Following the declaration of results in the December 2019 general elections, the OAS Observer Mission issued its preliminary findings and recommendations. It advised that a more detailed final report that expands on its observations and recommendations will be presented to the OAS Permanent Council in Washington, D.C. The said report is supposed to be shared with all stakeholders in Dominica once finalized. To date, however, ten months after the elections, we await the release of this report by the OAS, apparently another situation where the crippling delay bug that has successfully infected our justice system, strikes again.
For the 2019 general elections, the OAS Mission arrived in Dominica on November 30, 2019. The Mission conducted a substantive analysis of key aspects of the electoral process, including electoral organization and technology, the voters’ list, electoral justice, campaign financing and the political participation of women, noting that on the invitation of the government, the OAS had recently participated in a Joint-Mission (August 2019) with CARICOM and the Commonwealth to consider concerns surrounding electoral reform in Dominica. The said Mission provided advice to the government on the way forward in a comprehensive report, which it unapologetically rejected for frivolous reasons. The Mission closely monitored ongoing protest action and the legal action presented to the courts to stop the elections on December 6 in keeping with the demands of some members of the public led by the CCM who insisted “No Electoral Reform- No Elections.” The case was dismissed by the OECS Supreme Court a few hours before the opening of the poll but at that time a large contingent of soldiers from the Regional Security System (RSS) were patrolling the streets of Dominica, which created some uncertainty and uneasiness among voters and other stakeholders just prior to Election Day.
The Mission engaged with a range of stakeholders and scrutinized available electoral legislation, regulations, processes and procedures to gain a full understanding of the current context. It noted that various stakeholders and interest groups in Dominica have sought changes to the electoral framework for many years with a view to facilitate updating and modernizing the electoral system in particular issues related to the voters list, issuance of voter identification cards, campaign financing and concerns about voting by members of the Dominican diaspora. As was the case in 2009 and 2014, a key focus of the opposition’s campaign was the urgent need to address electoral reform. The Mission remained concerned by the strong rhetoric and the deterioration in the tone of the campaign in the weeks leading up to elections, taking note of the protests that occurred in Marigot, Salisbury and other areas of the country in the days just prior to Election day.
The recurring issues that the OAS considered in 2009 and 2014, were once again front and center considering the repeated efforts of the DLP government to under finance and /or block electoral reform in Dominica. They include;
i. Voter Register/ID Card: There is a consensus across party lines and the Dominican society that a voter identification system should be implemented, but insufficient action has been taken on this issue. The Mission reiterated its recommendation of the 2009 and 2014 on the introduction of Voter Identification Cards and further recommended that in line with the Section 19 of the Registration of Electors Act, electoral authorities should issue identification cards before the next elections.
ii. Campaign Finance Reform: All actors indicated that election campaigning have become increasingly expensive and allegations were made with respect to the abuses of incumbency advantage and the potential utilization of state resources for electoral campaigns, leading to suggestions of an “uneven playing field” among political contenders.
iii. Transportation of Overseas voters: The OAS reported on many allegations of travel assistance provided by the ruling DLP to overseas-based Dominicans to return to vote. The Mission claimed that it could not verify these allegations and encouraged the political actors presenting these allegations to provide documentary evidence to the appropriate authorities for further investigation.
iv. Constituency Boundaries: The OAS Mission observed that since 1990, the number of political constituencies in Dominica has remained unchanged with significant imbalances in the number of electors between them and it called on the Electoral Boundaries Commission to review the number and boundaries of the constituencies so that they ensure the equal representation of the electorate
On Elections Day, the Mission indicated that it encountered several voters, who required assistance in confirming they were on the Voters List and locating their polling station. Based on its analysis of the electoral system, as well as the information it gathered through discussions with electoral authorities, political parties, civil society and the international community prior to the elections, and its observations on election day, the OAS Mission made further recommendations. However, having listened to the Prime Minister’s swearing-in, celebratory speech following his 18-3 landslide victory, the Mission expressed the hope that its recommendations “will assist the work of the electoral reform commission proposed by the Prime Minister.” Obviously, even the OAS was fooled by PM Skerrit. It did not fully understand the true intent of the Prime Minister to appoint a “Sole Commissioner” to replace the constitutionally mandated Election Commission. The OAS also offered the services of its good offices as support to the government, if requested so that there would be no need to expend $450,000.00 to a retired Chief Justice for reviewing work that has already been done by a wide cross section of individuals and organizations over the last 10 plus years. The OAS warned that the participation of members of the opposition, other political parties, as well other stakeholders, must be core to the success of any electoral reform initiative in Dominica. Among the major findings of the Mission were the very same unimplemented recommendations of 2009, 2014 and those contained in the Joint-OAS, CARICOM and Commonwealth Mission- the latter which was unceremoniously rejected by the DLP government.
1. Electoral Organization: The OAS observed a paucity of information in the public sphere, regarding the laws, procedures and general data governing the electoral process.;
2. Voter ID Card: The OAS Mission reiterated its 2009 and 2014 recommendation regarding the need for Voter Identification Card to facilitate the identification of voters as well as the voting process on Election Day. Having noted the desire of the Government to issue National ID Cards, the Mission recommended the issuing of photo ID cards to voters, in context of the pending amendment of existing legislation to provide the Electoral Commission with the authority to collect and use electors’ biometric data.
3. Permanently established locations for Returning Officers: The Commission should consider establishing permanent, physical locations for Returning Officers at the constituency level, in order to register eligible voters and facilitate management of the voters list by full-time staff.
4. Electoral Technology: The Mission noted that the authorities should seek to upgrade the manual electoral process, including the method of transmitting results. It advocated the integration of technology tools to improve the monitoring and control of these processes and recommended the introduction of an electronic system, which would collect, processes, tabulate and transmit election results to the central electoral office. Improvement of the publication of election results online, through the official web site of the Electoral Commission would include electronic copies of the Statement of Poll, so that individuals can validate the results being transmitted by the media.
5. Electoral Registries: The Mission identified several challenges to maintaining an accurate voter registry in Dominica and recommended legislative/regulatory provisions for periodic verification of the voters list or for a full enumeration exercise to replace the current voters list. As part of the limitations identified in the existing systems that negatively impacts on the operation, controls, administration and cleansing of the voters list, the Mission cited the shortcomings in determining how citizens’ vital information is shared among public institutions in Dominica, including information related to residency status and deaths.
The Mission, therefore, recommended the following:
– Amending the Registration of Electors Act to provide for a full enumeration exercise to be conducted to replace the voters list in existence and thereafter allow for periodic verification of the voters’ list;
– Amending elector’s Registration regulations and deceased elector confirmation procedures to ensure their identification and removal from the list;
– Coordination and data-sharing between the Offices of the Chief Elections Officer, the Registrar General and the Immigration Office to better coordinate the information required to update the voter list, including formats for submission, the use of a unique identifier (i.e. birth registration number), and the frequency and method of submission;
– Agreeing on a unique identifier to be shared among both the relevant government institutions, that will allow the Electoral Commission to efficiently identify citizens on the electoral list and avoid deleting citizens from the electoral roll without due diligence.
6. Electoral Justice: The Mission identified several ways in which the electoral process may be challenged including:
a. an objection to names on the list;
b. an objection at a polling station, where on election day, a candidate or his agent, can object to anyone who they believe is not entitled to vote or receive a ballot;
c. Statutory election offences (bribery, fraud, treating etc.) and
d. an election petition.
However, the Mission noted the many complaints about inordinate, lengthy and unreasonable delay in determining election petitions and other election offences. It therefore, recommended as part of pursuing comprehensive electoral reform that legislation should be put in place to allow for challenging election practices BEFORE the holding of elections, EXPEDITING the election petitions process and ensuring the completion of all election-related matters in as short a period of time as possible-a message that has not reached the judges of the ECSC and the CCJ.
7. Voting Abroad: The Mission observed that per the Registration of Elections Act, a registered voter whether residing abroad is allowed to remain registered and to cast a vote in person, notwithstanding the constitutional requirement that one who has been absent from the jurisdiction for more than five years should not be eligible to vote. The Mission was informed of concerns that citizens residing outside of Dominica were allegedly receiving inducements (bribery or treating) to return home, even in cases where they had been absent from Dominica in excess of five years. Such persons were typically persuaded to return in order to influence the vote in marginal constituencies. The Mission, therefore, recommended exploring options -legal and otherwise to facilitate a “voting-abroad mechanism,” taking into account the size and economic contributions of Dominicans abroad- provided that this was the desire of the Dominican people. An initial step would be a comprehensive review of the current practices in countries of similar size and diaspora, something that the APP needs to undertake in order to persuade the populace of its proposed Vote-in-Place (VIP) initiative.
8. Political Participation of Women: The Mission observed that women continue to be present at all levels of the electoral process in Dominica, including in the campaign, as poll workers and in the electoral contest. It welcomed the increase in the number of women candidates contesting the 2019 in this electoral process from 6 (13.6%) in 2014 to 13 (31%) in 2019 general elections and noted that at least 8 women were elected out of the 21 seats in the new Parliament, or 38% of the House.
9. Campaign Finance: This issue continued to rear its ugly head, especially in context of concerns regarding the increased influence of money in the current electoral process. In order to strengthen the transparency and accountability of electoral processes, the Mission strongly recommended the introduction of legislation to regulate political party and campaign financing, including clear limits on campaign spending, the identification of the sources of funding, the prevention of anonymous donations, and the limitation of private and in-kind donations to political and electoral campaigns. In this regard, the OAS model legislation on campaign financing may provide a useful point of departure,