Having intentionally ignored the recommendations of past Observer Missions from the Secretariats of the Organization of American States (GS/OAS), the Commonwealth (COMSEC), and Caribbean Community (CARICOM), as well as those recommended of local political parties, and business and civic organizations, the DLP-Administration in August 2019 invited a Joint-Special Mission from the CARICOM, the COMSEC and OAS to assist in the country’s efforts with various aspects of electoral reform.
Prior to their arrival, the members of the Mission engaged in weekly teleconferences with local authorities to develop the Mission’s work plan and to exchange information relevant to the Mission’s objectives. Electoral and legal experts included in the Joint Mission scrutinized the existing and proposed electoral legislation prior to the Mission’s arrival, in order to ensure a full understanding of the electoral framework. Following its work in Dominica, the Joint-Mission met at the headquarters of the CARICOM Secretariat in Georgetown, Guyana, from August 20 to August 22, 2019, to review its findings and to develop its recommendations.
On September 26, 2019, the team submitted its final report, which included the Mission’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations, to assist the Commonwealth of Dominica in advancing its electoral reform efforts and to strengthen its electoral and democratic system for future elections.
The Joint Mission identified some issues of general consensus among stakeholders arising from its discussions including, the fact that as per the laws of Dominica, the Prime Minister has the constitutional right to call an election at any time, an issue that the opposition UWP has recommended should be seriously considered as part of the overall reform agenda. The proposal of the UWP, which is largely supported by the people is that elections in Dominica must be on a fixed date every five years thereby removing the power to manipulate the timing for general elections from the hands of an incumbent Prime Minister and to transfer it transparently within the public domain and leveling the electoral playing field.
The Mission noted the mood in the country for some basic reforms in at least three areas at a minimum before the next elections in 2019 i.e., the removal of deceased persons and ineligible voters from the current list, the issuance of photo identification (ID) cards to electors to facilitate more accurate identification at the polls; and the issue related to voting by members of the Diaspora in future elections.
Notwithstanding the broad consensus that urgent reforms were required in the crucial areas identified, opinions varied widely on exactly what was to be done, how it is to be undertaken and the level, scope and extent of the legislative amendments required in support of the proposed changes. For instance, some stakeholders suggested that legislative changes were not necessary to facilitate the issuance of ID cards and sanitizing the Voters’ list while others proposed areas of reform identified as critical and necessary for Dominica to maintain a credible electoral system, including access to the media and campaign finance.
On September 26, 2019, the team submitted its final report, which included the Mission’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations, to assist the Commonwealth of Dominica in advancing its electoral reform efforts and to strengthen its electoral and democratic system. All the areas identified for reform, even though viewed separately, are interconnected.
i. Update of the Voters’ List: The Mission admonished the local electoral authorities to give serious consideration to increasing the number of full-time employees at the Electoral Office in order to conduct a house-to-house re-verification exercise across the entire Island. It recommended that the Election Commission should immediately and urgently determine a schedule and assess the financial, human and physical resources required to complete such an exercise and other actions that may be necessary as may be agreed such as the collection of photographs, fingerprints, and other data.
Re-verification of voters: Election authorities were encouraged to remove from the list, electors who are not found at the residence listed or any other residence in Dominica limited by Section 7 of the Registration of Electors Act, with due regard to the conditions under which an elector’s name may be removed from the Register. Each resident voter found in their current polling district, except for those for whom provisions were made due to the displacement caused by the recent storms shall be registered. In order to ensure due process in law, a list of electors not found should be publicized including in the local newspapers, requesting that these registered electors visit the nearest Registration Centre to complete the verification process within a certain time frame. Those electors not found and who fail to come forward after publication of the “Electors Not Found List” should remain on the Voters’ List unless and until they are removed under the provisions of the appropriate elections law. With all respect to the Mission, this seemed to be counter intuitive and a waste of time and effort, if the names were to have remained on the list after this exercise. The completion of the re-verification exercise is a necessary undertaking that must precede the production and issuing of identification cards. If the decision is made to commence the exercise, the technical support available internally, and externally, should be harnessed to support the effort.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Joint-Mission emphasized that this effort is and should not be intended to address the re-verification of Dominican citizens who are resident abroad since it was argued on the one hand, the verification should only take place within the country, while on the other, the DLP government was insisting as introduced in draft legislation against the wishes of the people, to allow the verification of eligible electors in the Diaspora at selected locations. Of course, this has been vehemently opposed by the Opposition United Workers Party, CCM and other interest groups, to the extent that a patriot citizen approached the High Court with an application for an injunction to stop the government from passing the legislation in parliament. Contrary to the noise on this matter by the government machinery, the application was not heard by the court. No injunction was ordered by the court as the government eventually withdrew the offensive provisions from the draft Bill.
In implementing this recommendation, the Joint-Mission advised that a collective decision must be taken on whether or not electors should be placed on the list at the residence where they are found, or allowed to remain on the list in the polling district in which their names currently appear. This is of critical importance since a significant number of Dominicans (in addition to those displaced by the recent hurricanes), no longer reside at the addresses at which they were first registered.
According to Section 5 (3) of the Registration of Electors Act, “Where a person who is registered as an elector for a polling district has ceased to reside in that polling district he shall NOT on that account cease to be qualified to be registered as an elector for that polling district until he has become qualified to be registered as an elector for another polling district”. Very few registered voters have sought to have their registration transferred as required under the electoral statute and similar to the actions of Prime Minister Skerrit, who abandoned his constituents of Vieille Casse to vote for his wife in Roseau Central. In cases where these conditions have not been met, an elector’s name must remain on the list and he/she must be allowed to vote should they turn up on Election Day. A questionable recommendation, which was seen by some as a waste of effort and resources.
ii. Voter identification cards: The photograph and some biometric data would also be collected with a view to manufacturing and distributing photo ID cards to each elector at the end of the process. Noting the difference in opinion as to whether new legislation is required to facilitate the production and issuance of photo identification cards, in keeping with what has been done in other jurisdictions, the Mission recommended that the legislation be amended to broaden the authority of the Electoral Commission to collect and use electors’ biometric data and thereafter to issue a photo identification card. The photograph and other biometric data (as determined) of each elector verified on the Island (not overseas), should be taken and cross-matched to remove duplicate registrations. The Electoral Commission should take a decision on how it will distribute ID cards (through designated centers or house-to-house distribution or a combination of both). Uncollected or undistributed cards should be available for collection on Election Day at specially established points at each polling station. Electors currently residing on the Island, who are not re-verified, and whose names remain on the list should be asked to take along some other form of identification on Election Day, prior to being allowed to vote, they be required to take an oath, or affirmation of identity as well as being fingerprinted.
vi. Voting by the Diaspora: The Joint Mission recommended that concurrent with the re-verification exercise, the Electoral Office should seek to engage the Immigration Department to identify the electors on the current list who are resident overseas. Those found to be in violation of the five-year (5) limit, according to Section 7 of the Registration of Electors Act, and who are therefore no longer eligible to be on the list should be removed. In cases where information cannot be verified, such electors should be allowed to remain on the list to prevent the disenfranchising of a valid elector. All electors coming in from the Diaspora to vote should be asked to provide a valid passport as identification, in order to exercise his or her franchise. For reasons well known to us, the DLP vociferously opposed this logical recommendation, which is in compliance with the existing law in Dominica. This is now one of DLP’s main proposals for consideration of Sir Byron.
vii. Need for continued public education: The Mission noted that the importance of public education in a process such as this cannot be overstated. While information had been shared publicly about the purpose of electoral reform, not all persons had received sufficient, accurate information to allow them to understand the issues and to form considered opinions. The Joint Mission, therefore, recommended the redoubling of efforts by the competent authorities to share accurate and reliable information on the election reform process.
viii. Political tone: The Mission also noted with regret the mistrust and antipathy that existed across the political divide and was informed that elements of violence, associated with politics and elections, were creeping into the society. It is the Joint Mission’s view that there is an urgent need for the political leaders in Dominica to reset the political tone in the interest of Dominica, recognizing that diversity of perspectives is crucial in any healthy and successful democracy. In particular, the Joint Mission strongly encourages the Leaders of the two main political parties to engage in earnest, meaningful and constructive one-to-one dialogue on the issue of electoral reform. All three organizations CARICOM, the Commonwealth and the OAS expressed a willingness to assist in facilitating such an endeavor should it be welcomed by the political leaders.
ix. Review of Electoral Boundaries: Consensus on the need for “redistricting” or boundary changes will also be influenced by the final decision on the placement of electors. As indicated earlier, the Constitution stipulates that all constituencies shall contain as nearly equal numbers of inhabitants as appears to the Constituency Boundaries Commission to be reasonably practicable. For the December 2014 Parliamentary Elections, the size of constituencies ranged from a low 1564 electors to a high 7446, further highlighting the need for review of existing electoral boundaries.
x. Access to the Media and Increasing confidence in the Electoral Commission: Noting the need to improve and level the electoral playing field for all parties in Dominica, the Mission noted the need for access to both public and private media and increasing public confidence in the Electoral Commission and the Chief Elections Officer which together have the primary responsibility under the Constitution for the conduct of elections.
Most of the recommendations of the Joint-Mission were reflected in the previously separate reports of CARICOM, Commonwealth and OAS Electoral Observation Missions. The recommendations were issued as critical and necessary for Dominica to maintain the credibility of its electoral system. The Mission noted that an unsuccessful attempt at reform before the 2019 elections could have serious consequences…as it has.
Upon the release of this Joint Mission report, the US ambassador, Ms. Linda Taglialatela, wrote an Op Ed titled ‘Democracy Demands Peaceful Citizen Participation’ in which she expressed the hope that the DLP government would take appropriate action on these recommendations in consultation with civil society. She applauded Dominica for its “long history of successful democratic elections,” and expressed the hope and confidence that the elections of 2019 would follow that tradition. She, however warned, “It is a mistake to assume that democracy is some preordained system. Freedom cannot be taken for granted….peace many times can be fragile, and hard-won victories can be rolled back, if we are not vigilant. The Caribbean is a strong and vibrant example of democracy to governments around the world – and should continue to be so.”