By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Nov. 27, 2020)
Yet again, an official of the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) has brought into question the secrecy of the ballot. This is the second time in just over a decade that prominent individuals in the ULP government have made the claim that the party’s leadership knows the political choice of citizens.
Back in 2008, Julian Francis, the ULP general secretary and long-standing, successful campaign manager, told a stunned nation that he knew how the Syrians voted. This wild and sinister statement was repeated by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves on Nov. 19, while addressing the nation on the state-owned National Broadcasting Corporation, NBC Radio.
Gonsalves said, “Despite what I did for the sailors, objectively, most of them voted against the ULP… And they form a network across the country — I am telling you — who opposed me.”
There is a lot that is wrong with this statement and those of us concerned about democracy and the democratic process in St Vincent ought to be both alarmed and concerned. We cannot remain silent.
All democracies pride themselves on the secrecy of the ballot. The vote during elections is reflective of the sovereign will of the people. Therefore, if PM Gonsalves and his party leadership know how people voted, it means that that the vote is not secret. To violate the secrecy of the ballot strikes at the heart of the democracy.
Without knowing what Francis and PM Gonsalves know, we remain convinced that the ballot is secret. If he speaks with scientific certainty in proclaiming that he knows for which party sailors voted, then he is admitting to violating the Constitution of St Vincent and the Grenadines. This boldface admission is nothing less than misbehaviour in public office.
Therefore, Gonsalves should be asked to stand in the Parliament and tell the nation, in a clear and detailed fashion, how he knew the manner in which the majority of sailors voted.
As we noted in the “Views and Issues” programme on SVG TV last Sunday, if Gonsalves cannot prove to the satisfaction of citizens how he knows what he claims to know, then we can only conclude that his statement was intended to spread fear and alarm in the nation, and to intimidate citizens. We recall that Patel Mathews, who lost by one vote, said some voters told him that members of the North Leeward constituency said intimidation was one reason they might have feared voting for him.
Whichever way we answer these questions, all citizens must ask: What manner of man is this? What kind of political animal leads our nation?
Here is a leader that has won five consecutive elections and yet remains unsatisfied. Gonsalves’ narcissism — his constant desire to crave the nation’s attention — has repeatedly brought unnecessary negative attention to himself.
His attitude begs the question: What shall it profit a man if he were to gain the whole world and in the process, lose his own soul?
Opportunity to clean up voters’ list
The Nov. 5 elections present our nation with yet another opportunity to clean up the voters’ list. During those elections, more than 65,000 Vincentians cast their votes for the party of their choice. The opposition New Democracy Party (NDP) garnered 32,859 votes while the governing ULP received 32,329. This was a very high turnout considering the fact that there remains residual fears about the coronavirus.
One of the priorities the new Parliament should tackle is a way to make the electoral list as accurate as possible. One way to do this is for parliamentarians to agree that the only registered voters are who voted in the last elections. Following the agreement, the Supervisor of Elections should be mandated to purge the list of all remaining names.
The voters’ list has more than 98,000 names. We are a country with about 106,000 people. We know that about 32,000 Vincentians 17 years and under. Therefore, we can safely account for 97,000 Vincentians. Many of the remaining names on the list are of persons who are dead or abroad. It means that less than 10,000 or 15% of Vincentians in the country made the decision not to vote in the last elections.
A voter turnout rate of close to 85% is an impressive amount. The turnout rate is a sign that our people remain interested in the democratic process. In Jamaica, the turnout rate in 2015 was 49 % and 37 % in 2020. In Trinidad, there was a 66 % turnout in 2015 and 58 % in 2020. The turnout in the Jamaica and Trinidad elections was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, all effort should be made to encourage even more Vincentians to register and vote, while ensuring that the voters’ list accurately reflects the number of eligible voters.
The Organisation of American States Democracy project offers assistance to member states to address these matters. We should access such assistance to ensure that our system of elections becomes even more transparent.
The office of the Supervisor of Elections can then embark on a voter registration drive to ensure that all eligible voters are included. It should be equipped with mobile caravans that travel across the nation to encourage registration. We should also put in place a system to facilitate automatic registration of persons who get driver’s license, and connect the Registry with the Electoral Office so that once per month all registered deaths can be sent to the electoral office, so that names of dead persons can be removed.
There is really no reason why we cannot have a more accurate list. All we need is the political will of legislators and the commitment of the workers at the electoral office.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].