Use of ID cards unconstitutional
1997 elections voided
Judge to hear arguments today on order to be made

By William Walker
Stabroek News
January 16, 2001

The 1997 elections were yesterday declared void by Justice Claudette Singh on the grounds that the requirement for voter ID cards was unconstitutional. But Justice Singh was unable to find that procedural errors by the Elections Commission would have affected the election results.

The practical effect of the judge's ruling was unclear yesterday and she has fixed a hearing for this morning for arguments by lawyers for both sides before making an order.

Justice Singh ruled that the requirements for the compulsory use of voter identification cards added a restriction to voters not provided in Guyana's Constitution.

Despite her scathing observations on the conduct of the Elections Commission, she did not find that the numerous irregularities would have affected the allocation of seats in the National Assembly. As such she held that the petition by Esther Perreira failed to prove that "the results may have been affected by an unlawful act or omission" as required under Article 163 of the Constitution.

All will now depend on today's ruling by Justice Singh on her consequential order after hearing arguments from lawyers in the case. She pointed out yesterday that her "purpose was not to put anyone in office" and that fresh elections were coming up anyway. But Senior Counsel Rex McKay for PNC respondent Desmond Hoyte thought some order must be made: "What happens now? These are things that should be said." Senior Counsel Ralph Ramkarran for PPP/Civic respondent, former president Janet Jagan beseeched her "to consider the circumstances in the country. Any order would call for new elections but the status of the present government and National Assembly would also have to be addressed."

In her three-hour ruling given in a tightly packed courtroom, Justice Singh made it "pellucidly clear" that the Constitution was the supreme law of the land.

Politically expedient legislation and the very 1997 election were yesterday made to submit to its authority in the judge's ruling. The 1996 and 1997 amendments to the Representation of the People Act, which made the possession of an ID card compulsory in order to cast a vote, contravened specifically Articles 59 and 159 of the 1980 Burnham Constitution, she found.

As such, and because the elections process included any relevant legislation, the 1997 elections "were not held substantially in accordance with the law" and were therefore void.

Justice Singh said the two articles 59 and 159 state clearly "every person may vote at an election if he is the age of eighteen years or upwards and is either a citizen of Guyana or a Commonwealth citizen domiciled and resident in Guyana."

The added qualification of an identification card, under the slogan "No card No vote" meant that the voter's constitutional right to cast a ballot had been restricted.

More fundamentally the amendments had diminished a citizen's basic right described in Article 9 which states "sovereignty belongs to the people who exercise it through their representatives and the democratic organs established by or under this Constitution". "No right is more precious and any restriction on it must be viewed with a critical eye," Justice Singh said, referring to various overseas landmark rulings.

Ironically it was not the lawyers of petitioner Esther Perreira who had argued the constitutionality of the ID cards. Rather it was Senior Counsel Keith Massiah, co-counsel for the respondent Hoyte, whose own party had voted for the two seemingly innocuous amendments four years ago. Justice Singh dismissed the arguments of Ramkarran that there had been unanimous agreement by the parliamentary parties for the use of ID cards. "The right to vote cannot be silenced by the agreement of parties." The Constitution was supreme and the only way to change it to cater for new laws was through a two-thirds vote in the National Assembly as set out in Article 164.

Doodnauth Singh representing the Elections Commission had also argued that the ID card was merely a regulatory mechanism much like a passport not infringing on the right of a person to leave Guyana. But Justice Singh did not accept this submission.

The petition filed by private citizen Esther Perreira began in September 1998 and final arguments ended on September 1, 2000. 294 witnesses testified of which 16 were for the petitioner and the rest were called by the Elections Commission. Justice Singh, her arm in a sling and with a bandaged finger, noted that it had been her "unenviable" task to determine the validity of the elections.

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