Government and governance | The Pacific

19 February 2021

The Bougainville referendum was an important turning point in Pacific democratic politics, however policymakers should take stock of the ways the process failed certain voters, Steven Kolova writes.

One of the most important events in the Pacific Island region in 2019 was the Bougainville independence referendum, held between 23 November and 7 December. Whilst the referendum has generally been accepted to have been a successful and legitimate process, there are also notable cases of administrative irregularities and problems that affected voter participation. 

Through interviews with Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC) officials, scrutineers, polling officials, police officers and observers, as well as analyses of mass media, radio broadcasts, Facebook, and other online sources, this author have sought to explore the referendum vote’s strengths and weaknesses.

More on this: Lessons from the Bougainville referendum

The referendum vote was conducted in a total of 829 polling locations, 796 of which were in Bougainville and 29 in Papua New Guinea (PNG). There were two polling places each in the Solomon Islands (Gizo and Honiara) and Australia (Cairns and Brisbane). Around 2,000 polling officials worked on the ballot with an estimated 750 scrutineers.

There were a significant number of local and international observer groups. According to the Commonwealth Observer Group, the referendum was credible, transparent and inclusive. Their assessment derived from observations of the high voter turnout at 87.4 per cent (12.6 per cent of whom were first timer voters), the fair gender participation (105,411 men and 101,215 women), and the inclusion of those with disabilities. The BRC chairman Bertie Ahern also said that the referendum was successful and credible.

Of the total registered voters, 176,928 (97.71 per cent) voted for independence, 3,043 (1.68 per cent) voted for greater autonomy, and 1,096 (0.6 per cent) were informal votes. There were 10,429 provisional votes, 7,528 of which were admitted for counting while 2,901 were rejected.

Security of ballot boxes was provided jointly by the Bougainville Police Service and the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, under the leadership of New Zealand Police. Assistant returning officers (AROs), together with scrutineers, reconciled seal numbers with the corresponding numbers on the ballot boxes to confirm that they had not been opened and/or tampered with. According to one scrutineer at Buka, all 249 ballot boxes were verified and none were disputed or rejected.

However, there were also many logistical factors that prevented voter participation. The first example was where Bougainvilleans living in rural areas in PNG could not get to polling locations due to lack of communication or transport-related problems. Another scrutineer recalled an occasion when the Jiwaka Province ARO conducted polling on 23 November 2019 instead of the advertised dates of 25 November and 26 November 2019, leading to a number of voters missing out. 

Whilst major improvements in voter registration were made for the referendum, some problems were encountered in polling locations both inside and outside Bougainville. In one case in Kundiawa (Chimbu Province), more than 20 voters came with proof of enrolment, but only six had their names on the final referendum roll. They were able to cast their votes, but the rest had to cast provisional votes with others who claimed they had enrolled in Bougainville. 

This raises questions about the effectiveness of BRC’s awareness and training for polling officials and scrutineers. Voters who provided proof of registration should have been allowed to cast their votes without going through the provisional voting system, provided they gave evidence of their enrolment.

As this case shows, the processes for administering provisional voting might not have been well understood by all polling officials, potentially resulting in some discrepancies. A number of examples were mentioned by interviewees, with a notable case occurring at Bel Isi Park in Buk, where the polling official did not write down names of 23 provisional voters. Rather, the voters merely signed their envelope, making it difficult to link the names to the BRC’s master list with only the signatures.

Other factors affecting participation included Bougainvilleans living illegally in Solomon Islands who felt they could not enrol to vote because it would reveal their identity as illegal migrants.

Despite comprehensive awareness campaigns, there were incidents that revealed a lack of knowledge about the referendum for some residents of Bougainville. For example, in the inland area of Wakunai District (Central Bougainville), residents of the Atasiapa village border between Wakunai and Torokina did not vote because they did not know what the referendum was or its purpose in their lives.

More on this: PNG’s power plays and political sideshows

In relation to voter choice, a reserve police officer reported 13 cases where voters, especially illiterate people, accidentally turned the ballot papers upside down and marked the wrong box. During the campaign period, the message for independence was ‘mark box number two’. This mistake may have contributed to the 3,043 votes for greater autonomy.

People posting photos of their votes on social media raised concerns for the BRC, including whether these votes were free and fair, although there is no evidence that this action had any correlation with influence on voter choice. For some, sharing photos publicly may have represented pride at participating in an event which Bougainvilleans have longed for — a key step in their long struggle for political independence. 

On the flip side, other factors promoted voter participation. A total of 11 sick patients in hospitals cast their votes. In most polling locations, voters without names but within the approved eligibility criteria were allowed provisional voting. One practice that motivated voters was seeing community leaders casting their votes first, leading others to follow suit. An allowance was made for people wearing Upe – a sacred totem not allowed to be seen by women – where they could vote under special arrangements. 

Generally, people took ownership of the referendum vote, as reflected in the celebrations held at almost all polling venues throughout Bougainville. Even people who temporarily moved to other places returned home to cast their vote. Such commitment has never been demonstrated in either national or ABG regular elections, although this referendum was much more highly anticipated than a regular election.

The research revealed that despite the 2019 Bougainville independence referendum being declared free, fair and successful, the vote was nevertheless influenced by a range of problems affecting the ability of a small number of voters to cast their ballots. Logistical issues, discrepancies in the referendum roll, misunderstandings of provisional voting, and lack of awareness about the referendum and the voting processes were factors. 

The type or format of the referendum question — arguably not suitable for illiterate people — may have resulted in voters not casting a ballot for their preferred choice. These factors may have contributed in a small way to the outcome of what was an overwhelming referendum result. This may provide lessons to improve future elections and referendums, both in Bougainville and internationally.

This article is based upon a paper published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.

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