Benn proposes GECOM assume responsibility for setting electoral boundaries

Robeson Benn

Elections Commissioner Robeson Benn has proposed that the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) be vested with “the functions of elections boundary determination,” to avoid possible gerrymandering by the political directorate.

Benn is also proposing that the commission be renamed the Guyana Elections and Boundary Commission, in keeping with models that exist in similar jurisdictions.

He made the proposals, among others, to GECOM Chairman Justice (ret’d) James Patterson and commissioners in a letter, dated July 24th, 2018 and seen by Stabroek News, while requesting that “the overall question of re-districting and GECOM’s role, thereto, be placed on GECOM’s Statutory Agenda for meetings and for discussions.” 

Benn made the proposals against the background of Minister of Communities Ronald Bulkan being accused of gerrymandering as a result of changes he was making to the number and representation of Local Authority Areas (LAAs). Benn said he has raised the issue of gerrymandering at previous meetings of the commissioners.

Contacted for his comments on Benn’s proposals, Patterson told Stabroek News on Monday evening that, “My PR lady is going to reply.” Asked how soon the response will be made available, he said, “I don’t have a clue.”  

Benn also proposed that policy, method and impacts of re-districting be reported on by the GECOM Secretariat, and that a bipartisan stakeholders committee of the Parliament be proposed to further review and determine the issue of redistricting.    In terms of GECOM assuming control of the determination of boundaries, Benn said, “The avoidance of gerrymandering will, in large measure avoid the perception of, or the opportunity for undemocratic resorts to help or hinder incumbents and/or particular demographics such as political, religious, racial, ethnic or class groups.”

“GECOM has the overriding duty of protecting, enhancing and fulfilling its constitutional mandate on behalf of all Guyanese, jointly and severally. In so doing, GECOM has to demonstrate its independence, assertiveness, and wholehearted commitment to its mandate for the democratic wellbeing of the country,” he added.

‘Violation’

While Bulkan has the power to make changes to the number and representation of LAAs, Benn said, he was concerned that “there were no prior consultations with stakeholders, public review nor engagements with the LAAs who were to be affected by the actions of the Minister, which underscored a violation of democratic practice.”

There was also the perception that with the upcoming local government elections, he said, “efforts are underway to redraw the electoral map in favour of the ruling or incumbent Party resulting in a distortion of the political intent of the voters of an LAA and a reduction in fair representation of electors.”

Since gerrymandering is done with the aim of maximising supporters’ votes while minimising the votes of opponents, he said, it is partisan, undemocratic and abhorrent.

Decisions and actions arising out of a “Gerrymandered Council,” he said, are most likely to be “unrepresentative and despotic, posing risks to the governance of the area and the body politic concerned.”

The recent actions Bulkan took, he said, likely fall in the realms of “Cracking,” meaning the spreading or dilution of votes from one district over additional district(s) to deny or dismantle a voting interest or block, or “Packing” meaning the concentration of one group of voters into a single electoral area to create a specific majority/minority interest in the area. “GECOM should not remain an idle bystander when re-districting is underway or contemplated or, worst, being accused of colluding in the process by either: GECOM officials actually discussing and participating in re-districting exercises unbeknownst allegedly, by the CEO [Chief Election Officer Keith] Lowenfield; or by being later told by the same CEO that he had received a communication from the Minister, but had, through a memory lapse, forgotten about the letter’s existence which allowed the communication of the Minister’s intent to GECOM’s offices countrywide without the knowledge of the stakeholders or commissioners,” Benn said.

As a constitutional commission, he also noted, GECOM cannot afford to continue to face allegations of a lack of transparency or that it is “the poodle” of the incumbent in power, and it should not continue to be exposed to litigation risks, directly or joined, in relation to simple, avoidable, and transparent practices which enhance its role as the electoral body.

He pointed out that GECOM is already embroiled in controversies, including the Ganga Persaud Petition in relation to the 2015 general elections.

In the upcoming elections, eight new Neighbourhood Democratic Councils and a new township—Mahdia—are due to take part in the election. In addition, 16 constituencies have been removed from 14 local government areas.

The order for the removal of the constituencies was signed by Bulkan and published in an extraordinary gazette on June 7th.        

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