Begin voter education in schools, EAB says

-wants Gecom hiring, training overhauled

The Electoral Assistance Bureau (EAB) wants voter education to be taught in schools, saying that Guyanese are largely unprepared for elections because of the absence of a sustained civic education programme.

In its report, “Lessons learned 1992-2011:

Recommendations for Reforming the Electoral System,” the local observer called for an end to voter education in a vacuum to avoid Guyanese engaging in acts that could potentially derail elections.

“The general absence of civic education makes the citizenry very vulnerable to manipulation by specific interests and provides fertile ground for the many problems that have plagued elections, including attempts by the public and whole communities to cheat the system, confusion, and violence,” the EAB said.

As a result, it proposed that a suitably qualified professional group comprehensively evaluate and set out a compulsory civic education component of the formal school curricula at the primary, secondary, tertiary, and vocational levels. It added that the non-formal education system should conduct remedial education modules for delivery via television, radio, and the newsprint as well as work place seminars in the public and private sectors.

It said that the Ministry of Education should spearhead the initiative in collaboration with the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) and a proposed Elections Protection Bureau along with support from a suitable group of organisations.

Urging that the education programmes not be one-off affairs, the EAB further recommended that they be ongoing and should address basic issues such as the history of Guyana; education about the state, the organisation of the state system and governance mechanisms; the constitution; functions and procedures of Parliament; mechanisms for citizens to participate in the decision making; electoral laws, systems and procedures; and the rights and duties of citizens.

“Appropriate education materials should be prepared and delivered in indigenous communities using indigenous languages and indigenous experts,” the EAB added.

The local observer group has also proposed that the recruitment and the training of polling day staff be overhauled to reduce errors and manipulation at future polls.

Though Gecom’s polling day staff received high marks from the EAB for their competence and professionalism, the report notes instances at polling stations where laws were broken and where staff did not always respond in a consistent way.

“In 28 stations, there were serious concerns about the competency and commitment of the staff and there was also the case of staff members that willfully broke the law,” it said.

It also observed that quite a number of staff members who executed their duties to a high standard were not too certain about what to do in the grey areas. For example, it said there was considerable inconsistency in the approaches taken by presiding officers when voters marked their ballots on the symbol rather than inside the box provided.

Some presiding officers accepted the marks as valid whereas others were observed rejecting the ballots. There was also inconsistency when it came to whether or not to admit observers and allow them to witness the vote count.

The EAB also found considerable inconsistency in the way presiding officers approached voting without a valid photo ID.  Irregularities uncovered included isolated cases of multiple voting or voting using someone else’s ID card.

The EAB also found that some presiding officers sent away persons even though their names were on the list and some allowed persons to take oaths. “Persons present in the polling stations knew this but no arrests were made. It is evident that the seriousness of these crimes was not impressed on polling day staff nor was there a protocol for addressing them in a discrete manner, so that staff members would not be afraid of reprisals,” the EAB added.

Since 1992, the EAB said, presiding officers have been inconsistent in their knowledge about observers and their entitlements.

That, the EAB said, reflected the lack of clarity in the laws, regulation, systems and procedures, and the training that Gecom provides to them and other polling day staff. It pointed out that the Gecom training manual for polling day staff, for instance, does not have a clearly developed section on elections observers, why they exist, and what are their basic functions and entitlements. It also noted its concern that local observers were treated less favourably compared to their foreign counterparts. “Some presiding officers were willing to bend over backwards for foreign observers and were exceedingly charming but were outright rude to local observers,” it said.

Against this background, the EAB recommended that the process for recruitment and adequacy of the training for polling day staff should be reviewed and improved. In tandem, the EAB hopes that a reduced number of polling stations would help with quality control.

It added that the proposed Elections Protection Bureau should play a major role in auditing the recruitment process to ensure consistency as well as background checks of recruits.