The Gambia is a small country in West Africa with a unique voting system using marble tokens made of clear glass and cast into an iron-made drum called a ballot box.
Each party/candidate contesting in the election has a ballot box (drum) painted with the candidate’s name, party colour and symbol for identification. During elections, ballot boxes are placed behind the polling compartment.
Voters who arrive at the polling station will present their voter ID card for verification before they are given a marble to cast.
The marble is put into the drum through a small hole, and it hits a bell that makes a sound to indicate that a vote was cast. When sealing the drum, polling officers put the sand into the bottom of each drum to avoid different sounds.
As Gambians anticipate voting in the coming local government election scheduled for April 15 and May 20, 2023, DUBAWA highlighted some important things people need to know about ballot boxes and tokens.
The legality of the ballot box and ballot token
The Gambia voting system uses ballot boxes and ballot tokens, which are provided for by the Election Act 2015 Amendment. The Act prescribes that voting should be done through ballot boxes and ballot tokens.
DUBAWA couldn’t get the Election Amendment Act 2015 online as it was unavailable. Our research, however, shows that the voting method remains the same. Although the 2015 Election Amendment Act features a change in sections, its provisions remain as prescribed in Part V no 63 and 64 of the Election Decree 78 of 1996.
A brief history of the ballot box and ballot tokens
DUBAWA engaged Pa Makan Khan, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) public relations officer, who took us through some of the important and unique things that people should know about ballot boxes and ballot tokens which have been in existence in The Gambia before independence. It was introduced by the British for elections held in Bathurst, a city now called Banjul, which is currently Gambia’s capital.
“Legislative council members were elected during the pre-independent using ballot boxes and ballot tokens. In the post-independent [The Gambia], the same method was adopted by the government. In 1970, when The Gambia became a republic, the same method was still maintained,” he explained.
Advantages of the ballot box and ballot tokens
The Gambia voting system is unique and easy for non-literate people to exercise their democratic rights compared to paper ballots which may be challenging to the non-literate.
1. The ballot box and ballot tokens (marble) process is easy for first-time voters to understand and participate in. Drums of each candidate, colour, and party logo are visible. First-time voters can quickly identify the party/candidate and understand and exercise their democratic rights straightforwardly.
2. The technology is nearly impossible to manipulate without being detected.
When a voter drops a marble, election officials, observers, and party agents can hear a loud ring similar to a bicycle bell.
It is almost impossible to double vote because each person who votes will have one of their left index fingers dipped into ink to indicate that the person has voted.
3. All the drums are tied together, making it hard to tamper with them without raising the suspicions of the alert security personnel, election observers, or party agents.
4. The counting process takes less time and is more precise. The marbles are emptied into customised trays for counting to avoid errors by manual counting because the marbles are small. The process is fast, easy, and accurate.
5. The ballot drums are made locally, making them cheaper than paper balloting. The marble and drums are reused, and there is little chance of a shortage in supply.
6. Many Gambians appreciate the use of marble as it is seen as a custom that contributes to a sense of national pride and identity.
The benefits of The Gambia’s marble voting system extend beyond its novelty. It is an innovation that addresses issues of voter fraud and illiteracy. The process is democratic, affordable, secure and transparent.
Challenges in the ballot box and ballot tokens
1. Increase in political parties/candidates: with the change of government in 2017, the IEC has registered many political parties and candidates. This increase in political space in the country has made it challenging for the commission to provide ballot boxes for each party/candidate, the Commission PRO said.
2. Logistics: as the number of political parties continues to rise, it has made the commission’s work extremely difficult, particularly carrying the ballot boxes and ballot tokens from one place to another. Keeping the boxes safe has also become a huge burden as the number increases.
3. Assigning colours for parties: preparing colours for each political party has now become challenging due to the increase in the number of candidates and parties.
The way forward for ballot box and ballot tokens (marbles)
In a recent publication in local newspapers, Alieu Momarr Njie, the Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, has announced that The Gambia will be using paper ballots starting from the 2026 presidential election.
The West African nation has used the marble since its independence nearly 60 years ago. However, according to the IEC chairman, Alieu Momarr Njai, the increased political participation has made it practically impossible for the commission to continue using the marble.
“So, given the number of political parties and potential candidates for future elections, the upcoming local government elections will be conducted under marble voting.
We will be migrating to paper ballots in subsequent elections,” Chairman Njai said at a media-CSO training on the electoral process.
He said The Gambia is the only country using marble worldwide, and it is “no more sustainable under the circumstances.”
“We cannot afford to print ballot drums for all these candidates coming forward to show interest,” he added.
The researcher produced this explainer per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with (The Fatu Network) Daily Trust to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.