January 3, 2001
By Raffique Shah
A FRIEND of mine who worked temporarily with the Elections and Boundaries Commission back in the 1970s as a field officer, summed up the state of this all-important but extremely incompetent State institution based on his personal experience. He, like others, was allocated a district and his job was to visit every house and note details of all those who were qualified to be electors. So he duly recorded the names of persons who had reached the age of 18, those who had changed residence through marriage or otherwise, and people on the old electoral list who had died.
Having submitted the data to the EBC, his job was completed. Some time later, when the new list for the district in which he had worked was posted, he examined it. He discovered to his dismay that except for the addition of the names of those who had reached the age of 18, nothing else had been changed. In other words, the names of people long dead continued to appear on the list as eligible voters, and those who had left the district to live elsewhere were still registered at their old addresses.
I started this column by relating a personal testimony to the inefficiencies of the EBC to show that the contamination of this country’s electoral master list did not happen overnight. It is a degenerative process that began many years ago and was allowed to deteriorate to the point where, today, that list is not simply inaccurate, but it’s downright dangerous in terms of the integrity of any election conducted under it aegis. And the only reason it has come to the fore at this time is because the demographics and the political equations have changed over the years to the point where neither of the two main parties controls a comfortable majority, hence the closeness of results in many constituencies and the close scrutiny of the lists for irregularities.
Dead people did not start to vote in the 2000 general elections: ever since I became aware of what elections were, I have heard such allegations being made. It is nothing new for persons who have been registered at particular addresses for decades and who never changed their places of abode to turn up at polling stations to find their names missing from the master list. It is-and has always been the norm for people whose names are not on the lists to simply produce some form of identification, sign the prescribed form, and proceed to vote. And so the incidents of people who are qualified to vote but aren’t allowed to exercise their franchise continues unabated, while many who may not be entitled to vote but are allowed to so do, routinely taints the process.
The EBC is a creature of the Constitution charged with an almost sacred responsibility, that of ensuring that the electoral process is fair. For all its flaws, I do not see it as a body whose integrity has been compromised by the personal preferences of the commissioners or their staff although my personal experiences tell me that some mid-level officials make little effort to hide their partisanship. I have heard that since the notion of “investing in governments” has taken root, some of the Commission’s inadequately compensated staff may have been tempted by sizeable “gifts” dangled before them, but I usually write off such talk to Trinidadians’ penchant for rumour-mongering.
Still, the EBC has me uneasy-and I’ll tell you why. Its tallies of the total numbers of electors in the country at different elections are curious, to say the least. The Commission came into being upon the country gaining independence in 1962, so I’ll leave readers to try to make sense of the total numbers of electors in elections held after that date. In 1961, the year before, there were 378,511 registered electors, an increase of 114,000 over the 1956 number. By 1966, the electorate had grown by 72,000 to 450,820. But in 1971, the year in which the main opposition parties had boycotted the elections, the number of eligible electors had fallen by 93,000. In 1976, the number increased by 108,000 (bear in mind that the population at that time was just around one million) to 565,640, while in the ensuing five years leading to the 1981 elections it had climbed by only 65,000.
There was a big jump in 1986:150,000 voters were added to the list, making a total of 882,020 eligible electors in a population that was barely over 1.2 million. By some freak happening (the flight of the “refugees” to Canada?), in 1991 the EBC’s master list had declined by 88,000 to decrease to 794,486. Then in the five years leading up to 1995, only 43,000 persons were added, taking the tally to 837,741. And if I remember correctly, its final list for the recent elections showed an increase of around 150,000 new electors over the 1995 figure.
Now let’s examine the Central Statistical Office (CSO) numbers for similar years. In 1960, the CSO showed there were 827,957 persons living in the country, of whom about 400,000 persons under the age of 21 (the legal voting age at the time), which was close to 50 per cent of the population. Following its 1970 census, the CSO reported a population of 931,071: so the EBC’s figure of 357,568 electors in 1971 was almost one-third the population. I know it was an unusual election and there were several uncontested seats. But that still does not account for such skewed EBC numbers in the face of the CSO’s.
The disparities would grow worse, though. In 1980, the CSO reported a total population of 1,079,791. In the general elections that were held four years earlier (and the numbers would not have changed much during that time), just over 50 per cent of the population was recorded as eligible electors (565,640). And whereas the CSO reported a population of 1,213,733 in 1990, the EBC’s 1986 list had jumped to 882,020, leaving 331,000 persons out of the list. Yet the CSO data pointed to over 400,000 under the age of 18.
What a little-more-than-cursory examination of both sets of numbers shows is that while the population increased by an average of 130,000 over the five-year intervals at which censuses were conducted (hence my view that the 2000 census will show little more than 1.3 million as the total population), the EBC’s figures were at severe odds with the CSO’s. Now, both of them could not be correct, even if we allow for margins of error, for people failing to register to vote, or for other hindrances that could have hampered the EBC in its largely voluntary exercises to have people register to vote. And since we take the CSO’s numbers as being relatively accurate, it’s the EBC that comes out smelling like “gobar”.
I know, of course, that there are other impediments to the EBC functioning the way it ought to, and I shall address these in my follow-up column. But all the data I have reproduced here (and let me add that like the valuations of Caroni’s rum stocks that were done by contracted experts, not by me, these are not “Shah figures”, they are official numbers from the bodies referred to) tell us that all is not well with the EBC. I am not accusing the Commission of deliberately falsifying its numbers, of taking sides in the electoral process or any such irregularities. But I am convinced that incompetence runs rife in the organisation, and that is unacceptable from a body that is charged with the serious responsibilities the EBC is. (To be continued).
Copyright © Raffique Shah