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Liberia: Supreme Court Ratifies a Constitutional Amendment

(Sept. 27, 2011) On September 20, the Liberian Supreme Court ratified a proposal for constitutional amendment that was one of the subjects of the country's August 23, 2011 referendum. This proposal (also known as Proposition 4) sought to amend section 83(b) of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia, to require that elections to public office be won by a simple majority, instead of by an absolute majority as had previously been the case. (Liberians Vote 'No' to Constitutional Changes: Official, AFP (Aug. 31, 2011).)

The Court's action was taken in response to a petition by the Unity Party, the ruling party in Liberia, challenging the results of the referendum. The National Election Commission (NEC) had announced after the referendum that all four proposals, including Proposition 4, had failed to garner the backing of two-thirds of the registered voters who took part in it, the minimum level of support needed to amend a constitutional provision. (Stephen Binda, Supreme Court Ratifies Simple Majority Votes, DAILY OBSERVER (Sept. 21, 2011).)

At issue was the manner in which the NEC counted the votes cast in the referendum. In its announcement of the results, the NEC found that a total of 615,703 votes were cast, of which 364,901 were in favor of Proposition 4, 174,469 were opposed, and 76,333 were invalid. (2011 Referendum Results, NEC website (last visited Sept. 22, 2011).) The Supreme Court disagreed with the NEC's means of tabulating the vote. The Court held:

… the inclusion of the invalid votes by the respondent (NEC) in the final tabulation of votes to determine the two third votes [sic] required under article 91 of the constitution of Liberia for the purpose of ratification of the propositions to amend said organic document was in contravention of the laws applicable to the conduct of votes as required to general and presidential elections[,] by- elections or election for the conduct of a referendum. Consisted [sic] therewith, the invalid votes included by the National Election Commission (NEC) to determine by [sic] the full outcome of the referendum conducted on August 23, 2011 throughout the country are hereby set aside and ordered deleted for the full outcome of the referendum. (Binda, supra.)

With the invalid votes eliminated, the measure was able to obtain the minimum support needed, with over 5,000 votes in excess of the two-thirds backing of the votership required under the Constitution (id.).

The exclusion of the invalid votes from the tabulation did not, however, help the other three subjects of the August 23 referendum reach the two-thirds minimum threshold (id.). These measures included: a proposal to reduce by half the ten-year residency requirement for presidential candidates, a proposal to postpone the constitutionally mandated general elections date of October 11, 2011, and a proposal to extend the retirement age of judges from 70 to 75. (Hanibal Goitom, Referendum in Liberia, IN CUSTODIA LEGIS (Sept. 6, 2011).)