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General look at elections

General look at elections Philip "Jimmy" Serrao (Nigel Browne)

By Geralyn Edward | Sun, April 01, 2012 - 2:15 PM

As the country, political parties and pundits get into gear in preparation for acoming general election, constitutionally due by next year, a former key official in the electoral process, Philip “Jimmy” Serrao, recently sat down with Business Editor Geralyn Edward and shared his wealth of knowledge on the rules and conduct of a general election.  Serrao was a member of the Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC) from 1985 to 1990 and was one of its longest-serving chairmen when the attorney at law led the body for 15 years – from 1995 to 2010.

Exactly how long can a Government go before it is forced to call a general election and are there any circumstances in the Constitution that allows an administration to stay in power longer than a five-year term?

Serrao: Unless the Governor General dissolves Parliament earlier, Parliament continues for five years from the date of its first sitting and then stands dissolved.

After every such dissolution, there is an extension of 90 days within which period

the election must be held and the writs for the election are returnable to the Governor General containing a certificate as to the identity of the member who has been elected for the particular constituency.

Accordingly, since the first sitting of Parliament after the last dissolution was on February 12, 2008 then election day is to be within 90 days.

As a result, May 12, 2013 is the last day for the holding of the elections.

Who is allowed to vote in a general election?

Serrao: Citizens of Barbados or Commonwealth citizens who have resided in Barbados for at least three years; are 18 years or over; and have resided in the constituency for three months.

There are concerns about the impact non-nationals have on the outcome of an election. If a non-national has a local ID card but his current status in the country has not been regularized, can he still be allowed to vote?

Serrao: In the case of non-nationals, only those with permanent residency and immigrant status who meet the qualification to be registered may be allowed on

to the voters’ list. They must present their respective certificates or their passport with the “resident” stamp in it from the chief immigration officer confirming their residential status, and it is from that evidence and date that the three years are counted. Persons holding work permits only are not allowed to be registered as voters.

What is the penalty for not allowing a person time from work to vote? Can a worker be penalized in any way if he or she takes time out from work to vote?

Serrao: The penalty is a fine of $500 or imprisonment for six months. The employer must allow every elector in his employ a reasonable period of not less than one hour for voting, and there is to be no [deduction] from his pay or any penalty imposed on him by reason of his absence during that period.

Why is a voter not allowed to mark his or her “X” with an ink pen? Why is it done with a pencil that can be erased?

Serrao: There is no law which prohibits a voter from making his or her “X” with a pen. A pencil is merely offered as a matter of convenience. If a person’s ballot paper is inadvertently dealt with by him, he may on delivering it to the presiding officer at the station obtain another ballot paper in its place and the spoilt ballot paper is cancelled.

Is there any rule or law preventing me from taking my cellphone into the voting booth and taking a picture of my ballot? How is such technology dealt with?           

Serrao: There is no such law. However, since the conduct of elections and matters incidental and consequential to same are subject to the directions of the Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC), in an effort to prevent misuse and to control use of those devices, notices are placed at the entry point to each polling station notifying voters that those devices are prohibited and providing a receptacle for them to be deposited and collected after having voted.

How does the EBC verify what a candidate spends and what is the limit?

Serrao: Within seven weeks after the election results are declared, the election agent for all candidates must not only transmit to the supervisor of elections a return containing all payments made by the election agent and expenses incurred by the candidate, but must also submit all bills and receipts. If the supervisor is not satisfied that the return is a true one, he may make an investigation.

The limit of the amount a candidate can spend is $10 per registered elector in his/her constituency.                       

Why does it take so long for election results to be made public?

Serrao: There is no requirement in the legislation for election results to be made public other than a provision in Rule 51 which requires the returning officer, when the result of a poll has been ascertained, to “immediately” declare as elected the candidate receiving the majority of the votes. This is done on the night of the election and as early as two hours after the counting has started, which is usually at 8 p.m.

How much does a person have to pay to become nominated as a candidate in an election and in what circumstances does he lose his deposit?

Serrao: The sum of $250 must be paid to the Accountant General and this deposit is lost if the candidate does not poll more than one-sixth of the total number of votes polled in the constituency.

Do you think that electronic voting should be introduced in Barbados?

Serrao: The use of electronic voting cannot be addressed in isolation and necessarily be seen as “progressive”. It must be judged in terms of how the electorate views its impact on the overall credibility of the electoral process, taking into account the historical and cultural factors which have shaped the direction, supervision and conduct of elections in Barbados.

Public trust in our manual system has never been compromised or put under scrutiny. I am not satisfied in my own mind that Barbadian voters are at this juncture ready to accept and give their full confidence to a reform process which would result in electronic voting or to adopt a system other than a manual one. If it ain’t “brek”, don’t fix it.

Why is the chairman the face of the EBC and not the chief electoral officer?

Serrao: In the final analysis, total responsibility for the administration and conduct of free and fair elections falls squarely upon the shoulders of the Commission and by extension its members. Since all roads lead to the Commission for the efficient and impartial exercise of those functions, I consider that the chairman must be the spokesman on all matters pertaining to the conduct of elections.

Is the chief electoral officer provided with any special constitutional protection or power?

Serrao: The chief electoral officer is not provided with any special constitutional protection. However, in an election the chief electoral officer has considerable responsibility as he/she is the chief registering officer and supervisor of elections.

Having sat as chairman for almost 15 years, do you think there is need for any changes in the laws governing the EBC?

Serrao: Yes. On the question of qualification to be registered as an elector, only citizens of Barbados should be permitted to be registered and allowed to vote. A person should not qualify to do so merely because he is a Commonwealth citizen residing in Barbados for at least three years.On the question of limitation of election expenses, the amount which a candidate or his election agent may pay or incur in respect of each registered elector in the constituency of $10 should be increased given the fact that value of money has changed considerably since this was introduced 15 years ago.

When it comes to the special electoral registration period, after the issue of a writ for an election there is a 19-day special electoral registration period. These are the last days within which alterations to the electoral list can take place.

There is a misconception by candidates and electors that during this period and that even up to election day, a person can be registered as a voter or his/her residence be transferred from one place to another place in which the voter is then residing. From the date when the writ for the election is issued there is a variable but maximum period of seven days within which a voter must apply to be registered or to change his or her address.

Failing the filing of such an application, the person is either not registered or must remain registered at the old address.

The change of address and other forms submitted by politicians and electors during this period first require investigation and processing by registering officers before changes can be entered on the electoral list and it becomes almost impractical to complete this entire exercise before the final Register of Electors is printed and published.

As a result, some persons who would have submitted these forms (approximately 2 500 in 2008) – for example, persons who would have changed their addresses – would not have had their applications processed and would remain registered at their old address. This has created many issues as those persons would have anticipated that having filed the application, they would be registered or vote at the new address only to find on election day, no such registration or change was made.

My own recommendation is that once a writ has been issued for an election, then no further registrations or transfers are allowed and an elector remains registered in the constituency in which he is shown as registered when the preliminary list is published three days after the writ is issued.

Also, the financial penalties provided for in electoral legislation bear no relation whatsoever to the value of money and should be increased.

In Sections 44-56A – Election Expenses – Forms 3 to 6 inclusive in the Third Schedule to the Election Rules, there must be a complete review and overhaul of these sections and rules. They are not only cumbersome and confusing but the forms are outdated, incomprehensible and far from user friendly.

With regard to the use of use of cellular phones, smartphone and other electronic communication devices, there is no legislation which prohibits this. Accordingly, legislation ought to be introduced to prevent electors from entering polling stations with or using them within the station and for persons carrying those devices to surrender them before entry

A similar provision should apply to all persons attending the counting stations other than the Supervisor/Deputy Supervisor of Elections, Returning Officer and officials of the EBC.

Regarding the signing off by counting agents, counting assistants and returning officers at the time of the counting of votes, there is presently no provision for this.  It is recommended that at the end of the counting of each box that these persons shall sign a form to be included as one of the forms in the Electoral Rules.

How is the size of the electorate in a constituency arrived at?

Serrao: The law states that the electorate shall, so far as practicable, be equal in all constituencies but should not exceed 115 per cent, nor be less than 85 per cent, of the total electorate divided by the 30 constituencies.

As at January 31, 2012, there were 245 672 electors in Barbados and when the formula is applied, the minimum number of electors in a constituency should be 6 961, the average 8 189 and the maximum 9 417. Only one constituency (St Philip South) in 2012 exceeded the maximum limit to any significant extent (by 921 electors).

Are there only particular persons who are allowed to the counting of votes?

Serrao: Yes. Unless permitted by the returning officer, only certain senior and specific electoral officials, the candidates, their wives or husbands, election agents, counting agents and members of the EBC can attend.

When may a recount of votes be carried out?

Serrao: The candidate or his election agent, if present at the counting, may require the returning officer to have the votes recounted but the returning officer may refuse to do so if in his opinion the request is unreasonable.

What are the requirements for you to become nominated to be a candidate in an election?

Serrao: Apart from having to pay the deposit of $250, four electors – a proposer, seconder and two other electors from the constituency –must assent to your candidature by subscribing to the nomination paper on Nomination Day.

 

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