Electoral reform still needs reform

 

  1. 1) Strengthen the Electoral Office

One of the sore points of the recent election was the excess political rancour that resulted largely from a lack of informed dialogue on the electoral procedures. To my chagrin, the interpretation of the electoral laws, particularly as it relates to voter registration, was left to the whim and fancy of the two political parties; not to mention those who had suddenly become self-endowed legal scholars over night. The consequence was that there was an atmosphere of uncertainty and the debate was split down partisan lines.

In my opinion, the Bar Association needed to be more vigilant in assisting with the education process. Their input could have helped to ease the tension on some of these contentious issues by partaking in panel discussions, call in programs etc.

In spite of this, the Electoral Office as the chief body responsible for the conduct of elections could have done a better job in directing the debate and clarifying the electoral regulations. Too many requests to hear from the Supervisor of Elections were met with passive and vague responses.

I appreciate and accept that because he may often be preoccupied with fulfilling his functional duties, he may not always be as accessible as the general public needs him to be to respond to the constant queries. After all, he is not “10 man in 1”.

It may therefore be best that in going forward, the Government adopts the recommendation of the Commonwealth Observer Report from the two previous General elections and assign a Public Relations Officer to the Electoral Office. This person would be charged with the responsibility of providing information on the electoral laws to the general public and responding to all queries posed to the Supervisor of Elections by the various political parties, media houses and other stakeholders.

It also appears to be an anomaly that the Supervisor of Elections has to depend on the Attorney General’s Office for legal advice, when that same office is also responsible for advising the Government and ruling party. This only makes the general public more suspicious of the independence of the Supervisor of Elections. It may be best, therefore, if he is also provided with his own legal advisor.

 

  1. 2) Modify the provision which allows Commonwealth citizens to vote in our elections

At present, the electoral law provides that a Commonwealth citizen who has resided in St. Kitts and Nevis for at least 1 year immediately prior to registration is qualified to be registered as a voter. It therefore means that a citizen of Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica or Pakistan could have migrated to Nevis in 2010 and been eligible to vote in the 2011 election.

Let me say right off the bat that I value our bonds of friendship within the Commonwealth and I am very much a supporter of regional integration, however, this law really is ludicrous and requires immediate change.

It appears very impractical to me, that a political term is 5 years, yet a national of another territory can come to St. Kitts-Nevis just over 1 year before an election and become a valid voter. How can that individual reasonably be expected to make an informed judgement about our local situation over a 5 year period, when they have only lived here for a year or two directly preceding the election?

It is somewhat suspect if they would have been made privy to all the socio-economic issues affecting our people and it is highly unlikely if in such a short time they would have been able to meritoriously examine the performance of the government or the practicality of the Opposition’s proposals, in the context of a 5 year election cycle. Furthermore, I believe that this provision can lead to the political manipulation of the non-national vote!

Parliament should therefore reconsider this matter urgently and make it a requirement that you must be a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis to vote in our elections! If we continue along the present path of giving Commonwealth citizens the right to vote, then alter the law to provide that they must reside in our country for at least 5 years before being endowed with this important privilege and responsibility.

 

  1. 3) Campaign Finance Laws

One of my major qualms with elective politics has always been the large sums of money that politicians have to source and spend during the campaign. Elections are now costing millions of dollars and I truly believe that the present path is unsustainable. No longer is it about the politics of issues and ideas, but it has now been transformed into the politics of money.

What concerns me more is the potential for unscrupulous, overseas investors and wealthy expatriates to practically purchase our politicians, wholesale, with the consequence of hijacking our country’s development. After all, there is no free lunch and nobody today is giving without looking for something in return.

Going forward, we need some stringent supervision of campaign funding and serious disclosure requirements. For starters, there needs to be an independent, oversight agency with powerful regulatory and investigatory powers to monitor the flow of money to political parties.

Secondly, a threshold on disclosure should be established such that an individual or firm giving in excess of a certain amount (perhaps $30,000) must be made known. I advocate a threshold because there may be ordinary citizens in the community who, with no nefarious intent, may wish to make a small contribution to their party but may be branded and victimized if their identity is revealed, and the opposing party wins.

It is not really these persons who I am concerned about but the major power brokers who can easily disburse US $1 million and then make requests for several acres of land, lucrative contracts and other deals to further their personal interests at the expense of the State. We therefore need to take the issue of campaign financing seriously and become much more searching with our analysis.

While I anticipate that some of these proposals may meet resistance in certain quarters, I hope that we can put the political rancour aside and debate these issues objectively. For our democracy to grow and future elections to be less controversial, further electoral reform must become the object of political debate; not only in the corridors of Parliament but on the streets, in the bars, the schools and all other places where the public interest warrants it.

 

 

 

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