Getting to the truth

Stabroek News
December 25, 2000

The good bit of Christmas news for the Elections Commission is the withdrawal of the PNC's block objection to around 30,000 names on the preliminary voters list. This frees the commission of the obligation to painstakingly check the bona fides of each of these persons thereby tying up scarce manpower. In essence, the Commission's decision that only those persons who have been photographed will be on the Final Voters List (FVL) assuages the fears of the PNC and makes it unnecessary for the block objection to be pursued. As a compromise, the period December 27 to January 4 has been set aside for those persons on the Preliminary Voters List (PVL) who for some good reason have still not been photographed to come forward and be added to the FVL. The block objection by the PNC was, however, a very serious matter and while its formal withdrawal will now prevent the Commission from pronouncing on its accuracy it is not something that should be glossed over. Indeed, the objection was strongly criticised by the PPP/Civic and photos were produced of persons who clearly existed and could therefore not be objected to. Regulation Nine which enabled the objections was ill thought out and did not place a sufficiently testing burden on the objecting party. In this case, the PNC simply took strongholds of the PPP/Civic and objected to names without accounting for transfers and other possibilities. Regulation Nine as constructed is completely unsuitable and should be discarded. Even before the block objection though, the PNC had made allegations that the National Register of Registrants (NRR) was padded. Embedded in these claims was the charge that this padding had been a factor in the 1997 elections result. The party therefore impugned the integrity of the NRR which was the basis of the PVL for the upcoming polls. As a result of these charges, the Commission embarked on a time consuming survey of the PVL. Of the total number surveyed (20,726), the results - using criteria determined by the Commission - showed that 1,491 persons could not be accounted for. The rest were found or had died or migrated. The average not found was 7% but varied from region to region. In Region Four - traditionally a PNC stronghold - the figure was 13% and in Region Eight - 14%. A very rough extrapolation would have suggested that 40,000 persons on the list could not be accounted for though this sample was not a good enough basis for doing so. At the end of the day, the question of whether the NRR was indeed padded has gone unanswered. Padding in the classic sense would mean that fictitious names were included on the list to allow rigging by one group or the other. There has not to date been any compelling evidence of this problem in the 1997 elections. The PVL for the 1997 elections had been tested by the Electoral Assistance Bureau (EAB) and had been accepted by all of the parties. It was therefore surprising - to say the least - that the PNC raised this charge this year in respect of the list. Now that the survey has been done and the Commission has more breathing room in respect of its elections schedule, it should seek to definitively settle the padding allegations by the PNC. The allegations by the PNC cast a pall on the integrity of hundreds of elections workers who toiled to prepare a voters list for the 1997 polls. Many of these people are now engaged in this elections process and if there was the slightest doubt about their uprightness they should not be included. If there is no basis to the padding charge, then aspersions have been unfairly aimed in their direction. This is also an issue of acting responsibly in public life and refraining from making serious charges such as these without an adequate foundation. Political parties should not be permitted to make these sweeping assertions without having to bear in equal measure responsibility for substantiating them. It is the Commission's responsibility to reassure each and every voter that padding was not present in the NRR and therefore it is unlikely that next year's list would have this taint. To not do this would reduce the confidence of the electorate in the process. The Commission's starting point is therefore the 20,726 names that cannot be found across the country. Master Registration Cards with photos of these persons are supposed to be available. If these photos were to be published or circulated in their respective regions we will surely learn whether these people exist or whether they are phantoms. In addition, paper trails for the divisions they registered in and the registering officers would surely exist along with other information that could be useful. If the Commission could not do this because of time and manpower constraints it could certainly contract this out to some other group such as the EAB or some other local monitor. The padding claim is one loose end which cries out for a conclusive denouement.

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