In a letter dated 24TH February 2017, the FREE AND FAIR ELECTION LEAGUE INC. applied to the Electoral Commission to be accorded Observer status for the purpose of monitoring and observing the Barbuda Local Government Election and By- election which were due to be held on Monday, 27th March 2017.
The Supervisor of Elections responded by letter dated 10th March, 2017 and granted the request. At the same time the League was advised to submit the names of the persons who would make up the Team in order for the necessary document to be prepared. The deadline date was 16th March, 2017.
Accordingly, the names of Bishop Dr. Rolston Jeffrey and George Rick James were given to the Commission.
On that said day, the photos of the two representatives were taken and the Data Processing Manager gave an assurance that the credentials would be ready for collection in a couple of days.
It soon became obvious that there was a problem with the time line. This caused the Secretary of the League, Mr. George Rick James to visit the Commission three days before the election to enquire about the “ID” passes. He was then advised that the documents would be delivered to his office the next day.
Despite the fact that the credentials had not been delivered as promised, the Team comprising of Bishop Dr Rolston Jeffrey and George Rick James still decided to go to Barbuda. Their intention was to use the letter from the Supervisor of Elections according the League Observer status as a substitute for the official credentials.
The Team arrived in Barbuda on Sunday 26th March 2017. Later that same afternoon, our Observers went into town to survey the scene and while driving around saw a large contingent of Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) supporters and Ministers of governments walking the streets. The Team was told that a similar group of United Progressive Party (UPP) officers and members of Parliament were doing the same thing on the Friday and Saturday.
On the way home, the Team saw a number of persons engaged in activities at the Holy Trinity School where the elections were to be held the next day. The Team decided to take a look at what was going on and as the two Observers entered the enclosure, the Supervisor of Elections called them to a room and handed over the ID passes .
REGISTER OF ELECTORS
Under the Barbuda Local Government Act, the register to be used for the Council Elections is the register used in the conduct of General Elections.
Due to the limited resources available, the Team was unable to witness first-hand the election campaign. Nevertheless, several different persons reported that a lot of money and material goods were used to induce voters to cast a ballot one way or another. The offering of paying school fees, electricity bills and taking care of the needs of persons during the run-up to the polls were publicly justified by a Minister of Government responsible among other things for Barbuda Affairs.
It is clear that meaningful and stringent laws regulating the amount of money a candidate or political party can spend on an election campaign is urgently needed. An equal amount of money to fund campaign should be the norm.
Barbuda depends on the media in Antigua to cover elections on the island. There are two daily newspapers currently published in Antigua. These are the Daily Observer and the Carib Times. The airwaves are crowded with numerous radio stations. Observer Radio, ZDK and Crusader Radio are the most popular ones. Government owns and controls radio ABS & TV which usually favor the ruling party in power. There are two privately owned cable television companies.
Every one can freely express their opinion without any noticeable hindrance. Coverage of elections in Barbuda is limited. Reports of matters pertaining to elections are usually done by interested political activists calling in on the talk shows.
TERMS OF REFERENCE
The Terms of Reference was that the team would observe and monitor the Council and bye-elections. Information would also be gathered from all and sundry. A report was also to be presented to the Electoral Commission at the end of the process. This would include conclusions and recommendations.
We observed the polls being opened at 7.00am in all four stations on election day, Monday 27th March 2017. The ballot boxes were shown to be empty to voters present before being sealed. What stood out was a notable strong contingent of police personnel in attendance. They could easily be identified as consisting mainly of members of the Special Branch Unit.
During the period which the polls were open we did not observe any incident that required the intervention of the police. However, the officers whose conduct was exemplary throughout the day did not make any effort to prevent several high powered government ministers and some supporters from unlawfully entering the counting station later that evening.
PERFORMANCE OF ELECTION OFFICIALS
It was observed that the electoral officials showed a reasonable high level of competence for the most part. The Presiding Officers, Poll Clerks and the agents of the candidate made sure voters eligibility was carefully checked. The officials also tried to follow the rules and proper procedure in most cases.
CASTING OF VOTES
The Observers were able to access the polling station freely. Voters were asked to enter the station one at a time. Once the eligibility of the elector was checked and verified, the Presiding Officer would explain to the voter that there were two elections, the Council and the bye-election.
Almost every voter opted to vote in both elections. There were two separate ballot boxes and two different screens. The voter would be given either ballot paper and after casting a ballot would then be handed the second paper to complete the process.
The Team is not sure if the election rules had been amended as voters who applied for a second ballot paper had black electoral ink on the voting finger after casting the first vote. We later found out that the practice was contrary to Section 41 of the Regulations.
Another important observation was where persons would enter a polling station unaided but once inside would declare in a loud voice that they needed help to vote because of poor eyesight or some other incapacity.
In such instances, the Presiding Officer would then ascertain for whom the disabled elector wished to cast a vote. Once told, the officer along with the agents of the candidates and the voter would go behind the screen and complete the process.
We noted the practice taking place close to a dozen times in one polling station. The same thing was reported to have taken place in other polling stations.
Another matter of concern to the Team was that although it was known to the officials that one of the polling stations was without electricity from the moment the voting started, no steps were taken to correct the situation. Luckily, the last two votes were cast just about the same time when the daylight faded.
There was nevertheless a great measure of confusion in trying to reconcile the paper work, as this had to be done using some small battery powered lantern. At one stage when the Presiding Officer, the clerks and the agents were unable to get the figures to match, an aborted attempt was made to insert an extra ballot into the box. The matter was sorted out some how after the ABS TV crew that was in another room nearby came and assisted with an emergency standing lamp.
For the most part voting was slow in all four stations. This was due to how the process was organized where every voter who took part in both elections had to duplicate the casting of their vote.
CLOSURE OF POLLS
The polls were closed on time at 6.00pm. Counting of the ballots was done at a central location. A member of the Team was given the task of observing the count. It was noticed that the rules were not enforced. Unauthorized persons were allowed to enter and leave the counting station at will. On several occasions persons were walking in and out of the room to charge cell phones.
The Council election was the first to be dealt with. That was concluded soon after 3.00am in the morning. At 3.45am, the counting of the ballots for the bye-election commenced and the process was concluded at approximately 5.30am.
There appeared to have been an inadvertent omission in the second election as the Returning Officer never officially declared what was the total ballot cast or which of the two candidates had received the majority of votes cast.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Despite the irregularities cited, the breaches of the election rules in a few cases did not impinge on the overall integrity of the polls. In that regard, the Free and Fair Election League Inc. has therefore concluded that both the Council and bye-elections were conducted in a manner that was free and credible.
The Free and Fair Election League Inc. recommends:
- That the size of the Council should be reduced and all the substantive members including the Senator should be elected at the same time.
- That Council Elections should be held once every four year and the present system of rotation of members every two years should be abolished. Such a measure would allow for more certainty to be in the outcome of the election. The chances of a hung council would be reduced as neither side would be at a disadvantage before the election.
- Only a Citizen of Antigua and Barbuda who has resided in Barbuda for at least seven years continually should be appointed Supervisor of Elections and Returning Officer from the names of persons recommended by the leaders of the party in Council.
- Electors who claim to be incapacitated and need to vote should be required to have their disability certified and registered with the Electoral Commission a few days before the election.
- Based on reports from several credible sources, it is recommended that more meaningful laws governing campaign financing be placed on the books.
- There is no more compelling argument for the introduction of electronic voting than to consider the recent Barbuda Local Government Elections where the polls opened at 7.00am on the morning of Monday, 27 March and the final count was not completed until 5.30am the next day.
The Barbuda Local Government Election was conducted in an orderly and peaceful manner. Even though voting was slow and electors had to wait in long lines, they were good mannered and friendly at all times.
Commendation is given to the Returning Officer, Presiding Officers, Poll Clerks and the Agents of the Candidates who acted professionally despite having to perform at their best for so many hours.
Recognition must also go to the police force for ensuring that the conduct of the election ran smoothly.
The Free and Fair Election League Inc. team of Observers is satisfied that we were able to achieve our objectives and hopes the findings and recommendations will assist the Supervisor of Elections and the Electoral Commission and the Government to identify and address the problems with a view to strengthening the electoral and democratic process in Antigua and Barbuda.
The Free and Fair Election League Inc. would like to thank the Supervisor of Elections for according our organization Nation Observer Status in order to monitor, observe and report on the conduct of the 27th March, 2017 Barbuda Local Government Elections.
Much gratitude is also extended to Mr Ordrick “Montgomery” Samuel for his self-less generosity in ensuring the members of the Team were provided with meals and transportation at no cost.