Petition ruling raises questions for next poll

Stabroek News
January 22, 2001

Apart from the substance of her ruling and the consequential order expected tomorrow, Justice Claudette Singh's decision a week ago should also be of considerable interest to the Elections Commission as it forges ahead with the task of running off elections on March 19.

Foremost among the concerns that the Commission should address is whether the culling of the preliminary voters list on the basis that these persons did not come forward to be photographed for a national ID card/special document is constitutional. Emboldened by the judge's ruling in this case that the requirement for a voter ID card was ultra vires the Constitution, it is likely that groups disaffected after the next election might well consider a challenge on these grounds. With the judge's ruling setting a precedent who knows what can happen.

The judge stated clearly that the `no card, no vote' policy of the 1997 Commission was in direct contravention of Article 59 of the Constitution. While the Commission has now decided that other means of identification are permissible on voting day if the voter does not have the national ID card/special document with him/her on polling day, the question has not been answered for those persons whose names will be expunged from the preliminary list because they did not come forward to be photographed. The Commission may only be protected if it argues that being photographed is part of the registration exercise and is accommodated by Article 159 which says "no person shall vote at an election unless he is registered as an elector". If this is the case it means that for this election a completely fresh registration exercise was pursued by inviting people to be photographed and not by the usually preferred method - house-to-house registration. Article 59 sets only two qualifications to vote: one must have attained the age of 18 and be a citizen of Guyana or a Commonwealth citizen "domiciled and resident" here.

There must be a crystal clear ruling on the photographic requirement and it is the responsibility of the Commission to obtain the necessary advice and assure the public that the process followed so far poses no risk to the validity of a future election.

And then there is the pure management of the electoral process. This is of even greater importance because it is upon the preponderance of faults in this area that one traditionally expects elections to be overturned. The judge referred in her ruling to "massive irregularities" which were not precisely catalogued but which flowed mainly from the testimony by witnesses called for the petitioner, Esther Perreira and from the Chief Election Officer (CEO), Stanley Singh.

The most significant problem was with the statement of poll which is the statutory record of the result from the 1800+ polling stations. Statements were lost, placed in ballot boxes, not forwarded to the pertinent officer, not adequately filled in, not signed and - in the most damaging admission - reconstructed. The problems stemmed from three faults in management. A large number of presiding officers exuded complete ignorance or lackadaisicalness in the discharge of their functions. It is a sign of either poor training or inexplicable deliberateness, both of which this Commission has to ensure do not recur. Secondly, the absence of a reliable, functional backup in the event that the original polling statement could not be found was apparent. So instead of the presiding officer or a cluster of officials from a particular polling booth being sought out to attest to a copy of the results, Commission officials engaged in rewriting and modifying documents. This immediately served as a red flag in front of a bull raring to go even if it was just an honest breakdown. The posting of a copy of the duly signed statement outside the polling station after voting would certainly help. Thirdly, the chain of command in the handling of these statements - as in other areas - clearly broke down and there was no uniformity in the treatment of this vital document.

Apart from the polling statements, the transmission by phone of the results - not really an issue in the petition - was a disaster; too few lines for too many polling districts.

Security and transport of the ballot boxes after voting was also a sore issue. A pre-arranged plan was dumped on a countermand from the CEO and as a result those in charge of boxes did their own thing. The length of time it took to report the results of the Region Four boxes - the closest physically to the Commission - was also an occurrence that led to much speculation. For two elections in a row this has been the case. Bearing in mind the size of the electorate in Region Four, the Commission must devise a plan to avoid this troubling gridlock. Ultimately, this leads into the question of what is a reasonable time for the Commission to declare a preliminary final result (midnight?). It must be done as quickly as possible thereby depriving troublemakers of manoeuvring room.

The consensual verification of results which the Commission adopted in 1997 to placate the political parties was not catered for by law and could easily have been challenged. What measures does the Commission anticipate if, for instance, questions are raised about the results?

These and a number of other areas are ripe for comment by the Commission. Let's try to avoid a rerun of this painful electoral soap opera.

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