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In Gambia, Voters Cast Marble Ballots

As many African countries struggle to fund elections and deal with accusations of electoral fraud, one country apparently has a solution. In the Gambia, ballots are marbles instead of paper. The marble voting system was designed decades ago because of the country’s high rate of illiteracy, and it’s still used today because of its low cost and transparency.

The Gambia’s chief electoral officer, Kawsu Ceesay, oversaw the recent presidential elections. From Banjul, he spoke to English to Africa reporter Angel Tabe, recalling his knowledge of the system and describing how it works. “In the 1950s, when I was a child, the system was in use, and I have not seen it anywhere else. The process is very simple and removes difficulties that illiterate people have [with] ballot paper. After identification, the voter is given a marble that he drops into a pipe leading to a bell at the bottom of a drum…. The sound of the bell tells that the person has voted.”

Ceesay explains what would happen if a voter tried to vote more than once: “The marble cannot fail to make a sound…so if somebody puts in two marbles, the two cannot…drop on the bell at the same time to produce one unique sound. They have to be inserted one after the other. That’s a safeguard there…. Now, all the ballot drums have the same kind of hole (pipe) size…. All the marbles are of the same size; you cannot insert two marbles at the same time.”

In other electoral systems, Ceesay says, voting material is ordered, checked and crosschecked, while the marble system can be very cost-effective, and its shortcomings can be contained. “These marbles can be used from one election to another; we don’t need traveling to verify. But that doesn’t mean there are no disadvantages. If you have lots of candidates, like Congo, where you have 33 candidates, it will mean 33 ballot drums in each polling station!” Ceesay says while non-Africans show interest in the system, some Africans do not welcome its transparency: “One American wrote asking an explanation. In Ghana, it was difficult for people to understand…. Former Sierra Leonean president Siaka Stevens thought it was too transparent. But I think people should study it and implement in their countries.”

Ceesay, who knew about the system as a child, says it’s fulfilling to be in charge now, and he perfectly understands the workings. “I feel very great. In those days you would hear that the ballots drums were stuffed. Now I am part and parcel of the system…. It is not possible (to manipulate the system). It just can’t happen.”