In 2014, the Commonwealth Observer Mission to Dominica noted that elections were conducted in a peaceful manner and met several key democratic benchmarks, including freedom of association, expression, assembly and movement, as well as equal and universal suffrage and the right to vote. The high percentage of women who participated and won their seats was also highlighted as a very positive and encouraging sign for representative politics in Dominica.
The Observers noted numerous incidents that negatively impacted the electoral process such as violation of the distribution and consumption of alcohol near the polling stations and the disrespect of the sterile 100-yard zone around the polling stations. In one instance, for example, the current Ambassador to the United Nations was seen actively campaigning for the DLP Administration at a polling station in the Castle Bruce area. In general, the Commonwealth Observers concluded that in spite of the minor shortcomings and concerns raised with respect to the conduct of the elections, issues such as “the voters list [both in 2014 and 2019] did not materially affect the credibility and transparency of the election process and of the results.” In the Mission’s view, the voters’ register, which was widely and publicly discredited was accurate and appropriate in the eyes of existing legislation, albeit it does not necessarily reflect the reality nor the wishes of Dominican society.
The Mission made a number of recommendation on a wide range of issues including those cited in PART X of this series and urged its Secretariat, as well as other pan-Commonwealth organizations, to be responsive to any requests from the authorities in Dominica and to offer appropriate technical assistance and support to Dominica in ensuring that, constitutionally and legally, the governance framework is aligned with Dominica’s adherence to Commonwealth values and principles. This forms the basis of the present request by Prime Minister Skerrit to have officials of the Commonwealth and OAS join Sir Byron in conducting his review of our electoral system.
The main recommendations of the Mission for improvement of the electoral process in Dominica are listed below:
i. The need for legislative reform:Following the general elections of 2014, the Commonwealth Mission recommended that the Electoral Commission (not the executive branch of government) must continue along its current pursuit of electoral legislative reform and urged that the public be informed via and national consultations. It also recognized the importance of the financial independence of the Electoral Commission and the need for this to be specifically provided for by statute rather than through assurances provided by the Minister of Finance. There was a high-level of focus on the Electoral Commission in 2019. The Mission recommended that although the Electoral Commission and its staff generally performed well in conducting polling and counting of votes in accordance with the provisions of the law, moving forward, the effective functioning and the cohesiveness of the Commission should be a priority in the broader electoral reform agenda.
ii. Campaign Financing: In the view of the Mission, there is limited support, especially by the DLP Administration for campaign financing regulations. However, as part of the legislative reform agenda, campaign financing must be tackled to include a requirement for each political party contesting an election to file a return within 28 days of the election, detailing the expenditure of funds spent on the campaign. This should be carried out at a national and constituency level. Campaign finance legislation should include provisions that all MPs and candidates are subjected to appropriate sanctions should they fail to comply with campaign finance legislation. While the Mission made no firm recommendation given the variety of legislation in the Commonwealth, it invited the Parliament to consider the proposal of the opposition UWP, which either prohibits or limits foreign funding of domestic political parties from companies not registered locally, or from persons who are not citizens of the Commonwealth of Dominica.
As part of this agenda item, the Mission recommended that “the culture of social and electoral integrity must be considered in particular the review of the role and composition of the Integrity Commission (IPO) to allow for the strengthening of auditing and reporting mechanisms during an elections cycle, particularly with respect to oversee campaign financing.” This would necessarily require greater controls on the use of state resources, as well as renewed consideration and better management of when state goods and services are delivered to constituents. The Public Service Commission should also do significantly more to insulate public officers and to uphold its mandate of ensuring the integrity and independence of the public service.
iii. Electoral boundaries: The Mission noted that the current electoral boundaries are outdated and a fresh delimitation exercise should be conducted to equalize the size of the constituencies.
iv. Voters’ register: Although the list complies with existing legislation, it has been widely discredited. There appears to be a credible public appetite for the revision of legislation guiding the compilation of the voters’ register, and for elections to be more reflective of the wishes of persons resident in the Commonwealth of Dominica. Every effort should be made to hold this debate promptly and act on any outcomes as expediently as possible.
v. Voters’ ID cards: There is no requirement for voters to prove their identity using an ID card when voting in Dominica, compared to other countries in the Commonwealth. Since 2011, the Government suggested that the proposed National ID card could also serve as a voter ID. Implementation of the National ID card was, however, delayed, and were not used for the purposes of either the 2014 or the 2019 elections. The Mission urged that the process of ensuring that voters have ID cards should be expeditiously completed and identification requirements to cast one’s ballot amended to require every elector to verify his/her identity using this card. At the end of the 2019 elections, the Observers noted that notwithstanding the absence of ID cards, voters who turned out were able to identify themselves satisfactorily to electoral officials when exercising their franchise.
vi. The Media and Code of conduct for political parties: The Mission strongly recommended that, guided by international best practice, the Parliament of Dominica institute a Code of conduct to be monitored by the Christian Council. The Christian Council is called upon to actively and publicly identify instances and behaviours that contravene the Code. The Mission recommended legislative support for the issuance of television and radio licenses, which should obligate the Electoral Commission to consult with all electronic and print media and collaboratively draw up timetables for access to the print media for political parties, public education programmes for voters and political broadcasts.
vii. Women in Politics: Given the international commitments of the government of Dominica to ensure gender equality, it is recommended that political parties should take every measure to facilitate the fuller participation of women in national politics. Moreover, measures should be considered by Parliament to overcome the barriers faced by women in politics and encourage greater female participation in the electoral process-perhaps the adoption of a quota system for women in political parties.
viii. Defamation as an electoral offence: The Mission notes that Chapter 2:01, House of Assembly (Elections) Act, Section 62.3, addresses the issue of libel and slander as it relates to campaigning, and recommends appropriate enforcement of the law to create a more level playing field. This includes the enforcement of specific election libel laws as provided for by law.
ix. Arrangements on election day and the Polling station environment: The Mission recommended enforcement and expansion of the ‘Campaign-free zone’ from 100 to 200 yards, ensure that polling staff are clearly distinguished from political party representatives to minimize the potential for confusion among voters and where possible, access to polling stations for voters who are physically incapacitated is improved.
x. Voting, Counting and Results: The Mission recommended advance voting for security services and election workers to vote in advance of the general public, instead of being accorded priority in the queues on Election Day. Also, greater care should be exercised in ensuring that presiding officers uniformly interpret and apply procedures for the casting of the ballot for vision impaired and other physically incapacitated persons, and the enhancement of the role of civil society in domestic observation of future elections through training.
xi. Postal Voting: The Mission called forconsideration to be given to a system of ‘postal voting’ as a very cost efficient means to allow Dominican citizens resident outside the country to participate in the electoral process, if such participation is recommended by national discussion on qualification to vote. Postal voting would potentially avoid allegations of inducement and bribery, and instances where nationals are paid to return to the country to cast their ballot- something akin to, but not the same as, the APP’s Vote-In-Place (VIP) initiative.
The Mission determined that a number of the issues that arose in the 2009, 2014 and 2019 general elections still require attention for subsequent elections inclusive of the cleansing of the voter register, the determination and enforcement of campaign finance and integrity legislation, media access and coverage, and the qualification to be a voter based on length of residency.
Following the 2014 election, the Commonwealth Mission concluded that the elections in Dominica were “free for entry and the casting of the ballot, given the prevailing legislation and constitutional provisions safeguarding participation and the exercise of the franchise.” However, “while the credibility and transparency of the electoral process could be claimed, the election was not necessarily fair, due to:
· the lack of balance, and in some cases lack of professionalism of the media;
· the absence of campaign finance regulations and the resultant lack of transparency on financing, coupled with the exponentially increased expense associated with campaigning;
· multiple instances of treating and bribery, including the transportation of electors to the island to vote; and
· the apparent abuses of incumbency, including a lack of impartiality in the provision of public services”.
In its preliminary report of December 2019, the Commonwealth Mission once again refrained from declaring the elections in Dominica as ‘free and fair.’ It cautiously stated, “it is our considered view that the results reflect the collective will of the people who voted, and that the 6 December election was conducted in accordance with the laws of Dominica.”