Registration and Voting

Taken from: Governance and Democracy in the Commonwealth Caribbean: An introduction by Patrick Emmanuel pp 53-57 

Matters related to the registration of voters and the conduct of elections have been surrounded with much greater conflict in the region than constituency issues. A useful description of difficulties regularly encountered with such matters throughout the region is the following commentary, made about the Jamaican case: 

“Criticisms and strictures have been directed generally against breaches provided through loopholes inherent in the system and abuses perpetuated by corrupt election officials. These have focused more specifically on charges such as ‘bogus voting’ that is, impersonation (voting in a fictitious name, in the name of a deceased person, etc.), multiple voting by an individual, the deliberate omission of qualified persons from the electoral list, the padding” of the list, and the stuffing of ballot boxes”. (Gladstone Mills, “Electoral Reform in Jamaica”, Parlia­mentarian, LXII:2, April 1981, p. 7).” 

Mills’ identification of problems with registration is amplified by comments made by some chief election officials in their election reports. Consider the following candid submission by Antigua and Barbuda’s Supervisor of Elections: 

There are still the names of many dead persons on the list, many persons living overseas and names of persons who have registered in other constituencies. Duplication of names has caused the Electoral List to be inflated and not showing a true picture of the total number of voters. This has caused me some great concern and I wish to recommend that machinery be set up to hold complete voter registration of the nation ... Government ought to heed this suggestion in order to correct the present situation”. (Report on the General Elections ... 1989. Supervisor of Elections, Antigua and Barbuda, p. 3).” 

Reports in other territories have also cited problems posed by electors such as refusal to register for religious or socio-economic reasons, or failure to submit changes of address after enumeration. 

In Guyana serious socio-political concern has been long expressed particularly with overseas registration and voting, proxy voting and the transfer of ballot boxes to the capital before a -preliminary count is done at polling stations. However, in a series of amendments to electoral law, these sources of abuse have been eliminated. 

Elsewhere there have been many instances of protest with regard to voting and vote counting, including allegations of treated ballot paper and unfair rejection of ballots. As a result, there have been several cases of election petitions seeking judicial redress of alleged electoral wrong-doing. But no general election in toto has been ruled invalid in consequence of judicial examination. 

Quite apart from the problems and conflicts which arise with corruption, or laxity in administering unobjectionable existing laws and regulations, there are aspects of the electoral systems themselves which seem to be inherently defective and in need of reform. In his above-cited article on Jamaica, Mills observed that there were demands “to establish an impartial body to remove the conduct of election from within the influence of an elected Minister”, and that it was in response to this crisis that the Electoral Advisory Committee and Office of Director of Elections were created. (Ibid). As has been shown, all countries now have formal arrangements in place for the independent supervision of elections, though these arrangements are not uniform throughout. Most of them have Commissions in charge while a few have independent election officials only (viz. Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines). 

It is noteworthy that in Antigua Parliament is involved in the recruitment of the Supervisor. According to section 67:1 of the Constitution, “The Governor General shall by notice published in the Gazette appoint a Supervisor of Elections on resolutions to that effect of both Houses of Parliament specifying the person nominated for appointment”. Parliamentary selection in fact means selection by the majority party, i.e. the Government. 

The desirability of this exceptional provision merits some considerable reflection. 

In this regard it is appropriate to recall that the Constitution Commission of Grenada reviewed arrangements for electoral administration there and commented that: 

“Although there was no evidence before

the Commission signifying widespread

                                          dissatisfaction with the manner in which

                                          the Supervisor carried out his functions,

                                          we recommend that the function of the

                                          Constituency Boundaries Commission

                                          be extended to include the conduct and

                                           supervision of the elections ... as is the

case in some other member states of the

Caribbean Community ... The Supervisor

of Elections could become the chief

administrative officer of the Commission

and be subject to the direction and

control only of the Commission in the

                                           exercise of his functions. His appointment

                                            could be made by the Commission or,

                                            alternatively, by the Governor-General

                                            acting after consultation with the Chairman

                                            of the Commission”. (p. 22).   
  In Grenada, the Supervisor currently, is “the person holding or acting in such public office as may for the time being be designated in that behalf by the Governor-General acting in his own deliberate judgement”. (Sec. 35:1, Constitution). In St. Vincent, the office whose holder becomes Supervisor is designated by “the Public Service Commission, or, if the Commission so decides, by such other person who is not a public officer as may for the time being be so designated, but before exercising its powers under this subsection the Commission shall consult with the Prime Minister” (Sec. 34:2, the Constitution). 

In St. Vincent then, the Prime Minister may be involved in the process of appointing a Supervisor of Elections, depending on whether the PSC decides to recruit one from inside or outside the Service. 

There is also room for reflection on the principle of choosing the senior election officials from within the ranks of the civil service, having regard inter alia, to the powers Prime Ministers have over senior appointments therein. Furthermore, the engagement of the Prime Minister in the process in St. Vincent is exceptional, like the engagement of Parliament in the case of Antigua. Although there is also prime ministerial involvement in the appointment of chief election

officials in Barbados, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago, these cases of course differ from St. Vincent in that their officials are under the control of Elections and Boundaries Commissions. In St. Vincent however, the official is the sole authority over the conduct of elections. In Antigua too. 

Another concern is the recruitment of staff of Elections Offices from within the ranks of the public service. Grenada’s Constitution Commission advised that it “would be unwise for the [proposed] Electoral Commission to have to depend on the staff of another Department or Ministry of the Government under the control and direction of a Minister of Government to carry out its functions”. Thus it should be made a requirement in the Constitution that the Commission “must be provided with the requisite staff and funds to enable it to perform its functions properly”. (p. 22). 

However, it must be recognised that in small communities, with limited numbers of requisite skills, the scope for recruitment of the very many persons needed to conduct registration and elections, totally outside the ranks of public employees, will be quite constricted. Governments employ, as teachers and civil servants, a large proportion of the requisite talent, and selection of electoral staff from these categories is a practical necessity. What matters at the least, is that by secondment from the public service to the Electoral Offices, the supervision of their electoral functions comes under Electoral Commissions rather than of Ministers. 

In any event, the integrity required for carrying out electoral duties is a function of individual character, and not of employment in the public service or elsewhere. Any employee may be corrupt or corruptible. Actual experience and the safeguards in place to weed out corruption are critical factors. 

One further matter that is worthy of consideration is the scope for co-operation among countries in helping each other to improve the machinery of electoral administration. Examples exist, for instance in the case of Grenada in 1983-84 where the electoral system needed substantial overall, following its suspension after 1979. Commendable assistance was forthcoming from within the region in revising laws and regulations, instituting a system of voter identification and conducting a whole new process of enumeration and registration. 

The level of expertise and experience varies from country to country and even from individual to individual. It should presumably be quite feasible to devise a system, within the framework of the Caricom Treaty, to institutionalise mechanisms for moving expertise to points where it is most needed, such as in the demonstrated cases of registration in Antigua, or Guyana. In this regard a Conference of Election Officials, under appropriate auspices, could be a useful starter. Greater attention to the subject of Electoral Administration in University courses can be helpful.