Voter registration matters a great deal and we know that political operatives would try to frustrate or manipulate participation. Indeed, access to the vote and resisting electoral fraud are twin goals of a clean election.
Most of us are partisan in one form or the other. But this week I am moved to defend the Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC), given some public comments that have been made about alleged impropriety on the part of that august institution.
I have said in the past that good elections demand transparency and professionalism by the election management body. In a previous article, I also voiced my concern over the political nature of the EBC in Barbados. Specifically, I argued that a genuinely independent election administration is key to the achievement of free and fair elections, for the fulfilment of horizontal elite accountability and ensuring some element of legal accountability.
I further argued that one of the unfortunates in Barbados and the majority of states in the Commonwealth Caribbean is that we operate the party representative model in the appointment of the members of the EBC/EC which has implications for the impartiality of the election management body whether perceived or real. I further contended that the EBC has much to achieve in terms of the international benchmarks for genuine independence.
Even while acknowledging that this may well be the case, it is a far cry from condemning the men and women of the Commission and the workers employed by that institution for lacking integrity. Specifically, as we approach this critical election, the role of the 30 registration officers becomes heightened as they are vital to the determination of who gets registered.
I will begin with a crucial role of the Commission and that is the declaration of results after they have been tallied. At no point in time in the electoral history of Barbados that I am aware of, has the Commission failed to declare election results in a timely manner as has occurred in one of our neighbouring countries.
What does this means? For one, it means that irrespective of the outcome of the elections, the Commission, as it ought to, accepts and verifies the outcome even when those persons charged with managing the EBC are appointed by incumbents who are defeated.
Not so was the case in St. Kitts-Nevis, where on the night of the February 16, 2015, Wingrove George, the acting supervisor of elections, whose email address at the time was “Labourdog”, deliberately withheld the results of two constituencies, which were not declared until two days later.
From the comfort of my hotel room in St. Kitts where I had retreated following a hard day of observation, I watched in horror as the acting supervisor smirked as the first results came in showing Labour’s success, which quickly turned to consternation and then total shut down, -all of which was carried live on national television- as it became clear that TEAM unity was victorious.
For two days, the country waited, and to the credit of citizens, there was no riot although there were some skirmishes outside the Elections Office in Basseterre. The information that charges have been laid against the former acting supervisor in itself is good news for regional democracies, for it speaks to the rule of law.
I have also criticised the government and by extension the EBC for the failure to invite election observers into the country to verify the cleanliness or not of the election process in this country. That is not to suggest that elections are bad but there is a plethora of action that ought to be taken and which appears not to be on the horizon of the EBC and the government.
Now more than ever, the EBC would be stupid and naïve to attempt to sabotage the elections by deliberately padding the voters list among other things. Besides the stupidity (and the Commissioners are not stupid) of deliberately subverting the elections to ensure a DLP victory, the voters list must be made public and in a timely manner to allow scrutineers to make any complaint to the EBC.
My information is that the registration list must be made available to all political parties by January 31, 2018. Is the allegation then that the EBC will have two lists? A formal list which will be provided to the DLP and a parallel list given to all other political parties?
Further, any citizen has the right to request a copy of the list of electors although these can normally be sourced in at least one newspaper and the public library. Under Section 34 of the Representation of the People (Registration of Electors) Regulations, 1990, the EBC is obligated to provide any person, on payment of a fee of $750, a copy of the Register of Electors in respect of every constituency. So citizens, once sufficiently motivated, can personally access the Register of Electors.
But even before the publication of the list of eligible voters, the 30 registration officers must decide on who is eligible to vote based on applications and an investigation into the residency of the applicant. That is standard procedure. These officers are appointed by the Board of Management of the EBC and no less than a distinguished individual as Dame Billie Miller is a crucial figure in that process.
Under the Representation of People Act, the Chief Registering Officer supervises and directs registering officers in the performance of their functions and the Act requires that the registering officer or the enumerator must comply with any general or specific directions which the Chief Registering Officer (The Chief Electoral Officer) may give. The Chief Electoral Officer (Supervisor of Elections for the purpose of elections), while therefore clearly in a position to question the decision of the registration officers, does not make unilateral decisions in that regard.
Like everything else there are checks and balances. At the end of every month, the EBC is supposed to send correspondence to every registered political party, in relation to insertions (in relation to persons coming onto the list of a constituency) and deletions (persons who have been deleted for various ranging from shifts in the geographic location of electors to death) in every constituency.
So parties can do their own investigation. This is further evidence of checks and balances. There is an objection period as well, and any citizen on the constituency list can object to a name on the list which requires an investigation by the Commission. Under Section 40 of the Representation of People (Registration of Electors) Regulations, 1990 any person can make a claim or objection to the registration officer of the constituency within 5-7 days following the date of publication of the list of electors and the registration officer will deem (given the provisions of the Regulations) whether or not the objection has any merit which will then be investigated.
These objections can be honoured or rejected. But the protocols are clearly outlined in the Regulations. There is no attempt to mystify the public. It simply requires, as I previously stated, sufficient energy and motivation to access the Regulations which are available via the World Wide Web free of charge. Whenever in doubt, I retreat to the source document, not to second hand, salacious propaganda. That is unhelpful in a genuine democracy.
Let us also not forget that good elections also connote that the candidates, political parties and ordinary citizens can sue the Elections Commission for a number of wide ranging issues. So for instance, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we have the ongoing case of the NDP which filed two election petitions against the election body challenging the results in the Central Leeward and North Windward constituencies in the December 2015 general elections.
One of the tenants of good elections is the recourse to the law to mediate election related issues and this is available to political parties, citizens and candidates in Barbados. Of course, as we were recently made aware, there are always issues pertaining to voter eligibility. And so we have a number of Commonwealth citizens contesting the refusal of the EBC to register them as voters. But overall, the law demands that potential voters meet certain requirements in order to register to vote. There are no onerous requirements on the eligibility to vote.
I would concede that that there is a close link between registration and voter turnout, especially as certain demographic groups like the young and the poor and the less educated are less likely to register and vote. And this can be partly improved with greater attention to public education by the EBC.
Is there collusion among the Board of the EBC, registration officers, the judiciary and the incumbent government? I think not!