An overseas-based Guyanese has initiated legal action against the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) and Chief Election Officer (CEO) Keith Lowenfield to prevent the planned national house-to-house registration exercise, which is scheduled to begin in June.
In a fixed date application, pensioner Bibi Zeenatoun, through her lawyer Anil Nandlall, has asked that the High Court declare the proposed exercise “unconstitutional” and grant orders restraining GECOM and its staff from conducting the exercise not only in June but at “any date thereafter” as she contends it would disenfranchise her.
The filings note that Zeenatoun, who is a citizen and registered elector in Guyana, worked as a teacher in the United Kingdom from 1980 to 2014 and maintains a residence there, where she is domiciled for five months.
It is also noted that she has an adult son who resides in Guyana along with his two children, and for seven months during the year she returns to Guyana to help care for her grandchildren and guide them in their academic studies.
Her proposed travel in May this year, according to the grounds of the application, means that she will “not be at her local place of residence [in person] during the period being proposed by GECOM” to conduct the house-to-house registration.
As a result, Zeenatoun, who “voted in elections in Guyana as recent as the 2018 Local Government Elections,” fears that she will be excluded from the proposed exercise and, thereby, in effect, will be de-registered and “unlawfully denied her statutory and constitutional right to be registered and to vote.”
She has asked the court to validate this fear by granting a declaration that house-to-house registration would exclude her and other qualified registrants currently on the National Register of Registrants and on the Official List of Electors in contravention of their constitutional right to vote.
In support of the application, Zeenatoun has cited public statements by Lowenfield, the three government-nominated GECOM commissioners and Minister of State Joseph Harmon.
The application notes that Lowenfield in February declared that the voters’ list is clean and valid, with a life until April 30th, while the three commissioners have argued that the current voters’ list, which has in excess of 600,000 names, is severely bloated and that no “credible” election can be held before the list is cleansed of both the dead and those who have migrated are removed. Harmon, it adds, declared in April that “…if you reside overseas and you are not there at the time when the enumerators go to your house, then you cannot be considered to be on the list of electors….”
According to the application, Article 159 of the Constitution sets out the qualifications for a person to be a registered elector, including being 18 years or older, a citizen of Guyana, or a Commonwealth citizen, who is not a citizen of Guyana but who is living and resident in Guyana for a period of one year immediately preceding the qualifying date.
It argues that Zeenatoun’s right to vote will and can be protected if GECOM were to engage in Continuous Registration, as provided for in Section 6(1) of the National Registration Act as amended by the National Registration (Amendment) Act No. 14 of 2005.
The amendment provides for the Commission by Order with effect from a specific date to authorise the registration of – (a) all persons who are qualified to be electors; and (b) all other persons in Guyana of the age of fourteen (14) years and over.
“Such registration shall continue and be conducted in such manner and at such time as the Commission shall direct, suspending temporarily for periods prescribed by the Commission,” the provision concludes.
Additionally, a document on continuous registration on GECOM’s website is cited as having explained its mandate to engage in such an exercise.
The document states that “subsequent to the 2001 General and Regional Elections…Continuous Registration was introduced with the objectives of introducing a system which would ensure that all eligible persons are afforded unlimited opportunities to become registered on the National Register of Registrants Database and ensuring that GECOM is in a perpetual state of preparedness which would enable it to respond to calls for elections in a timely manner.
In the application, it is maintained that house-to-house registration is one of two ways in which new electors can be registered and added to the National Register of Registrants.
“There is no law which requires the …conduct [of] House to House Registration for the purposes of creating a new National Register of Registrants for elections purposes. Rather, the Respondents are mandated by law to engage in continuous registration with a baseline of the year 2001 and must follow the criteria established by the law and their own practice,” it states, while noting that Section 6(A) of the amended National Registration Act provides that “the Official List of Electors from the 2001 General and Regional elections [shall be used] as the base to commence continuous registration provided that at any stage the Commission may undertake such
verification as necessary by a means to be determined by the Commission.”
Stressing that there are no laws that require proof of residency in Guyana as being an element of qualification for registration to the National Register of Registrants, the application concludes that GECOM does not have the authority to remove any registered elector from the National Register save and except in accordance with Sections 8 (cancellation of registration) and 15 (claims and objections) of the National Registration Act and associated regulations contained in Section 38(1) of the National Registration (Residents) Regulations.
These provide that registration may be cancelled if the registrar is satisfied that a person is dead; a new registration card is to be prepared for them; the registrar is directed so to do under regulation 334; such registration was effected in contravention of Section 11(1) or the registrar is satisfied that such person is not qualified to be registered.