Some of the ballots used in the 2015 general election did not include a space for the official mark and initials of the presiding officer as required by law, and, therefore, is defective in design, Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace said in a media address to the nation Tuesday night.
“By placing the space reserved for the official mark in the counterfoil instead of on the ballot, in breach of law, the 2015 ballot, if complied with by the Presiding Officer, rendered your vote invalid! Quite simply, it prevents the ballot being confirmed as the ballot the Presiding Officer actually gave to the voter,” Eustace said.
Eustace said that at polling stations CL F and CL F1 in Central Leeward, presiding officers failed to put their initials and official mark on the ballots themselves.
“As a result the ballots of all of the voters at CL F, the Anglican Pastoral Centre in Layou, some 222, are invalid and should not have been counted; and the ballots of 99 voters at CLF1, the Louis Straker Centre in Layou, are similarly invalid and should not have been counted.
“Let us digest that for a moment. Three hundred and twenty-one voters across two polling stations in Layou were disenfranchised. More than three hundred voters lost their vote!” he said.
He noted that under Rule 40(1)(a), at the count of the ballot, any that does not bear the official mark shall be void and not counted.
The address came ahead of a judgement, expected to be handed down soon, in which High Court judge, Justice Brian Cottle, will make a decision regarding whether two election petitions lodged by Eustace’s New Democratic Party (NDP) were improperly filed and should be thrown out, as the government is asking the court to do.
The Ralph Gonsalves Unity Labour Party (ULP) was returned to office for a fourth consecutive term by a one-seat majority in the Dec. 9 general elections.
The petitioners, Ben Exeter and Lauron Baptiste, are asking the court to overturn the election results in Central Leeward and North Windward, which they contended on behalf of the NDP.
Eustace said that in an affidavit submitted as part of the court case in Central Leeward, Winston Gaymes, the Returning Officer for Central Leeward, says that he decided to count the invalid ballots.
In his affidavit, Gaymes said:
“The facts are as follows; when I opened the box CLF, I discovered that the ballots in this specific box did not have the initials of the presiding officer nor any official mark on the ballots. As a result, I stated that I was minded to reject all the votes in this specific box.
Mr. Exeter and his lawyers however indicated to me that they were not objecting to the ballots and consented to all the votes in box CLF being counted. That is the time and occasion I said ‘what is good for the goose is good for the gander’.
I meant that Mr. Exeter’s consent was the right thing to do as both candidates would receive and in fact received votes from this box.
I therefore counted the ballots in box CLF”
Eustace commented: “The Returning Officer is stating that he, charged with implementing the law as it pertains to the conduct of elections, exercised a discretion the law does not give him. He swears that he recognised that the ballots were invalid and that he chose nonetheless to count them, in clear defiance of the law!”
Eustace asked listeners to forget Gaymes’ claim that Exeter and his representatives urged him (Gaymes) to count the ballots.
“That is both illogical and untrue. The point is that by law he could do but one thing but decided not to.”
To illustrate the “seriousness of this miscarriage by the returning officer and the presiding officers”, Eustace quoted the case of Gunn versus Sharpe, stemming from a local government election in England in 1974.
He said this is the defining case with respect to how the courts treat with matters affecting the quality of an election.
“The case is remarkably similar to ours, with the exception that ours presents a worse scenario,” Eustace said.
He told radio, television and Internet audiences that in Gunn versus Sharpe, some 98 out of 6,453 ballots in the Langley election were invalid because they lacked the official mark.
“That amounted to 52 per cent of only one affected polling station. In Central Leeward, 321 out of only 4,697 ballots were invalid because they lacked the official mark. That amounted to 100 per cent of one affected polling station and 40 per cent out of the second affected polling station,” he pointed out.
He, however, noted that in Gunn versus Sharpe, the court held that disenfranchising half the voters in one polling station was such that the conduct of the election was a travesty or a sham.
“That’s how important the quality of the election is to the people and courts in democratic societies. And that is what our High Court will have to decide if the petitions are not struck out,” Eustace said.
He said that in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), nationals tend to prize outcome above process, saying this perhaps it is not unique to this society.
“But in my respectful view, that approach is short-sighted and lethal to democracy. Take for example a criminal case. The people want to ensure that those guilty of crimes are made to pay for having committed those crimes. But if the guilty are not proven guilty, but through sleight of hand or corruption of the court process are simply found guilty without thorough examination of the evidence, then so too will innocent people be found guilty without basis. The process is every bit as important as the outcome. The ends do not and cannot always justify the means,” he said.
“With respect to elections, if they are not conducted substantially within the framework of the law, then we simply have no democracy. Anyone who tries to minimize the importance of that process is antidemocratic, and, therefore, stands against you the people in the exercise of your franchise, your hard fought right to vote.
“Regard with suspicion any person who argues that it is irrelevant that hundreds of Vincentians who bothered themselves to vote, lost those votes through no fault of their own; for that is the seductive mitigation of a dictator, not a democrat.”
Eustace said that since 2001, the people of SVG have experienced “the targeted erosion of fundamental rights and the deepening of protections for the powerful to act with impunity.
“These are attacks on democracy. For when the people are not protected from abuse by police such as happens when we do not have PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act); when politicians do not have to account to Vincentians for their wealth and the source of same, through the failure to enact integrity legislation; the refusal to abolish criminal libel; and incessant civil litigation against political dissenters, there is no democracy.”
He noted that when, after the 2010 general elections, NDP candidates filed private criminal prosecutions against four candidates of the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) in respect of election offences as defined by the Representation of the People Act.
The ULP administration immediately sought to repeal the relevant sections of the RPA “so as to remove the sanctions those offences carried — that was a concerted attack on the democratic process itself,” Eustace said.
“So too was the beating of parliamentarians and another citizen in the precincts of the parliament and at the instruction of the Speaker of the House.
“There are numerous other issues, in respect of which some evidence has not yet been filed and I am therefore not at liberty to bring to you the people,” Eustace said.