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Kenyans move into poll position

Just a week before the nation votes, officials are hoping practice makes perfect.
Last modified: 24 Feb 2013 22:38
Clerks prepare to count the votes in Kenya's "practice poll" [James Brownsell/Al Jazeera]

Nairobi, Kenya - In a small school hall in the affluent Nairobi suburb of Westlands, Joseph Khanda is a man with a mission. His task as presiding officer of this polling station is not a complex one. But the responsibility resting upon his slender shoulders bears all the weight of democracy itself.

Making sure every vote is counted, and that every vote counts, Khanda's job is to oversee the smooth running of the polling place at Westlands Primary School. It may only be one polling station in one constituency, but, for Khanda - and his fellow polling station presiding officers in 20,000 such places across the country, it is his successes or failures which will make or break the national poll.

In 2007, allegations of fraud and a lack of electoral transparency led to protests which descended into violence drawn along tribal lines. By the time a power-sharing deal was reached, 1,400 people were dead, and some 600,000 more displaced from their homes.

This time round, Khanda is determined that everyone will see the electoral process as free and fair.

"It is very important that everyone knows what they are doing," he told me, during a "practice vote" being held at around 20 percent of the country's polling stations.

"We had a good turnout to vote. We are trying to get everyone acquainted with the process before the vote on Monday week."

Sunday's "dry-run" saw voters using example ballot papers bearing fictional names. It's important to remember that Kenyans are not only voting for a new president next week, but will also be electing 290 MPs, 47 women's representatives (one per county), senators, governors and some 1,450 county assembly representatives.

And this is where there is potential for problems. At each polling place, the presiding officer breaks open the ballot box, spewing the vote papers onto a table encircled by counting clerks and EU observers. The officer then goes through each and every ballot to check they have been stamped by a clerk and are valid votes. He then goes back through the pile of valid papers, and holds each one up to the assembled throng, and declares who the vote is for. The ballot paper gets passed to a clerk designated to count one candidate's votes.

Once all the papers have been divided according to their votes, the presiding officer then manually counts each ballot paper in each pile, bundling each batch of 25 with a piece of tape.

In today's practice run, it took more than an hour to count 70 votes. And that was just for the "presidential" race, which only had five names to choose from. The other six ballot boxes were still awaiting attention. This polling station is expecting around 700 people to be registering their votes. If it takes ten hours to count each race, March 4 is going to be a very long night.

"They're going to have to have a Plan B," one EU observer remarked to me. "I'm sure they've already got one."

With teams of clerks taking 60 hours (10 hours per race, six races) to tally results, which are then relayed to central constituency offices to tally up and announce local results, then sent to county offices to tally and announce regional results, then sent to a national centre to announce presidential results, it will be impressive indeed if all results are announced and officially ratified within the seven days legally allowed.

But if this snail's pace ensures that full transparency is noted by all Kenyans, that all Kenyans can acknowledge that the election results are genuine, the hope is clearly that this is the most genuine method to avoid the sort of bloodshed seen in 2007-08.

"This will be a transparent event," Joseph Khanda told me. "Kenya is ready for this."

Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @jamesbrownsell