The Parliament of the Federation of St. Kitts (St. Christopher) and Nevis is continuing its effort to ensure free and fair elections in the Federation. This week, debate continued in the Parliament on the amendment of a few pieces of legislation including the National Assembly Elections (Amendment) Bill), 2020, which sought to provide for the length of stay that would clarify various non-national residents to vote in the Federation.
In March 2018, the Hon. Attorney General and Minister responsible for Justice and Legal Affairs and Communications, Senator Vincent Fitzgerald ByronByron sought leave to introduce and have read for the first time, “The National Assembly Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2018.
The Bill sought to amend Sections 2, 37, 43, 121 of the principal Act, specifically to change the definition of the expression “election officer”, replace the expression “poll clerk or” with the expression “poll clerk, enumerator or”; delete the expression “or domicile”; and to replace Section 37 (1) and 37(A) with respect of the qualification to register to vote by stating, “Any disqualifications for registration as a voter, a person is qualified to be registered as a voter for a constituency, if on the registration date or enumeration date he or she is a:
(a) citizen of Saint Christopher and Nevis of eighteen years or upwards is ordinarily resident in Saint Christopher and Nevis;
(b) Commonwealth citizen (not being a citizen of Saint Christopher and Nevis) of eighteen years or upwards who has been ordinarily resident in Saint Christopher and Nevis for a continuous period of at least three years immediately before the registration date.”
Section 37A (1) of the Bill, replaced the expression “ordinarily resident on the registration date” with the expression “ordinarily resident for at least six months before the registration date” and Section 121 was amended by adding new Sections pertaining to the responsibility of the Chief Registration Officer or the Registration Officer for a constituency to:
· establish a temporary office within each constituency;
· invite all persons registered as voters for a constituency to visit that office for the purpose of confirming their registration in that constituency;
· invite scrutineers from each political party to observe the confirmation process;
· participate in the process of reviewing the names of persons registered as voters for the constituency who did not confirm their registration within the registration period and
· visit any house within the constituency to ascertain whether persons whose names appear on any list reside in the constituency or are still alive.”
The main opposition, St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party (SKNLP), fervently expressed immediate outrage and accused the coalition St.Kitts-Nevis Team Unity government of seeking to disenfranchise nationals by amending legislation governing the registration of voters. The former opposition Labour Party Parliamentarian in St Kitts, Mr. Konris Maynard stated that the government intended to tamper with the electoral system instead of winning the hearts and minds of the voters and the St. Kitts-Nevi. He said, “the Labour Party does not believe in the disenfranchisement of any citizens….This is all in an effort to disenfranchise voters who are already legally registered to vote and others who are presently eligible to vote in St. Kitts and Nevis. He reminded the public, “ a Committee was appointed in 2008 to consult nationals here and abroad on the issue of electoral reform in St. Kitts and Nevis, however, there had been no prior public consultation by the government in the drafting of the National Assembly Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2018. He further stated, “We in the St. Kitts-Nevis Labour Party stand firm that our nationals must be given that right to exercise their franchise and it should not be infringed. We will do all that we can and in our power and legal remit and work tirelessly to ensure that the rights of citizens, born, grew up, lived here and a native of St. Kitts and Nevis that the right to vote remains intact.”
The Labour Party vehemently complained that the Team Unity Government was “hell bent on disenfranchising hundreds of nationals of St Kitts and Nevis, who live overseas from voting in the next general election”(which took place in June 2020 amidst the Covid-19 pandemic). Under the Amendment, the automatic qualification of the overseas national to vote was to have been taken away.
The two sections- Section 37 (1)(b) (c) as well as Section 37 B- were removed from the Amendment. This meant that the only way that an overseas national could qualify to vote as a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis, would be as a citizen resident in the constituency where they will be voting for six months prior. This, according to the Opposition, would have major implications for overseas nationals and would essentially disenfranchise these overseas voters. Also, Commonwealth citizens who are allowed to vote under the Constitution of St. Kitts and Nevis will no longer have that right and would be completely barred from voting.
Notwithstanding the above, in August 2019, the Hon. Attorney General moved for the 2nd reading of National Assembly Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2019. However, following continued opposition, on 3 September 2019, the Attorney General, Senator Byron pulled the Bill to amend the National Assembly Act from the Order Paper just minutes before the start of sitting of the House. But this has not been the end of the matter, following a landslide victory of the Team Unity coalition in the Covid-19 affected June 2020 federal elections with 9-2 seat majority, the government returned with another version of the National Assembly Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2020 in September 2020 for a 1st reading. Debate continued on 15 October, when the Bill was read the 2nd and 3rd time and passed.
Hon. Timothy Harris, the Hon. Prime Minister and Minister responsible for Finance, Sustainable Development, National Security, Constituency Empowerment, Human Resource Management and Information lead the debate. He said that the Bill was part of the meaningful steps that his government was prepared to take towards ensuring effective electoral reform in St. Kitts and Nevis with the second reading of the Bill. The Prime Minister indicated that this piece of legislation seeks to introduce some elements of electoral reform in St. Kitts and Nevis, particularly as it relates to the matter of who can vote and the criteria for determining one’s eligibility or qualification for voting. He noted, “The Bill before us seeks to amend the National Assembly Elections Act Cap 2.01, as to establish new qualifications for voting by a Commonwealth citizen, not being a citizen of St. Christopher and Nevis, of 18 years and upward…Clause 4 of the Bill amends the principal Act Cap 2.01 at section 37 by (a) establishing two categories of Commonwealth Citizens i.e., those persons from a Commonwealth Caribbean country and those not from a Commonwealth Caribbean country, and (b) by establishing two residency periods i.e., twelve (12) month-period for those of the Caribbean and citizens of St. Kitts and Nevis and a three (3) year residency period prior to registration as a voter for non-Caribbean Commonwealth Citizens.
Prime Minister Harris added, “the Bill will also foster greater kinship between St. Kitts and Nevis and Caribbean countries within the Commonwealth…the concepts of national treatments – non-differential treatment – between our citizens and those from member states with which we hold that treaty obligation or obligation by law to participate in a common space such as the CARICOM Single Market and Economy, those will observe similar requirements of law as those citizens of St. Kitts and Nevis; that is they are given national treatment…The Bill also clarifies the question of voters registering to vote where they live. In relation to when there is relocation from one constituency to another inside the country, the Bill seeks to have such individuals re-register in the new constituency within a 6-month period. Under existing legislation, for example, there was no need for that to happen.”
Opposition MPs used their allotted minutes during the debate on the Bill to question the timing of the Amendment. However, the Bill was passed into law by the Parliament on Thursday, October 15, 2020. Following, the passage of the Act, Deputy Prime Minister, the Honourable Shawn Richards reportedly accused the Opposition Labour Party of making a mockery of and trivializing the amendments to the National Assembly Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2020. He reiterated that the purpose of the legislation was merely to provide for the length of stay that would clarify various non-national residents to vote in the Federation and the legislation addressed the important matter of persons registering to vote where they live. He explained that the amendments were brought years in advance of the next constitutionally due general elections, which is a “stark distinction to the former Denzil Douglas administration that made a shameful attempt to institute changes to the electoral boundaries a month before a general election.”
Compared to the situation in St. Kitts where constitutional and parliamentary democracy reigns, the same cannot be said about Dominica, where a one-man government reigns supreme and controls the Executive, the legislature and continue to stall all efforts at genuine electoral reform., to the extent of blaming a application for an injunction – not the actual granting of an injunctive Order by the Court -as a factor for its inaction to implement electoral reform. Notwithstanding the suggestion of the Leader of Opposition, Dr. Denzil Douglas that such matters should be referred to a referendum and there ought to benefit from much more public consultations, one must applaud the government of St Kitts for taking firm action to implement electoral reform so soon after the last general elections some 5 months from June 2020 without the need for further studies and the invitation of judicial experts at great expense to the state like Prime Minister of Skerrit thinks is necessary in Dominica from his payment of half a million dollars -ironically to a retired Kittian Justice to further review reports and recommendations that are already made presumably to engineer a devious plan to legitimize the very proposals that the people of Dominica, Antigua and St Kitts and Nevis have already rejected. We patiently await the final findings and recommendations of Kittian retired Justice Byron.