By Dr. R. S. Surujbally
Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission
For some time previously and again recently, there has been much ado and unfortunate pronouncements about a “padded” Voter List. “Unfortunate”, not lastly because those making the statements should and do know better. Inherent in the word “padded” is the overt, clear and indubitable message that some person or persons at the Guyana Elections Commission has/have brazenly, actively, consciously and premeditatedly set out to undermine and tarnish the Voters List and to make it questionable in its validity.
This concept begets several questions. Firstly, who at GECOM would be prepared to perform such a heinous and treasonable act? The Chairman? It would strain any decent person’s imagination to even conceive of such an undertaking. Why would I compromise my integrity at the twilight of my career, as I am looking forward to a serene retirement? Similarly, it is quite inconceivable that the Chief Election Officer and GECOM’s Head of Operations. Mr. Keith Lowenfield, who has worked his way through the ranks with efficiency and competence, would want to besmirch his own image during his first great challenge as CEO. Our CEO was chosen and endorsed unanimously to be the technical head of this Electoral Management Body (EMB). At his appointment, he was congratulated and applauded by the major political parties and other stakeholders. To date, after more than 15 years at GECOM, he has exhibited and proven how capable he is. And I, as Chairman, wholeheartedly subscribe to the diligence of the CEO and his team.
In fact, and perhaps more importantly, the question must be asked: How would it be technically possible to accomplish such a feat of actively padding the Voters List, when there are so many observant onlookers, trained scrutineers, stakeholders, and so many systems and processes (registration exercises, Claims and Objections, editings and double verifications, Fingerprint Crossmatching exercises, etc, etc.). It would have to be a massive, multi-tiered conspiracy; yes, indeed, in end effect quite impossible.
Finally, for now, it must be categorically stated that GECOM has so many systems and measures in place to thwart any attempt, much less success, at multiple voting. Obviously, GECOM cannot and would not reveal such mechanisms. Further, I would like to remind that there are great punishments, including jail, that are associated with electoral fraud. Would a Political Party sympathizer love his or her Party so much as to “take jail” for his/her Leader? Would any worthy Leader want this?
Let us now turn our attention to the real reasons for the increase in Voters List over the recent years.
In line with good international, not lastly Commonwealth, Electoral Practice, an EMB is responsible for the registration of voters, the issue of identification cards and preparation of lists of electors. Guyana’s National Registration Act Chapter 19:08 attributes GECOM, through the Commissioner of Registration (who is also the Chief Election Officer) the responsibility for the compilation and maintenance of central and divisional records for the National Register of Registrants (NRR) and the production and delivery of National Identification Cards. GECOM is further responsible for producing – by extracting from the NRR – the Preliminary List of Electors (PLE), the Revised List of Electors (RLE) and the eventual Official List of Electors (OLE).
Since the 2011 general elections, the number of eligible voters increased by 95,290 or 20 per cent. The Official List of Electors for the 2011 general elections had 475,496 electors; the Revised List of Electors for the 2015 general elections had 570,786 electors. Generally speaking, this seemingly dramatic increase can be explained, inter alia, by increased institutional efforts and improvements to voter registration management.
The following are the significant explanations for the 2011-2015 increase in eligible voters:
- Outreach and more frequent registration exercises: GECOM’s move to implement continuous Registration over the last seven years is likely the number one explanation for the increase in registrants. Since the 2008 fresh House-to-House registration exercise, GECOM steadily improved outreach efforts and increased the frequency of registration exercises. In the period 2006-2011 a total of three registration and claims and objections exercises were undertaken, whereas in the 2011-2015 period a total of seven exercises were undertaken.
- Increased issuing of birth certificates: For registration, citizens must produce, as a source document, either a valid passport or birth certificate. The responsibility for issuing birth certificates lies with the General Register Office (GRO, Ministry of Home Affairs). GECOM has noted, since 2008 and especially during 2011-2015, a steady increase in the number of people able to register due to their possessing the required source document. This points to a progressive and sustained year-over-year increase in the number of birth certificates (ergo, greater facility to register) issued by the GRO.
- Civic and Voter Education: GECOM fulfilled its mandate to deliver Civic and Voter Education to encourage citizens to register. In fact, compared to past election activities, GECOM has implemented a heightened Civic and Voter Education programme. Newspaper, radio and television advertisements as well as information on the GECOM website, informs citizens of the Continuous Registration Exercises and the requirements, locations and timeframes for registering.
- Motivated citizenry: In addition to GECOM’s efforts, political parties and civil society organizations were observed to increase their activity relative to the motivation of citizens to apply for registration.
- Registrants coming of age: There were 37,355 registered persons (14 years and older) who would not have been 18 years of age at the time of publication of the 2011 OLE, but now qualify as electors.
- Deceased electors: GECOM requires more tools at its disposition in order to further cleanse the National Register of Registrants (NRR) of thousands upon thousands deceased citizens. The current legal mechanisms for treating deceased registrants include ‘flagging’ names on the basis of death reports received from the General Register Office (GRO) and objections raised by citizens during the Claims and Objections exercises. While these mechanisms can be effective, they also have drawbacks. Death reports from the GRO are not always complete and in some cases lack sufficient information to allow accurate identification of the deceased. During the Claims and Objections period, citizens can object to the inclusion of a deceased person in the Preliminary List of Electors. More often than not, insufficient evidence of death is provided, or the objector is not present at the indicated hearing, and the deceased person remains on the OLE. Let’s face it: Many persons would have died during the 2011-2015 period without their deaths ever been reported, not lastly because of location (geography), finance, laziness, non-adherence to the laws dealing with the acquisition of death reports, etc.
- Emigration: The 2015 RLE contains an unknown number of Guyanese who registered and subsequently emigrated. GECOM has regulatory power to remove emigrants from the NRR. In order to do so, it depends on information from the Immigration Office. These figures have not been forthcoming, and given Guyana’s migrant rate of – 9.7 per thousand, the NRR likely contains thousands of registrants that no longer reside in-country. Also there are those Guyanese resident overseas who visit Guyana, register, are verified, and then leave. GECOM cannot remove these citizens from the NRR on an ad hoc basis.
- Housing schemes: Substantive housing schemes across the country resulted in movement of citizens from often isolated or remote areas to more urban settings. Many of these citizens might not have made the effort to (previously) register, but would have likely registered at their new urban or peri-urban address.
(i) It is also worthy of mention that although there is no statutory requirement for review copies of the PLE or RLE to be submitted to political parties, GECOM made provision to ensure the voter registration process was open and accessible to all stakeholders, and – as a good transparency measure – shared the PLE and RLE with all parliamentary parties. The PLE, RLE and OLE are published on the GECOM website.
(ii) In line with good International Electoral Practice, political parties have comprehensive oversight competence of the registration process. Political party scrutineers have a continuous presence at all levels of the registration and Claims and Objections exercises. These representatives are present at registration offices, during visits to schools and when Assistant Registration Officers conduct house visits to verify the residency requirement. Scrutineers follow every single registration transaction and witness the collection of all National Identification Cards. Their participation in all stages of the registration process comprises a good transparency measure and guarantees the integrity of the OLE (the Final Voters List).
GECOM’s experience with Continuous Registration over the last seven years contributed to the quality and reliability of the OLE and demonstrated that technical and procedural challenges were generally surmounted, permitting an efficient management of the voter registration process. The “shelf life” of any Voters List, which had its origin in a House-to-House Registration (H-t-H R) exercise, is usually 7-10 years. Perhaps, notwithstanding the enormous costs associated with such an undertaking, it would be advisable to have another H-t-H Registration exercise before the scheduled 2020 General and Regional Elections.
In passing (yet of import), it may be helpful to mention to those letter writers who wrote out of genuine concern and without malice in their missives, and who truly desire to ensure that every Voters List must be truly reflective of the persons eligible to cast their vote, the following:
(1) Voter Lists are, the world over, a recurring bone of contention. The most important consideration, however, is that the Electoral Management Body (EMB) must have measures to ensure that electors cannot vote multiply.
(2) Notwithstanding #(1) above, Voters Lists can never be 100% perfect, even though several purification and sanitizing exercises are carried out.
(3) The following would also be of interest:
(i) In 1994 when the Republic of South Africa went to the polls to change the Apartheid Government, it did so essentially without an official and reliable Voters List.
(ii) In Mozambique, in the 2004 Elections, there were four lists in circulation (the hope being that an elector’s name would be found on one of those lists).
(iii) Closer to home in the Caribbean, one country has a population of 112,000, but a Voters List of 97,000.
(iv) On Sunday March 15, 2015, CBS’s “60 Minutes” programme reported that “millions of long- dead Americans are mistakenly listed as still alive”. When asked by the interviewer, Scott Pelley, about the accuracy of the Death Master File, Mr. Patrick O’Carroll (the American equivalent of our General Registrar of Births and Deaths) answered “I guess the best way is to say it is as accurate as it can be”. When asked by the interviewer how many 111 – year olds (6.5 million listed in the Inspector General’s database) were actually alive in the US of A, Mr O’Carroll answered “I am thinking 10”!!!
Need I say more?