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Right to vote must be respected

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Tue, Sept 11, 2012

A landmark judgement handed down recently by the Appeal Court of the Eastern Caribbean, in respect of an election petition regarding the conduct of elections in Nevis, seems to have slipped by under the radar and escaped much regional attention. The implications for all of us in this region are far too serious for the matter to be ignored, since they have bearing on the very exercise of constitutional and political democracy in the region.{{more}}

In a nutshell, the Appeal Court deliberated on an appeal brought before it by the ruling Nevis Reformation Party (NRP), concerning a ruling by Justice Lionel Jones in a case filed by Mr Mark Brantley of the opposition Concerned Citizens Movement (CCM). Mr Brantley, who had narrowly been defeated (by a mere 14 votes), in the July 2011 elections to the Nevis House of Assembly by Mr Hensley Daniel of the NRP, had challenged the legitimacy of the conduct of the elections. In particular, the challenge centred on the removal of the names of some 203 voters from the List of Electors and the conduct of both the Supervisor of Elections and the Registering Officer in the constituency in question.

The Appeal Court not only upheld the ruling of Justice Jones, it had some stern comments about the conduct of the two election officials and how such conduct infringed on the rights of the aggrieved voters. Since the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, including us in St Vincent and the Grenadines, fall under the jurisdiction of the Appeal Court and have a similar electoral system, the Nevisian case should make us all sit up and take notice.

The role of the Supervisor of Elections is pivotal to the conduct of free and fair elections, the very basis of our Parliamentary democracy. In this case, the Appeal Court described the conduct of the Supervisor in Nevis as being of “reckless indifference” and “tainted by political bias”. These are very grave charges and, given the frequency of election petitions throughout the Caribbean over the years, they emphasize that in appointing such a key official, it is vital that the character and record of the individual chosen be such that fairness and respect for the rights of citizens play an important part.

The charge of “political bias” is especially frightening, since it also applied to the Registering Officer. There is always the temptation for political parties in office, who have influence over the election machinery to try and manipulate the system, so as to try and ensure re-election. But this cannot excuse the denial of the fundamental rights of the voters. It is a right for which our foreparents fought, suffered and even died! Whatever the political leaning of electoral officials, they have a constitutional duty to uphold the law and ensure fairness in the exercise of their functions.

The List of Electors and the names of persons on it has perennially been a bone of contention in elections in our region. In this case, the names of more than 200 persons were removed from the List by the Supervisor, obstructions to objections by those aggrieved placed in their way, and despite a directive from the Electoral Commission, the Supervisor of Elections refused to restore them. Evidence was presented to the Court that a number of those so prevented from voting, twice the victory margin in fact, had sworn that they would have voted for the Opposition.

Another worrying factor was the finding by the Appeal Court that the Registering Officer “had allowed party affiliation to come before her statutory duties…and fairness to all the voters.” Too often in the Caribbean, we witness public officials who are supposed to be independent and non-partisan being publicly identified with one political party. The charges of bias have even been hurled as far as those presiding over parliamentary proceedings!

It is for all these reasons that all of us – Governments, Opposition parties and above all, we, the citizens, strive to ensure that there is fairness and respect for the hard-won rights of voters in the conduct of elections at all levels. It is a fundamental pillar of good governance.

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