The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Parliament has passed an amendment to the election law that will see 23,741 names removed from the voter’s list ahead of the next general elections, constitutionally due by March 2016.
The amendment to Representation of the People Act is the result of a bi-partisan effort to clean up the voter’s list, which, as of May 26, 2015, was a mere 2,038 persons fewer than the 2012 population.
The amendment now means that only persons registered on or after June 1, 2005 are qualified to vote — unless they re-register.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, in tabling the bill on Thursday, told lawmakers that the size of the voter’s list has ben a matter on which there has been immense public discussion, led by the Office of the Supervisor of Elections.
Gonsalves, who has ministerial responsibilities for electoral matters, said the bill was also the subject of discussion between the office of the Supervisor of Elections and the parliamentary opposition, the New Democratic Party.
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He said a discussion was convened under the auspices of the Office of the Supervisor of Elections and the opposition and the government several weeks ago.
There were an agreement and a report and subsequently all sides made public statements that they support the changes proposed by the Office of the Supervisor of Elections, who wrote to the Attorney General and had dialogue and the draft law was arrived at, said Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Legal Affairs.
“I lay that backdrop for anyone who would open this Parliament to the critique that this was done in some surreptitious manner and went through the House in three stages without proper debate,” Gonsalves said of the law that passed all three stages on Thursday.
In explaining the need for the amendment, Gonsalves pointed to statements from the ruling and opposition parties and successive
Organisation of American States elections monitoring teams and other election observers, including local observers.
These entities have all commented on the size of the voter’s list.
“Though the population is just over 100,000, the number progressively over the years reached that magic six figure mark and, clearly, it can’t be that the voter’s list can be 100,000, in excess of 100,000, in this case, the last number generated as of … May 26, the country was 107,150, when the 2012 census says the population 109,188 persons,” Gonsalves said.
“Clearly, that can’t be a situation that all those person are here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines eligible to vote. [It is] just not possible,’ he said, adding, “… But really, the problem is not that there has ever been any skullduggery.”
Gonsalves said that the law passed in 1982 provided for continuous registration of electors and the removal from the list of the names of persons who have been overseas for a continuous five-year period.
He, however, said there was a problem in removing those persons from the list since there is no interconnectivity between the Immigration Department and the Electoral Office for the relevant officials to know who has been overseas for more than five years.
He said the further time moves from 1982, the closer the voter’s list gets to the size of the population.
He noted that the Representation of the People Act allows of the removal the names of dead persons from the list, adding that this is easier to do since there is interconnectivity the registry of birth and death and the Electoral Office.
“But you can’t just take them off like that. So what is happening, the Supervisor of Elections is submitting, and we have agreed on both sides that you will publish a list in the three newspapers and in the gazette of those who you are going to exclude from the register and you will be giving them 30 days from the publication of this notice to refute that they should not be excluded,” Gonsalves said.
“This bill will clean up the list by 20-something thousand voters. Twenty-three thousand or thereabout,” he said.
“Persons may hear the legalese, but the legalese is basically doing the following: there are too many people on the list because it is realised that people five years — especially the five-year people who are overseas, that they are not qualified to vote under the law and we need to clean up the list. And one practical way is to use that date but still to give people and opportunity if there is an error, the one month to sort it out,” Gonsalves said.
The voter’s list will now be composed of all persons with new ID that came into effect in July 2005. But it will also include persons who have registered after that date but have not converted to the new ID cards.
“We are not taking away anybody’s constitutional right because all we are doing is cleaning it up in the framework of the law and where we have to have a practical way, we have to come here to do this,” Gonsalves told lawmakers.
And opposition lawmaker Godwin Friday, speaking on behalf of the opposition, said the nation was faced with anomaly where the voter’s list seems to be out-racing the population.
He said there was a fear that the situation lends itself to abuse and improper practices in the conduct of elections and the voting process.
“And there is nothing more important, Mr. Speaker, in a democratic country than the integrity of the voting system. Political parties come and go, leaders come and go, but the people remain sovereign at all times and their will must be paramount in an election process and must be manifest in the outcome of an election,” Friday said.
“When that is no longer there, everything falls apart and it is important that person who see changes being made in the way that they are qualified to vote and exercise their franchise that it is done transparently and in their best interest,” said Friday, who is also MP for the Northern Grenadines.
He said that having called for and having heard the call of others for the tidying up of the voter’s list, the New Democratic Party looked forward to the opportunity to do so.
He said every citizen has an obligation under the law to ensure the integrity of the voter’s list and election process.
“No piece of law can guarantee a free and fair election. That comes from individual commitment to free and fairness, the integrity of the office of Supervisor of Elections, the integrity to the voting process, all the people who are inside the polling station and every citizen taking their civic duty seriously, and being vigilant that the law is implemented as intended.
“I have no doubt if it is implement as intended it will achieve its purpose and will not do mischief,” Friday said.