Why Gambians voted with marbles in first post-Jammeh election

Mildred Europa Taylor December 09, 2021
Boards like these are used to count the marbles. GETTY IMAGES

The Gambia’s President Adama Barrow was this week declared winner of the election held on December 4. Barrow, a 56-year-old former security guard, faced five rivals including his former political mentor, Ousainou Darboe, who was seen as his main challenger. At the end of the day, Barrow received around 53% of the vote cast while Darboe got 28%.

Nearly one million people from a population of 2.5 million are registered to vote in Gambia. And this election was Gambia’s first democratic election since former President Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office in 2016 after he seized power in a military coup. Jammeh has been accused of summary executions, disappearances, torture, rape and other crimes during his 22-year rule. He refused to relinquish power after losing the December 2016 elections to current president Barrow.

It took a military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), threats from the international community, visits by about half a dozen heads of state and an immunity deal for him and his family before he agreed to leave for exile to Equatorial Guinea on the invitation of Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who has been president of Equatorial Guinea since 1979.

With Jammeh no more president, Gambia saw the opening up of its political space as people could now join any political party they prefer without fear of being tortured or detained. Barrow has been preaching reconciliation and the need for citizens to unite irrespective of their backgrounds. That and the fact that many people in the rural areas identified with Barrow’s rise from humble beginnings helped him win this month’s election even though he is yet to fulfill most of his promises.

Analysts say Gambia has passed the democracy test following the election. Some opposition candidates have rejected the results but have not pointed out any major problem with the voting process, which remains unique.

Voting with marbles

When Gambians got to the polls on Saturday, December 4, to elect a president, ballot papers were not used. Instead, marbles were used. Voting with marbles was introduced by the British in Gambia after independence in 1965 because of the low literacy levels in the population at the time. The system is still in use.

Instead of ballot boxes at polling stations, there are metal cylinders, with each cylinder having a hole in the top. The cylinders are arranged on a table inside a voting booth and painted with the party colors of candidates plus their photos for ease of identification.

Each voter drops a marble into the cylinder representing the candidate they have chosen to vote for. As the marble drops, a bell sounds so election officials are able to hear if anyone attempts to cheat the system by voting more than once.

Why Gambians voted with marbles in first post-Jammeh election
Metal cylinders are used at polling stations to represent candidates. Photo: AFP

When the polls close, the marbles from each cylinder are counted using the counting box. Officials empty the marbles into a square tray that is dotted with holes. The holes in the trays are evenly filled with marbles. Officials tally the total and record it right away for representatives of the various candidates.

Some say the use of marbles in elections is an obsolete form of voting, however, Gambians trust the process and say it’s been transparent. In 2016, citizens successfully used this unique system to remove dictator Jammeh from office. And after that history-making moment, observers waited to see if the country could successfully hold another election. It just did, using marbles.

Some officials had earlier argued that it will be too complex to use marbles considering more candidates are participating in the elections following the opening up of the political space. But the system worked on December 4, producing a largely free and fair election.

In The Gambia, the country is divided into constituencies and each constituency has several polling stations where voting takes place. Fingers of voters are marked with liquid ink before they are given a marble, and this is done to prevent anyone from voting twice.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 9, 2021


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