Public education and training of electoral officials clearly deficient
The judge in the elections petitions matter has promised a decision on March 21, but even without that judgement, at least one thing cannot be disputed. Much greater priority must be placed on public education and the training of election officials.
Since the elections petitions were filed in December 2015, there has been widespread public discussion, most of it ill-informed, about what happened, what did not happen and what should have happened in the Central Leeward and North Windward constituencies where the results are being challenged. But from the testimonies heard in court over the last two weeks, we now know that while the elections seem to have been conducted in accordance with the principles of the Representation of the People Act, a surprising lack of clarity about the electoral processes, procedures and electoral law exists among some officials who worked on election day.
It is unlikely that these types of errors were isolated to Central Leeward or even to the 2015 general elections, for that matter. They have been made public because of the intense scrutiny under which the processes in that constituency were placed in 2015 and because today, we now have something called social media.
While it is also not likely that the mistakes which have been reported were pervasive, or that they affected the outcome of the elections, they provided an opportunity for doubt to creep in about the integrity and transparency of the process. Our democratic process is too important for there to be any doubt about its fairness and credibility.
This is why, as a matter of priority, heavy investment must be made in a public education program which will have intensive training for potential polling staff as a key component. Such programs, when done well, are not inexpensive, as they must take place over several months, use all available forms of media, and include illustrated training manuals for elections officers and agents, which may also be shared with the media and other interested members of the public. These manuals give in detail, what must be done at every point: on the days leading up to election day; on polling day; and on the day after the poll. Every voter must know what the ballot paper will look like and what to expect when he or she goes into a polling station. The appearance of the ballots to be used cannot be a secret known only to a select few. How is it possible to train poll day staff on the use of a ballot without showing them a specimen?
The investment in such a public education program will serve to enhance the integrity of our election process. All election staffers must have the competency to apply electoral procedures accurately, impartially and consistently; and our voters must be alert and confident about what is required of them when they step into the polling booth.
There are some who instinctively balk when suggestions are made that electoral processes be more open and transparent. But for all the people to have faith in the process, we have no choice. Sunlight is a powerful antiseptic. Let’s open up the process so that doubt, lies, mystery and ignorance will not breed or proliferate.