MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberia's first constitutional referendum in 25 years was marred by error on Tuesday after the National Election Commission said it had distributed defective ballot papers.
Liberians are casting their votes on four amendments to the constitution, including one which asks citizens to increase the retirement age of Supreme Court judges. The referendum is seen as a test of the country's democracy and its voting mechanism ahead of the presidential vote later this year.
One of the ballots is supposed to ask voters to choose 70 or 75 years as the retirement age, but the ballot with the error lists 75 or 75, meaning that anyone voting on the proposition will have to choose the older retirement age, said Amos Koukou, deputy coordinator of the referendum organizing team.
Koukou said the error occurred because the voting material was printed in Denmark and arrived with the mistake already printed on the ballot paper.
"We sincerely apologize for this error," Koukou said, pleading with the public to understand it was not deliberate. He said a disclaimer had been posted at polling stations with instructions on how to vote despite the error.
The electoral body did not acknowledge the error until voters discovered it themselves and starting phoning radio stations. Even before the error was revealed, the country's leading opposition party had called for a boycott of the referendum which they say is designed to help the ruling party.
A caller who identified himself as Jerome Seo told a radio talk show that voters were leaving the stations because they were confused. "We don't know what we are voting for," he said.
On the same show, former Information Minister Emmanuel Bowier called the experience "total confusion," and said the National Elections Commission had not consulted experienced people to help design the ballots.
"Why didn't they scan the ballots, review, proofread, before printing theme," he asked on the radio program. "Damage control cannot start when the event is on."
Bowier was information minister during the rule of former President Samuel K. Doe.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is seeking a second term in this fall's presidential election was expected to leave the capital Tuesday to vote in her homeland of Bomi County, 37 miles (60 kilometers) west of Monrovia.
In addition to the retirement age of judges, voters will decide whether to change the election date from October to November in order to avoid the rainy season, and whether to reduce the residency requirement from 10 to five years for presidential and vice presidential contenders.
This fall's election will be only the second to be held since the end of Liberia's 2003 civil war.