Commonwealth report flays Elections Commission over vote verification

Stabroek News
January 15, 1998

The Commonwealth Secretariat in its report on the December 15 elections said it found counting of ballots to be "unnecessarily slow and tedious" and it faulted the Elections Commission for poor administration of the voter tallying process during verification.

While the report did not pronounce on the integrity of the final elections results, its comments on the Commission's performance in tallying is likely to bolster concerns raised by opposition parties about flaws in the post-December 15 processes. The report also raised concerns about the computer database for tallying. It referred to charges of fraud in the polls but did not pronounce on them.

Advance copies of the Commonwealth report were yesterday in circulation and on its section on the close of polls and counting - where there has been much focus - the report said that counting was wearisome.

"In some cases, it took more than three hours to count less than 200 ballots. At some polling stations the lack of proper lighting was a contributing factor while in many centres it was mostly the necessary procedures that made the count last long", the 32-page report stated.

The first step in the process entailed separation of voter ID cards from ballots and this was time-consuming. Ballots were then separated for regional and general elections and those for the latter counted first with the Presiding Officer scrupulously showing party agents, poll clerks and observers each ballot before placing them on a pile. Spoilt ballots were subjected to the same type of treatment.

In spite of the shortcomings, the counting was concluded to the satisfaction of the parties, the report asserted.

"However, it would appear that the procedures with respect to handling the Statement of Poll were not followed completely in some polling stations, notably in Region 4", the report said affirming earlier reports from within the Commission itself.

For example, the report said that the vital statements were locked in the ballot boxes instead of being dispatched in a separately sealed envelope while other statements of poll did not have the requisite signatures.

However, the report said that at the polling stations monitored the Commonwealth observers were impressed with the spirit of the polling day staff.

The report said that problems surfaced on December 15 in relation to the tallying of votes. The Commission procedure required that duly signed Statements of Poll would be fed into computers and the Commission was able to announce some initial results.

"The database system initially appeared to be reliable. Problems arose, however, because a significant number of Statements of Poll were unsigned or were absent. Or, as we had occasionally observed, they had not been sent in the designated envelopes", the report disclosed. This problem was particuarly severe in District Four, the richest electoral region, the report said.

Realising there was a problem, the Commission on December 16 invited political parties to aid in verifying results so that official ones could be declared.

"This process of verification contributed to the unavoidable delay in the declaration of results, which still remained incomplete three days after polling", the report added.

It said that the system was slow because it was manual and not computerized and the declaration of results was further compromised because "the Commission failed to organize effectively or manage efficiently the tally process in which the political parties had been invited to participate". The report noted that tally sheets were not provided in sequential order and this led to double counting of some polls. This was one of the main reasons why the People's National Congress (PNC) pulled out of that verification exercise on the night of December 17.

In addition, the report contended that Presiding Officers often combined national and regional results and the Commission did not discern this until the flaw was pointed out by party agents.

The report further said that there was a "worrying disparity between the results that were agreed between the Commission and the party agents and those that were announced by the Chairman of the Commission".

It added "we observed that the overall administration of the tallying process by the Commission was not only not transparent but very poor".

Noting that the process was later stopped to permit the Commission to regroup, the report pointed out that the process resumed on December 18 and continued until the morning of December 19. This prolonged delay led to uncertainty and rumour-mongering on the streets, the report said.

It also said the period was exploited by both major parties - the PPP/Civic and the PNC - to declare victory prematurely.

It noted that eventually, the Commission Chairman on December 19 declared the winning party and the president although all of the votes were not tallied.

The observer delegation left on December 20.

In its conclusion section, the mission listed 16 conditions which it said prevailed for the people to freely cast their ballots.

The report listed as shortcomings, the inadequate handling of the tallying by the Commission, variations in close of polls procedures, the lack of a defined mechanism by the Commission "for communicating its decisions on the results" to the parties and the public and an inadequate database for processing the tallying and the results.

"We believe that these shortcomings contributed to the diminished credibility of the election results that were being announced by the Commission", the report concluded.

The Commonwealth group comprised 14 observers and eight support staff. The mission was headed by former Tanzanian President Ali Hassan Mwinyi. On December 15 it observed voting at 342 of the 1800 polling stations and assessed the count at 20 polling booths.