MONROVIA, Montserrado – Investigation has revealed that there is no record available at the Liberian Legislature to show how individual lawmakers vote for bills on the floor.
In 2010, the National Democratic Institute, in its efforts to improve transparency at the first branch of government, made available an electronic voting and public address system in the chambers of the legislature. If used, the system would allow the legislature to keep records of how its members voted on particular issues.
However, the lawmakers at both the Senate and House of Representatives have not prioritized the usage of the system. Instead, the senators and representatives have preferred to vote on head counts, although the electronic system remains functional and considered top of the line.
With head counts, there are no records on whether an individual lawmaker voted for or against a particular bill. Records of the current voting system at the legislature only indicate how many lawmakers voted for, against, or abstained from voting on a bill.
This makes it difficult to know if individual lawmakers are voting in the interest of the public or not.
For instance, the majority of lawmakers at the legislature recently voted to amend the revenue code to increase excise tax on phone calls by US$ 0.01 per minute and increase excise tax rate on alcoholic beverages from 35 percent to 45 percent and tobacco from 35 percent to 80 percent.
The representatives also amended the revenue code to adjust Goods and Services Tax from seven to ten percent.
The amendments were proposed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf earlier in 2016 and resubmitted in September after the lawmakers first refused to pass the amendments.
Sirleaf said the action was to provide incentives for additional investment in the economy and for the direct revenue implications of US$ 30.1 million to support the 2016-17 National Budget.
However, the increased taxes arrived at a time when the Liberian Dollar is increasingly depreciating against the US Dollar in addition to the economy experiencing a recession.
Citizens have been demonstrating in a major strike that shut down most businesses in Monrovia. However, as elections arrive, it is difficult for citizens to know which lawmakers voted for these provisions when the voting records are simply not available.
McCarthy Weh, the Director of the Legislative Information Service at the Liberian Legislature, said he does not understand why the lawmakers are not taking advantage of the electronic system provided by NDI.
“Right now, there is no record being preserved on how lawmakers vote. What we do here is headcount,” Weh said. “That’s one of the issues I am pushing in my legislative reform agenda: an electronic voting system.”
After visiting the Senate Secretariat and the Office of the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives, The Bush Chicken can confirm there was no record available on how the lawmakers voted to pass the bill to amend the revenue code on excise tax.
However, the Deputy Director for the Senate IT Department, Fitzgerald Karto, said the NDI-installed electronic systems in the chambers of the legislature are still up to date and require no difficulty or extra cost to use.
“The system was installed in a way that it can be used both as a public address system to deliberate issues and to vote,” Karto said. “With the software controlling the system, once a lawmaker is present in session and inserts his electronic card into the system, it will reflect on the electronic board and the microphones would also be identified because they are assigned according to counties with numbers attached for identification. Similarly, for the voting process, the system records if a lawmaker voted for, against or abstained.”
He confirmed that the system has not, however, been prioritized by the lawmakers.
“As for the Senate, the system has been used only three times under the Armah Jallah leadership,” Karto added.
The passage of the amendment to increase excise tax caused Lonestar Cell MTN to adjust its promotional campaigns, including three-day calls for US$ 1.00. US. Liberian Dollar exchange rates also increased astronomically, thus increasing the prices of commodities.
Both business owners and citizens have continued to complain about the increased hardship and high cost of living since the changes were made.
Businesses are upset about high tax rates on goods imported into the country and increased US dollar exchange rate, while citizens are frustrated with the high costs of basic goods and services.
Marketers and business owners under the Patriotic Entrepreneurs of Liberia banner have left their businesses closed since Tuesday, as a strike to demand that the government reduce the high tax rate and stabilize the US Dollar exchange rate on the market. These situations, they say, are negatively affecting their businesses.
In September 2009, the legislature, along with the National Democratic Institute, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Konrad Adenaeur Foundation, ECOWAS, AU, UNDP and UNMIL developed a modernization plan for the Liberian legislature to be implemented between 2009 and 2013.
The document was endorsed by the entirety of both houses of the 52nd Legislature and signed by then-Speaker Alex Tyler and President Pro Tempore Cletus Wortorson.
It outlined programs the legislature would support for modernization, which included the installation of vote recording and public address systems in all chambers, as well as improved policies to enhance openness and efficiency in the legislature.
However, Weh told The Bush Chicken last year that not one-half of the plan had been implemented. He cited lack of interest from the leaderships of both houses of the legislature to support the policy as a serious challenge.
Featured photo courtesy of David Stanley