I believe that we have reached the point where people were shot in the street for their involvement in the most basic of their human and constitutional rights, namely to protest peacefully, largely because the conceptual and operational process established by the Guyana Elections Commission to present the results of the 2011 national and regional elections was deeply flawed.
Firstly let me say that I am one of those who believe that we must at all times uphold the right of persons to non-violent peaceful protest and that this should not rest upon whether or not we agree with their reasons for the protest. It so happens that on this occasion I am on the side of the protesters, although not because I believe that APNU won the elections or that a recount would fundamentally change the results. Those who follow these columns would know that I believed the present outcome to be the most probable.
However, I believe that many persons, particularly those in the PPP when it was in opposition, have fought long and hard for the right to count the votes at the place of poll and the initial refusal of the Election Commissions to verify the statements of poll severely undermined that right. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that there is no point in having counting at the place of poll if you leave open the possibility of the collective SOPs at the central level being manipulated with no recourse to the parties directly concerned! Verification processes should be a basic principle of our democracy and should not be compromised. For example, modern notions of consultations require that they be “meaningful” and not perfunctory.
But this refusal to verify is not unrelated to the more glaring flaw in the operational framework of the Commission. On the Tuesday morning after the elections, the Commission Chairman, Dr. Steve Surujbally, made a statement that the Commission has to place accuracy above speed in delivering the results of the elections and then suggested that the Commission knew that the final results would not be ready until either Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. I noted also the Commission’s claim of the technical difficulties, e.g. having to send back statements of poll for arithmetical reasons and having to wait for statements from hinterland and riverain areas, but that the Commission must have been able to anticipate and make reasonable provision for these. It appeared to me too that many other countries with similar logistical challenges that should be facing this problem of late elections results do not appear to be doing so!
There had to be a more fundamental problem, so I Googled “counting votes at the place of poll” and the problem was immediately resolved. The Commission was working with a framework that contained a relational outcome which gave priority to accuracy instead of timeliness when what was necessary was one that juxtaposes the two concepts and points to the need for, more-or-less, two different processes.
The major problem that afflicts our system is the absence of a preliminary/interim result. “Unofficial interim results should be publicized as soon as possible. This is often done by the media or political parties, leaving the announcement of final results to the electoral management body. In the following days, the local offices of the electoral management body may perform the final count and prepare the official results. If results are challenged, additional procedures may apply.”
For whatever reason, our system make no provision for an interim result and even attempts by political parties and others to publish their understanding of the numbers are frowned upon. Instead of the Commission working with the parties to establish an acceptable system of interim results and educating the public as to the process, in a very Guyanese manner it sought to hog the process and depend only upon a final result.
This matter is related to the controversial call for verification in that if a proper system of an interim result, resulting from collaboration with all the stakeholders was in place, the need for verification would not have materialised and even if it had, a process would have been in place to deal with it in a timely fashion.
Properly established, voting at the place of poll has many advantages. It allows for greater transparency and should lead to more speedy results and cost less. For example, since voting is closer to home voters can be encouraged to watch the process of voting and counting, thus giving the public greater confidence in the process. Counting starts immediately upon the close of poll and a box of about four hundred votes should not take much longer than two hours to be counted. Opportunities for fraud will always exist but nothing on the scale of what occurred under the centralised counting system of the previous regime. There is also no need for enhanced logistics and security to transmit boxes since these are not moved until after the count.
Of course, there are what I consider some minor disadvantages. It might be easier for persons who vote against the general run of the community to be identified and intimidated and some people may therefore be constrained from voting in accordance with how they actually feel. This has been a long-standing concern, particularly in PPP areas. And since in some locations polling workers are not allowed to leave the polling stations, the long hours personnel must work, (from 6 am to 10/11PM) may lead to their making errors during the count, etc.
It might well be that the history of public distrust with the system has led the Elections Commission to rely on the single final results. If so, it was a mistake for it has led to untimely and questionable results. A system for an interim result involving all the parties and even the media must be put in place if future outcomes are to be more acceptable.