Playing Marbles: The Gambia's Electoral System

By Riley, Ryan | Harvard International Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Playing Marbles: The Gambia's Electoral System


Riley, Ryan, Harvard International Review


During the 2006 presidential elections held on, citizens of the Republic of The Gambia cast their votes by dropping a marble into a metal drum representing the candidate of their choice. Compared to ultramodern voting techniques involving text messaging and touch screens that are being developed in the United States and the United Kingdom, The Gambia's method appears antiquated, but makes voting possible for many of the country's illiterate citizens. This method, however, is not a panacea to increase participation and interest in domestic political affairs. As demonstrated by the behavior of the incumbent party in The Gambia, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), increased suffrage may not necessarily increase democracy but may only serve to extend the control of an incumbent government.

The Gambia's Independent Electoral Commission has placed great faith in the marble voting method as a fair and effective means of expanding suffrage to the illiterate. The system does indeed appear to have tangible benefits. Voter turnout increased because the new voting procedures made it easier for illiterate citizens to vote. In the most recent Gambian election, for example, there was a metal drum for each candidate, painted in the color of the candidate's party and bearing a photo of the candidate, the name of the candidate, and the symbol of the candidate's party. All citizens can cast their votes because voting in the Gambian system does not involve reading or writing. This increase in suffrage may lead to citizens receiving better representation in their governments.

The benefits of the Gambian voting mechanism, however, do not eclipse its potential disadvantages. There are several dangers with these procedures, one being that people may make uninformed judgments due to their lack of education. Indeed, while helping illiterate citizens exercise their political rights is a well-intentioned idea, their illiteracy increases their risk of being manipulated by political parties, trade unions, and large corporations. Moreover, the votes of the newly enfranchised may only further entrench the incumbent party. In The Gambia, the expansion of suffrage is very much in the interest of the APRC and President Yahya Jammeh. By making it possible for more people to vote while ensuring that the new voters are loyal through the control of public information, the new voting method creates the illusion that an even greater majority of the country supports Jammeh and strengthens the false perception that the people's views and needs are being taken into account. …

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