Editorial: Election drama

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What would an election in our bit of paradise be without a heavy dose of drama?  The latest commotion involves the filing for an injunction to squash the Electoral Commission’s decision to move the polling stations from Barbuda to Antigua and ensure that Barbudans can vote in Barbuda. The applicant in this action is Trevor Walker and the defendants are Nathaniel ‘Paddy’ James, Chairman of the Electoral Commission the OTHER commissioners with the exception of Jeanette Charles.
The application seeks to restrain the respondents from “denying the Applicant his constitutional right to vote in the ensuing general election in the Constitution [sic] of Barbuda where he reside [sic].”  Mr. Walker also asserts that the Commission’s claim that Section 35 of the Representation of the People Act provides the legal basis for relocating the Barbuda polling station to Antigua “is an incorrect interpretation” and the decision, if allowed to stand, “is tantamount to the disenfranchisement of the Applicant.”
Before we touch on the disenfranchisement aspect of the argument, let’s have a look at Section 35 of the Representation of the People Act (No. 17 of 2001).  Keep in mind, we are not lawyers so we interpret this as laymen.  The relevant section which the Commission is basing its argument seems to be 35.1(c) which states, “the polling place for any polling district shall be an area in that district, except where special circumstances make it desirable to designate an area wholly or partly outside the polling district, and shall be small enough to indicate to electors in different parts of the polling district how they will be able to reach the polling station at the polling place.”
In response, Mr. Walker contends that there are faults in the Commission’s interpretation of that subsection of the Act. In his supporting affidavit, he states that there is no definition of “special circumstances” and that “it could not sensibly be applied to the Constituency of Barbuda (as it would to the the other 16 Constituency on Antigua) since in the case of Barbuda the island … is a single polling district” and, “…it would be absurd and impossible to designate an area partially or wholly outside of the geographic boundaries of Barbuda as a polling place.” To further bolster his argument, Walker states: “There are no impediments at present that would prevent the Electoral Commission from conducting the ensuing elections in Barbuda. In fact, the nomination of candidates of the general election, which is a requirement of the law, will be conducted in Barbuda next week.”
Confused?  We can certainly empathise. And we are so happy we are neither lawyers nor judges. The legal arguments on both sides seem to have merit but ultimately, only one will prevail and with only 3 weeks to an election, we have a funny feeling that the courts will give the Commission the ‘benefit of the doubt’.
From a legal perspective, we think that the essence of the Act is found in clause 35.1(d) which addresses when a polling place need not be designated for any polling district. It talks of size and other circumstances but concludes by stating “… such that the situation of the polling stations thereat does not materially affect the convenience of the electors or any body of them”. And that is what we are talking about – affecting the convenience of the electors registered in Barbuda or any body of them.
That is why this discussion is beyond lawyering and courts. It is about convenience, or more to the point, disenfranchisement. It is about the possible disenfranchisement of a good number of people in a constituency that has a history of close or tied elections. As we pointed out before, in the last three elections, two have been won by a single vote and the other was a tie that required a special run-off election. Disenfranchising just one person in the Barbuda constituency could affect the outcome of the election.
We think that the disenfranchisement issue is the crux of the matter and there are sufficient solutions that can be employed to overcome any hurdles with polling in both Antigua and Barbuda; because no one would want to disenfranchise the registered voters that are living in Antigua either. The Commission should do more than simply say that the decision to move the polling station is to cater to the convenience of those living in Antigua. That is not enough in the circumstances.  The convenience of both sets of voters must be taken into consideration and one cannot be disadvantaged for the benefit of another.  
And the drama may not stop there because we are now waiting for someone to challenge whether those voters that are registered in Barbuda but living in Antigua are still qualified to vote in the Barbuda constituency. Section 16.3 of the Act states: “Where a person who is registered as an elector for a constituency has ceased to reside in that constituency he shall not on that account cease to be qualified to be registered as an elector for that constituency until he has become qualified to be registered as an elector for another constituency.”  Can it be argued that those living in Antigua have “become qualified to be registered as an elector” for the constituency in which they reside and should do so?
Just another episode in the election drama that we call the “Days of Our Political Lives.”  Stay tuned.  

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