LADIES AND GENTLEMEN GOOD MORNING
Please allow me to begin by thanking the Dominica Association of Industry and Commerce for the opportunity to meet with you this morning.
The Electoral Commission has long held the view that civil society groups and organisations are important stakeholders in the electoral process and every opportunity must be taken to ensure that they are participants in the dialogue.
In that regard, the Chief Elections Officer and I, have in recent months, accepted the invitation of and held discussions with, the Dominica Christian Council (separately) and the leaders of a grouping of organisations including the said Christian Council; the Dominica Business Forum; the Waterfront & Allied Workers Union; the Dominica Bar Association; the Dominica Association of Evangelical Churches and the Dominica Public Service Union.
This morning presents the opportunity to meet with an even broader audience, as rather than communication through the leaders, you have provided the opportunity to meet directly with your organisation’s constituents.
So enormous is the task that you have set before me however, I have requested and your Executive Director has kindly consented to my calling on reinforcements in the persons of Mr. Ian Michael Anthony, the Chief Elections Officer and Mr Elias Dupuis, the Commission’s Press & Public Education Officer. It is somewhat of a tag team effort that we therefore propose to present to you this morning.
ELECTIONS. One word in any language in which it is used, which serves to evoke differing perspectives, emotions and behaviour. To my mind, at least in a democracy, it represents CONSENT. The consent of the governed to be so governed. This consent being manifested regularly and periodically by the expression of the free will of the majority. Throughout the world it is often an untidy process. I am however unaware that any better process has been discovered for giving effect to it.
We are well aware that democracy, however we define it, involves much more than the existence of free and fair elections. Such elections are merely part of it, albeit an essential part. The democratic process of course also requires the existence of the fundamental freedoms. Freedom of Expression, of Assembly, of Movement. Fortunately for us, those freedoms have been an important part of our tradition and the Dominica history is replete with examples of how we have fiercely guarded these freedoms.
Our recognition of the central nature of these freedoms have also found expression in the fact that they form part of the most entrenched provisions of our highest law, the 1978 Constitution.
THE CONSTITUTION. The emotive nature of discussions about elections often seem to throw up buzz words. And unfortunately in recent years, “the Constitution” has become one of those buzz words. As a result, daily discourse appears to blame, or credit the Constitution, with almost all aspects of the electoral law.
In my view it is important to clarify this, since as you are undoubtedly aware, the Constitution itself requires that any changes made to it require very special procedures and extra ordinary Parliamentary majorities and in some cases even the consent of the majority of electors in the form of a referendum. The electoral statutes on the other hand, merely require the agreement of the simple majority of the members of Parliament (following review by the Electoral Commission and the Chief Elections Officer) for any change to be effective.
So what does the Constitution actually say about the electoral process?
Section 56 (1) establishes an Electoral Commission for Dominica. It consists of a Chairman, appointed by the President of Dominica, acting in his deliberate judgement. The only stipulation being, that this person must be an attorney at law, of no less than seven (7) years standing. Two other members are appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister and two others by the President on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition.
The Constitution also provides that the Electoral Commission regulates its own procedure; acts on the basis of decisions of the majority of its members and “in the exercise of its functions under the Constitution, not subject to the direction and control of any other person.”
Provision is also made in the Constitution for the Office of Chief Elections Officer. This officer is appointed by the President following consultation with the Commission. In respect of the conduct of his constitutional duties, the Chief Elections Officer acts solely on the direction of the Electoral Commission.
The Constitution importantly, seeks to further insulate the Commission and the Chief Elections Officer, by requiring that Commissioners and the Chief may only be removed by the President, upon the recommendation of a tribunal of Commonwealth judges appointed to inquire into any alleged misbehaviour, or inability of individual concerned to perform.
What then does the Constitution say is the work of the Commission? Section 38 (1) to my mind bears setting out in full. This section reads as follows:
“The Electoral Commission shall be responsible for the registration of voters for the purpose of electing Representatives and for the conduct of elections of Representatives and Senators and shall have such powers and other functions relating to such registration and elections as may be prescribed by law.”
Save for this overarching provision setting out its responsibility, the Constitution has left it to the regular statutes, passed by Parliament in the ordinary manner and similarly amended by simple majority, to flesh out the manner in which the Commission, assisted by the Chief Elections Officer and his office, are to undertake registration of voters and the election of Representatives.
On 16th July, 1951, the House of Assembly passed the House of Assembly Elections Act, and on the 20th June, 1974, the House passed the Registration of Electors Act. Both pieces of legislation have been amended over the years and both have accompanying regulations made by the Electoral Commission pursuant to the statutes.
These two pieces of legislation have formed the body of our law for the past 68 years and have been the basis on which this country has conducted successive elections, which elections have resulted in a change of government on a number of occasions over the years.
Over the 68 year history of the conduct of elections under our existing system, there have been complaints about the validity of particular results in specific constituencies. The electoral law itself makes provision for the challenge of such contested results through the Courts established by the Constitution itself, by way of election petitions.
The rule of law, another often quoted buzz phrase, and nevertheless another critical element of the democratic process, compels respect for, and acceptance of the final outcome of such processes. Once completed, the expectation is that the country and its citizens are able to move on to the important tasks of national development.
That is not to say that the system has not been without its challenges and does not require improvement and I will speak to this very shortly. I am of the view however, that any objective observation of our existing electoral process would have to agree that it has provided us with very credible expressions of the will of the majority of the people of Dominica over the years. And I make bold to say that it remains capable of doing so.
The ability of the electoral system to effectively deliver, requires however, the active participation of all stakeholders in the process. In my view, the construct of the electoral laws bears this out.
While the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Office have the constitutional responsibility for the conduct of registration of voters and elections, there is little doubt that it is unable to do so effectively without the significant input of the State’s Executive, both political and administrative, Parliament itself, the political parties and the population in general. Indeed the law itself sets out responsibilities for these participants in the process.
That is not to say that the Commission and the Electoral Office ought not to jealously guard their constitutional mandate and make every effort to give effect to the insulation and protections which the Constitution has sought to provide.
So for example, shortly after becoming Chairman, the Commission which I led noted that the compilation of the Electoral Lists was conducted by the Computer Centre of the Ministry of Finance. The Electoral Office at the time lacked the basic infrastructure to produce the lists of registered electors, a function which stood at the heart of its legal mandate.
The Commission went about commissioning the development of a new Voter Management System and engaged appropriate IT professionals to undertake the task and to advise on the equipment required to bring about the repatriation of the electoral lists into the Electoral Office.
I take the opportunity to give credit to former Chief Elections Officers Ms. Merina Williams and Mr. Steven La Rocque, for their very hard work in bringing about this change and the Government of Dominica for readily providing the requested funds to bring about this very important reform.
This unheralded change greatly assists in improving the accuracy and effectiveness of the management of the electoral lists and as well as the ability of the Electoral Office to meet the statutory deadlines for the production of the lists, particularly the final lists required for the actual conduct of an election.
The law itself however makes provision for improving its accuracy.
Dominica’s laws makes provision for continuous registration, meaning that unlike some other countries where registration takes place at intervals, we register persons entitled to become electors on a continuous basis.
Dominica’s law also establishes a RIGHT to remain registered once you have met the criteria and has thereby become registered.
This in my view bears repeating. Section 7 of the Registration of Electors Act states in part as follows:
“A person registered pursuant to this Part shall remain registered unless and until his name is deleted from the register….” For specified reasons to which I will refer to shortly.
The Constitution, democracy, the Rule of Law, all of the important buzz words, in my view recognises that the rights created, expression, assembly, movement, and yes… the right to remain registered, are individual rights. They belong to you, to you and to the Chief and to Mr. Dupuis and yes, even to me. And they are not to be taken away from each and every one of us without very good reason, with great care and diligence and indeed, short of in the case of the deceased, without affording us the right to be heard!
The Chief will shortly speak to who may become registered and the manner in which registration is conducted. I will however, refer back to section 7 of the Act.
The Law requires the Office of the Registrar-General of Births & Deaths, as well as district registrars, to twice yearly, provide the Electoral Office with a list of the names of persons who are recorded as having died, since the last submission. I recall that at the time I assumed Chairmanship, this requirement was seldom observed. The Electoral Commission engaged in discussions with the Registrar General with the result that today, the information is provided several times each year.
In addition, Registering and Assistant Registering Officers are tasked with obtaining and verifying information as to persons whose names are on the list and who are deceased in their respective districts.
Last night, I sought and obtained the permission of a friend to reveal the contents of a conversation which we had on the weekend. My friend was challenging me on the other buzz phrase of our time, ELECTORAL REFORM. I was told, if you all have indeed been making efforts to clean the list, why is it that the name of my deceased aunt is still on the list and she has been dead for many years now. I asked my friend; where did her aunt die and she indicated that she had died in a foreign jurisdiction. I asked, how would the Electoral Commission know that her aunt was deceased and the reply was that she (my friend had a copy of the death certificate). The light immediately shone in my friends eyes as she recognised that she held in her hands the ability to assist the Electoral Office remove her aunt’s name from the list. My friend happens to be one of the brightest young persons who I know.
Therefore each and every one of us is similarly in a position to assist the process of improving the accuracy of the list, by providing the required information which may be only within our personal knowledge.
The Act allows for persons who allege that an elector is disqualified from remaining on the list to make an objection thereto. It goes on to detail the manner in which such objection is to be made and dealt with. Provision being made therein for bring such objection to the attention of the elector concerned and providing an opportunity for such elector to be heard. An appeal mechanism is also put in place.
Upon publication of every list, notices are issued to the general public to review the lists and to register any claim of omission or other inaccuracy and to similarly file any objection to the inclusion of any particular name or names. Lists are also prepared for the political parties to which symbols have been issued for the purpose of contesting elections.
Notwithstanding what is heard in the public as to the accuracy of the lists, the evidence indicates that little use is made of the claims and objections process which is designed to deal with the very issue which is complained about and which if used, provides the mechanism for fairness to both the elector complained about (whose rights stand to be affected) and the complainant, who has a vested interest in insuring that his vote is not diluted, by the presence on the list, of persons who have no right to be.
Sixty- Eight years is indeed a long time in the life of any system and the electoral system is no exception. For a very long time, there has been the recognition that reviews and modernization was required.
One of the issues identified has been that of uniquely identifying the voter in order that we are able to be sure that the person who shows up in the polling station to vote, is who he says he is. I have heard this issue identified repeatedly by the two (2) previous Chief Elections Officers, with whom I have had the pleasure of working.
The difficulty encountered by election officers, may be illustrated as follows: [refer to Elias Dupuis’ situation].
The Chiefs have been of the view that this difficulty would be greatly remedied by the introduction of identification cards with certain personal information. The record indicates that since the 1980s, successive Electoral Commissions and Chief Elections Officers have sought funding from the Executive for the purchase and implementation of an identification card system. Funding was eventually provided a few years ago, firstly as part of the OECS led, Multi-Purpose Identification Card system and later, when that OECS initiative ran into difficulties, as part of a direct initiative of the Electoral Commission itself.
It is to be noted and is often quoted that the existing law does make provision for the chief elections officer to “cause identification cards containing prescribed information to be issued ……..” (Section 19 of the Act), the Commission, on taking the advice of experts in the field has recognised that the prescribed information of name and registration number, are woefully inadequate. The Commission therefore sought the introduction of an identification system with accompanying cards, which would include the biometric data of each elector, to include, along with his name and registration number, his signature or other mark, his picture and his finger print. This would put us in step with the vast majority of other Commonwealth Caribbean Countries which have already implemented such processes.
As has been done in those other countries, there was also the recognition that statutory intervention was also necessary to allow the Commission to require the taking of personal biometric data. It was also important to ensure that the law provide for the security of such data and its release only under the strictest of judicial authorisation.
The Commission’s request for funding of the new identification card system was met by the Government to the tune of EC $ over 3 million. The system has been developed to the Commission’s specifications and the Electoral Commission currently has at its disposal, all of the equipment and software necessary for the implementation of the system. All that is missing as part of the equation is the implementation of the statutory amendments for bringing the system into effect.
The history of the draft legislation is well known to you and unfortunately remains a matter of much disagreement, on areas, which in my respectful opinion are not incapable of arriving at compromise, if we genuinely wish to see the process advanced.