A strange news story caught my eye last week. It was titled Gambians Vote with Marbles.
A sliver of land wedged into Senegal, Gambia has 1.7 million citizens but only 800,000 are eligible to vote. More than half of the country is illiterate, according to the United Nations.
As in all countries, aspirant leaders take care to keep voters loyal, but in the smallest state on the African mainland, losing support could literally see you losing your marbles.
In a country where less than half the population can read and write, a novel polling system has been devised which sees voters pop a glass marble into a coloured drum picturing their chosen candidate. As it falls, the marble strikes a bicycle bell, enabling poll staff to detect multiple voting.
The stern director of electoral operations, Sambousang Njie, points out that his country’s unique voting system is no laughing matter, but a way to enable illiterate voters to participate in democracy, while cutting costs.
“Our system of voting is very unique in the sense that we don’t use the ballot paper and the ballot box, instead we use the ballot drum and the marble,” Njie explains on the eve of the election.
“This kind of voting is somehow economical … you can use the ballot drum and ballot token over and over again, it is not possible to do ballot stuffing.”
On election day, at the polling station, drums are placed behind the polling booth. Voters, after being issued a marble, proceed to the polling booth to vote. When a marble is introduced in the drum of the selected party/candidate, by falling, it hits a bell whose sound clearly indicates to the audience in the polling station that a vote was cast. To prevent hearing other sounds, when sealing the drum, polling officers place sand or sawdust into its bottom. It is also interesting to highlight that, since the sound is like a bell, on election day bicycles are banned from the immediate proximity of polling stations.
After the voting process has ended, votes are counted by placing the marbles into special trays (with either 200 or 500 holes), a simple system that allows counting officials to quickly ascertain the number of votes cast in each drum.
That’s a very innovative way to elect your representatives. I had heard a similar idea in 1989 from Dr. S. Ramani, Director at NCST. He took very few lectures for us in the PGDST course, but all of them were very interesting. It was the time when India was debating over the electronic voting machines. During one of his lectures, Dr. Ramani described a similar method for voting. This is how he described the system.
Each candidate has a opaque box with his name & photo. All the boxes are inside an enclosure with a moving glass tube on top of the enclosure. When a voter presents himself, the polling officer presses a button and a marble enters the glass tube. Then the voter goes inside the enclosure and presses a button corresponding to his candidate. The tube moves, positions itself on top of the box for the selected candidate, and drops the marble inside the box. And once the voting is done, the winner is declared purely by weighing the marble. . All of us in the class had a hearty laugh and soon forgot it. The elections in Gambia reminded me of that incidence again.