EU EOM’s assessment of 72 percent of polling stations being accessible in 2016. ZAFOD also notes that, unlike in 2016, no action plan or budget was publicly released by the ECZ for the 2021 general elections, which reduced transparency and the ability of civil society organizations to provide feedback and oversight on accommodations for persons with disabilities.

  1. Select Observation Findings

Pre-Election Environment

ZAFOD’s observation of the pre-election environment found that persons with disabilities were relatively well-represented in voter education and campaign activities, with 68 percent of long-term observers reporting having witnessed or heard about voter education activities targeting persons with disabilities by the ECZ. 48 percent of ZAFOD observers also witnessed or heard of distribution of voter education materials in accessible format for persons with disabilities. In addition, 30 percent of long-term observers reported campaign messages and materials targeting persons with disabilities by PF, 22 percent reported similar messages and materials by UPND, and 14 percent reported messages and materials by other political parties.

ZAFOD welcomed the fact that at least 12 candidates on the ballot on August 12, including four at the parliamentary level, were persons with disabilities. However, these candidates reported facing stigma and 15 percent of ZAFOD long-term observers reported hearing threatening, abusive or insulting language towards candidates with disabilities. In one case a candidate also noted that he has received little to no support from his nominating party as compared to other candidates without disabilities in his party. While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused challenges for all candidates during the campaign period, the temporary ban on road shows and rallies placed an additional hardship on candidates with mobility disabilities, as moving door-to-door to campaign was difficult for them.

Election Day Processes

ZAFOD observers reported that election day processes at the 74 observed polling stations largely followed established electoral procedures for setup and voting, with all polling stations observed opening no later than 06:30 am. All 74 observed polling stations were equipped with permanent/indelible ink for marking voters’ fingers, official stamps for marking ballot papers, and voters’ registers. At all 74 polling stations the presidential ballot box was shown to be empty at the start of voting. Party agents for the Patriotic Front (PF) and United Party for National Development (UPND) were reported to be present at 73 of the 74 polling stations, and party agents representing parties other than PF and UPND were present at 66 of the 74 polling stations.

COVID-19 Measures

ZAFOD observers reported a high level of adherence to COVID-19 mitigation measures among polling station officials, specifically the use of face masks and sanitizer. 97 percent of observed polling stations had hand washing or sanitizing facilities available. However, social distancing was less rigorously adhered to, in part due to the long queues of voters at many polling stations. In addition, only 10 of the 74 polling stations were reported to have a thermometer/thermo scanner to check voters’ temperatures upon entry. Nine observers reported that “a few” (one to five) or “some” (six to ten) voters were turned away for non-adherence to COVID-19 protocols.

Participation of PWDs as Party Agents and Citizen Observers

ZAFOD observers reported six persons with disabilities serving as party agents at observed polling stations, and seven persons with disabilities serving as citizen observers for organizations other than ZAFOD. ZAFOD also notes that the ECZ has taken steps to increase the number of persons with disabilities serving as polling station staff. ZAFOD applauds the inclusion of persons with disabilities as polling officials, party agents and citizen observers, and urges political parties and civil society groups to continue to intentionally recruit and encourage the participation of persons with disabilities in these important roles.

Accessibility of Polling Station Locations

Among the 74 polling stations observed, the majority (85 percent) were located in schools, primarily in classrooms (74 percent). Observers reported that nearly two-thirds of observed polling stations (62 percent) posed some difficulty to entry for persons with disabilities. 49 percent of observed polling stations required voters to go up steps or stairs to enter the polling station.[1] Only 16 percent of observed polling stations (12 sites) had ramps, three percent (two sites) had handrails installed, and seven percent (five sites) had both. Nearly three-quarters of observed polling stations (74 percent) had no ramps or handrails to assist persons with mobility disabilities to enter or move through the polling station. 42 percent of observed polling station locations reported additional barriers that hindered entry for persons with disabilities, including sand, gutters, corridors that are difficult to navigate in wheelchairs, or other/multiple barriers.

Voting Processes for PWDs

Persons with disabilities voted at 99 percent of observed polling stations. ZAFOD observers reported that sign language instructions or procedures were provided at 34 percent of polling stations observed and that election day procedures for persons with disabilities were posted at 64 percent of locations observed. Braille ballot jackets for blind voters were available at 43 percent of polling stations observed.[2] ZAFOD staff serving as roving monitors in Lusaka also reported poor sensitization among polling officials regarding the use of braille jackets. A large majority of observers (85 percent) reported that the ballot boxes in the interior of observed polling stations were accessible for persons with disabilities to independently cast their vote, although 26 percent noted that the height of the ballot boxes was not suitable for wheelchair users. 85 percent of observers also reported that persons with disabilities were assisted to vote, including by ECZ officials, security officials, and polling agents.

  1. Incidents

ZAFOD received a total of 26 critical incident reports on election day, of which seven have been confirmed so far. The critical incident reports confirmed by ZAFOD included violence, harassment or intimidation at polling stations, attempted stealing of election materials, and a polling official who was taking pictures of voters cards and NRC. 

Two of ZAFOD’s observers were also unable to fully complete their reporting due to disruptions at polling stations in Lusaka and Southern provinces. In the incident in Southern province, the ZAFOD observer was barred from re-entering the polling station with her observation forms due to suspicion among voters in the queue of carrying pre-filled ballots, and was subsequently harassed and felt unsafe to remain at the polling station. In the other incident, in Lusaka province, party cadres disrupted the counting process and although the situation was eventually resolved by police, the observer did not feel safe to remain at the polling station.

  1. Conclusion

ZAFOD calls on all stakeholders, particularly the ECZ, political parties, and other electoral actors, to redouble efforts to enhance the accessibility and inclusion of persons with disabilities in political and electoral processes. Particular attention is needed to ensure that all polling stations are adequately accessible for persons with disabilities and that accessible voting materials, such as braille jackets, are widely available and are well sensitized among polling officials. ZAFOD further calls for greater transparency and stakeholder engagement on the part of the ECZ with regards to the development of future action plans and budgets for accessibility. ZAFOD continues to welcome and encourage political parties and other stakeholders to support the inclusion of persons with disabilities at all levels of party structures and in all political and electoral processes, including as candidates, party leaders, voter educators, party agents, and citizen observers. 

ZAFOD will issue detailed stakeholder recommendations as part of the final observation report.

  1. About ZAFOD

The Zambia Federation of Disability Organisations (ZAFOD) is the national civil society umbrella body of over 15 affiliate member organisations of and for persons with disabilities in Zambia. Since the early 1980s, ZAFOD has been advocating for the promotion and protection of disability rights and the inherent dignity of persons with disabilities, including advocacy for the observance of rights to political and public participation of persons with disabilities through inclusive and accessible electoral processes.

More information on ZAFOD can be found at www.zafod.net, on Facebook at facebook.com/zafod.net, and on Twitter at @ZAFOD_Zm.


[1] The Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG) reported in the group’s preliminary statement on the 2021 elections that 48 percent of the group’s 1500 observed polling sites required voters to go up stairs or steps.

[2] CCMG reported in the group’s preliminary statement that 44 percent of the group’s 1500 observed polling stations had Braille jackets.