Electoral reform: Multi-million-dollar fines, hefty jail terms proposed for election offences

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Multi-million dollar fines and hefty jail times ranging from five to ten years has been proposed for election offences in a review of the country’s main electoral law.

The draft of the proposed amendments to the Representation of the People Act (RoPA) has been published online ahead of the government’s plan to table them in the National Assembly before the end of the year.

One of the proposals is for a presiding officer (the person who manages the voting and counting process at the polling place) to be charged and be liable on summary conviction to a fine of five million dollars and to imprisonment for ten years if he/she fails to provide materials to agents of political parties.

Under a new section, 68A, it is proposed that at the opening of polls, the presiding officer should give to each polling agent a copy of the official list of electors or the part of the list with the names of those who are entitled to vote there and their registration records. It is also proposed that the agents also have to be handed a copy of the list of proxies and the number of Statements of Poll Forms 23A issued to the presiding officer. All of these documents, it is proposed, would remain the property of the polling agent after the close of poll.

Further, a presiding officer or anyone who allows someone to vote when they are not eligible could be found guilty of an offence and be liable on summary conviction to a fine of ten million dollars and to imprisonment for ten years. Eligibility to vote is checked against several things including the person’s identity and their fingers to ensure there is no ink to suggest they voted before.

Section 70 of the principal Act makes provision for cases where a person shows up to vote but his name was already marked off on the list the presiding officer has. Where the presiding officer determines that indeed the person did not vote and so an error may have been committed in marking off his name on the list, the person is presented with a “tendered ballot” to go ahead and vote. The tendered ballot paper has a different colour to the ordinary ballot paper and is not placed in the ballot box but in a separate packet for counting later.

In the reforms proposed, a person could become guilty of an offence if instead of issuing a tendered ballot to the voter, they issue an ordinary ballot or vice versa.  A person who commits this offence, it is proposed, would be liable on summary conviction to a fine of ten million dollars.

Under Section 75, it is proposed that explicit mention is made of “a valid passport” as a prescribed identity paper for voting and that a presiding officer who refuses to accept it or any other prescribed form of identification could be guilty of an offence and be liable on summary conviction to a fine of five million dollars and to imprisonment for ten years.

Under another amendment, it is proposed that the presiding officer could be fined ten million dollars and be imprisoned for ten years if he/she fails to allow those who are entitled to be there to verify or ascertain every count, to examine every ballot and information recorded and to make objections or ask questions where necessary.

Once the count is complete, the presiding officer would be required to fill out all three forms (Forms 23, Form 23A and Form 23B) and allow the duly appointed candidates, counting agents and the polling agents or alternate polling agents present to verify the information.

DEFINITION OF ELECTION OFFICER TO BE EXPANDED

The new regulations propose expanding the definition of an election officer to add two other persons, namely a supernumerary returning officer and a deputy supernumerary returning officer. These officers will rank third and fourth in line, just behind the Chief Elections Officer, his deputy and the Returning Officer.

The role of these new election officers is intended to support the integrity of the election process and serve as a backup or alternative to the Returning Officer or Deputy Returning Officer. For example, the proposal is for counting of votes to be done at the office of the Returning Officer or the supernumerary returning officer. In addition, it is proposed that the Returning Officer or supernumerary returning officer may be assisted in the counting by the deputy returning officers or deputy supernumerary returning officers.

Once the presiding officer prepares and certifies all the forms after counting is done, he/she is to prepare certified copies for distribution to (i) the returning officer; (ii) the supernumerary returning officer; (iii) the assistant presiding officer; (iv) such of the duly appointed candidates, counting agents and the polling agents or alternate polling agents as are present; (v) the Chief Elections Officer; (vi) the Chairman of the Commission.

The presiding officer, it is proposed, must allow a duly appointed candidate, counting agent, polling agent or alternate polling agent his right to ascertain the accuracy of the information recorded on the three forms he fills and signs and if the presiding officer fails to do so, he/she could be charged and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of five million dollars and to imprisonment for five years.

A person who removes a Statement of Poll posted outside the polling place commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of ten million dollars and to imprisonment for ten years.

The need to reform the legislation arose after the High Court had found that Clairmont Mingo, the Returning Officer who controlled the March 02, 2020 election process in Region Four, had breached the law when he failed to follow the lawful procedure to arrive at the correct vote count in the region. His calculations, which were later presented by the Chief Elections Officer Keith Lowenfield to the Guyana Elections Commission for declaration, would have allowed clear fraud and provided for the installation for a government that had not won the elections.

Even after a national recount had clearly shown the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) had won the elections, the Chief Elections Officer presented Mingo’s botched fingers until a Court of Appeal decision forced him to present the figures from the recount. This allowed for the PPP government to be sworn in after a five-month delay.

The government promised to reform the law to ensure that what happened in the 2020 election never happens again and to ensure that those who attempt fraud are dealt with.

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