In the last edition of this series, the OAS was recognized as an organization with the mandate to promote and defend the principles and values of democracy, inclusive of freedom of speech, openness, transparency, tolerance for the diversity of political views, respect for the rule of law and ensuring free and fair elections. The OAS has organized Election Observation Missions (EOMs) dating back to the 1960s. In the early days, the Missions were primarily symbolic and very limited in time and scope. Over time, however, OAS EOMs have developed a parallel process that is intimately linked to the political and cultural transformations of the countries of the region. With the transition of a significant number of countries from authoritarian regimes, particularly in Latin America, to more democratic systems of government starting in the mid-eighties, international electoral observation has acquired a singular relevance i.e.,“to accompany the consolidated transitioning through the holding of free and fair elections for the main public positions, and to help confer more legitimacy on these processes.”
The OAS advocates the view that electoral authorities are constituted by personnel, who are part of the executive branch, representatives of political parties and / or independent professionals. Therefore, the attitudes of politicians and citizens towards electoral results are usually seen as possible causes and/or consequences of the quality of electoral processes. Since 1990, election observation has become widespread, to the point of becoming an integral aspect of electoral processes in many countries. It is said to play an essential role in electoral democracy. The OAS’ methodology to evaluate elections takes as its starting point a definition of the concept of democratic elections that includes the fundamental rights recognized in the instruments of the Inter-American system. The concept is defined in such a way that elections are considered democratic when they fulfill a few basic conditions i.e. elections must be;
§ Inclusive: All eligible citizens must be effectively enabled to exercise their right to vote in the electoral process;
§ Clean: Voters’ preferences must be respected and faithfully registered. The key issue is ensuring the integrity of voters’ preferences, as well as the faithful recording of these preferences;
§ Competitive: Electorate must be offered an unbiased choice among alternatives. Citizens have the right to run for public offices;
§ Free and fair: When eligible voters are free to express their choice in an election process that affords all parties a fair chance of winning (a reasonable playing field). Individuals have the right to vote and also they have the right to defy and no one is subject to force or compelled by any means to vote or not to not..
§ Free of fear: The candidates running for office must be able to do so without concerns for the safety of themselves and family;
§ Legally recognized universal and equal suffrage i.e., the use of the right to vote is facilitated in practice and the civil rights of citizens are respected such as freedom of the press, free access to information, and freedom of association, assembly, expression and movement. This also refers to public offices such as national broadcasting facilities providing equal access to all;
§ Irreversibility of final results: The results expressed through the citizens’ votes must not be reversed- subject to interference of a Court.
The OAS EOMs consideration of “democratic elections,” does not include a range of aspects of the electoral process such as whether voting is compulsory, the drawing of the electoral boundaries, the electoral formula used to translate votes into parliamentary seats, the independence of electoral bodies such as the Electoral Commission, the confidence that different actors exhibit in the electoral process and election results. The OAS recognizes that the actions of electoral bodies have a huge impact on the electoral process and they play an integral part of an assessment of the quality of elections. Moreover, they desire that the results of all elections be widely accepted, correct and comply with the rule of law. Importantly, the definition does not cover a multitude of topics that are commonly identified as challenges to democratic governance. The definition recognizes that although the electoral process is more than an “election day event,” the actions of elected government officials pertain to a wider discussion about democratic governance. Thus, it does not extend to post-electoral activities once the victors have assumed their offices, inclusive of election petitions.
The DLP government of Dominica has invited the OAS to observe general elections over the last few election cycles, although it did so reluctantly for the December 2019 elections following an unjustifiable attack by PM Skerrit on the integrity of the OAS and its leadership, which was explored in PART VI of this series. On every occasion, immediately following the elections, a preliminary report has been submitted and a final report with more specific recommendations has been produced usually within 6 months after the declaration of the results. Unfortunately, as has become the norm in Dominica, the same unreasonable delay bug that affects our justice system has also infected the release mechanism of the OAS’ final report on our elections. To date, nine months after the elections of December 2019, the OAS has not released its final report.
In the conclusion of the 2009 EOM report, the OAS reported that the general impressions of the electoral process were positive, although it noted that there were moments of controversies. It reported on various allegations of chartered planes transporting overseas based supporters, whose airfares were paid for by the ruling DLP Administration. The Mission also received calls informing it of the arrival of a number of flights whose passengers arrived to cast their ballots. The opposition parties claimed, without producing evidence in support, that public servants were used to identify these potential voters and state resources were used to purchase their airfare. The Mission advised that it could not verify the veracity of these claims and encouraged the parties presenting the allegations to provide evidence to the appropriate authorities of Dominica for further investigation.
The OAS Mission also took note of another recurrent complaint of the opposition parties concerning the perceived bias in media coverage and an inability to purchase advertisements. Of the three primary radio stations in the country, one private station, Kairi FM, openly supported the ruling DLP, both in its coverage and its transmission of paid advertisements. Another private station, Q95 FM, albeit with much less national coverage, provided sympathetic coverage and access to the opposition United Workers’ Party. While the state-run radio and television stations predominantly emphasized government activities, it often blurred the line between its official mandate and the political campaign in the country. Accordingly, despite the perceived inequities, the opposition parties were able to transmit their message to the general public.
Among the main recommendations of the OAS EOM following the 2009 elections were:
i. VOTER ID CARD: Dominica is one of the few remaining countries in the Caribbean without a voter ID card. In the past, both party leaders and electoral authorities have recommended issuing a card. Although, this remains an issue in which there exists a consensus across party lines, it has not been implemented. The Mission recommended that the newly elected DLP Government, in consultation with the Opposition and the Electoral Commission, consider the implementation of an IDENTIFICATION CARD SYSTEM. The OAS noted that providing cards to registered voters of Dominica will facilitate the complete revision and updating of the voter registry. The Mission therefore strongly recommends that VOTER ID CARDS be issued in time for the next general elections i.e., in 2014;
ii. CLEANSING OF THE VOTER REGISTRY: Despite an estimated population of 69,000 persons, the voter registry in Dominica contained approximately 65,000 names i.e., 94.20% of the population. While the disproportionate number can be attributed to the many Dominicans residing outside the country, the list also contains names of people who have deceased or have moved out of the country and have not returned. The OAS called for the complete revision and updating of the voter register.
iii. LEGISLATIVE REFORM DEALING WITH TRANSPORTATION OF VOTERS: It is not uncommon for the Caribbean to have large populations living abroad and for many of these citizens to return home to vote. The legislation in Dominica requires only that a person be present in the country one time during a five-year period and have his or her name on the voters list. Any efforts to regulate the provision of transportation to members of the Diaspora should not impede on these citizens’ franchise. Legislation defining the appropriate use of funds to bring voters to the polls should be considered.
iv. EQUAL MEDIA ACCESS: The Mission observed that in Dominica, individual media outlets decide whether or not to cover political events and whether or not to accept paid advertising from the political parties. They can abstain from any coverage or they can decide to focus exclusively on one political party. While the opposition UWP and the DFP were afforded an outlet through the Q95 radio station to voice their opinions, this opportunity was circumstantial. Current legislation does not offer any guarantees or benchmarks for access to the media. Such regulation should be considered. It could require that all media outlets provide political parties the same opportunity to purchase prime-time advertising at the same cost or it could stipulate a certain amount of free advertising. The Media, in conjunction with the Christian Council, Evangelical Association of Churches and the Electoral Commission should consider launching guidelines for responsible political and election coverage.
v. SIGNIFICANT DISPARITY IN REPRESENTATION: The OAS Mission noted that there are significant disparities among the constituencies of Dominica. The largest constituency has 6,676 registered voters while the smallest has 1,520. In a single-member first-past-the post system, these population imbalances create disparities in representation. The Electoral Boundary Commission should be constituted and new boundaries should be proposed and approved before the next general elections;
vi. VALIDITY OF BALLOTS: OAS observers noted that Presiding and Returning officers evenly applied criteria for determining the validity of a marked ballot. However, in conducting the counts, Election officials and the party agents seemed to focus on the technicalities of the marking instead of the intention of the vote. Whether the mark on the ballot is an “X”, a cross or a tick, it should not override the most important criteria, which is “the intention of the voter.” Therefore, the rules and legislation governing what constitutes a valid vote should be reviewed and made clearer;
vii. VARIATION OF TIMING IN APPLYING INDELIBLE INK: The Mission observed that while the election staff was well trained, there were variations in the timing of the use of the indelible ink. Several presiding officers required the dipping of the index finger prior to voting. This accounted for several ballots being declared as rejected as several electors used the ink to cast their ballot. Unfortunately the rather inflexible approach of the presiding officers with respect to the use of the furnished pencil to mark the ballot may well have unnecessarily disqualified voters. In a context where some elections were quite close, this may have an adverse impact on some political parties and candidates. This is particularly true of the rural areas where there is a greater degree of illiteracy. The Election authorities should issue guidelines on the application of the indelible ink.
viii. CAMPAIGN FINANCING: The OAS noted that election campaigning in Dominica, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, is becoming increasingly expensive. Campaign financing, therefore, represents an important priority of the OAS. It informed that it has embarked on a number of initiatives on this issue and “offers its good offices to reach a cross-party accord to promote transparency and accountability, which would set a high standard for the region.
Obviously, had the above recommendations of the OAS been given serious consideration by the DLP government and implemented, there would have been no need for Sir Byron in Dominica today as our electoral system would have been significantly improved. In fact, we would save the country XCD450, 000.00 plus, as discussed in Parts V and VI of this series. The Secretary-General of the OAS advised in April 2019 that a study published by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the University of Sydney, confirmed that Dominica is the country with the lowest rate of implementation (below 10%) of the recommendations of OAS Electoral Observation Missions.