In August 2003, a peace agreement ended the civil war that had ravaged Liberia since 1989. In a country of roughly three million people, an estimated 250,000 had died in the conflict, and hundreds of thousands were displaced. The peace accord dissolved the government of Charles Taylor, who went into exile in Nigeria. The accord also cancelled the presidential elections that were slated for the fall of 2003 and named Charles Gyude Bryant as head of an interim government, which was responsible for implementing free, fair, and comprehensive elections in the recovering country.
To monitor the implementation of the peace agreement, the United Nations deployed 15,000 troops and 1,100 police -- at the time the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. Hundreds of civilian U.N. employees also assisted in aspects of post-war reconstruction. Taken together, the military and civilian operations constituted the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
The peace agreement banned officials of the interim government from running for office, dissolved the existing elections commission, and required Gyude Bryant to appoint seven new election commissioners to be confirmed by the interim Assembly. In an effort to create a neutral elections commission, the peace agreement stipulated that the commissioners be recommended by civil society groups and have either civil society or justice backgrounds. Gyude Bryant nominated Frances Johnson-Morris to head the new election commission. She had served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1997 during a lull in the civil war, and later headed an NGO dedicated to combating human-rights abuses. The Assembly approved her appointment in April 2004 -- 18 months before the crucial national elections. Johnson-Morris had built wide respect as a neutral broker during her tenure as chief justice, engendering trust in her ability to work in the national interest.
The interim government sought to draft a new and clear electoral law to govern the upcoming elections. Legislators debated between using a proportional representation (PR) system or a majoritarian one. The last general elections in 1997 used an "open list" PR system, meaning that candidates were not pre-assigned to a constituency or county; the consequence was that candidates looked to curry favor with political superiors who could dictate their inclusion on the list, rather than constituents. After hearing from commissioners and election experts, the legislators decided on a majoritarian system in which candidates for all offices ran in a single-round election, hoping it would create stronger ties between individual candidates and voters.
The legislature passed the electoral reform law in December 2004. It also abolished a requirement that presidential candidates live in Liberia for at least 10 years, thereby encouraging newly-returning members of the diaspora to compete for public office. "Everyone saw this as an opportunity to participate," Johnson-Morris recalled. "Some people felt that they had been marginalized and excluded for so long. Everyone was eager to go to the process." The electoral commission received considerable assistance from international groups like the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (UNEAD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which provided the commission with technical and logistical support, and contributed more than three-quarters of the $18.9 million election budget.
Johnson-Morris and the election commission had to work quickly to prepare the country for elections. Liberians were on edge. Years of war had sown deep mistrust between ethnic factions. Partisanship had undermined the credibility of previous commissions. Even if the elections commission acted without bias, Liberians were uncertain whether opposing factions would respect the integrity of the vote. As a result, Johnson-Morris set a high priority on building the public's trust in the commission and took steps to ensure the elections were as inclusive as possible.