January 17, 2001
By Raffique Shah
IN my last column that dealt with the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), I advanced the argument that the Commission’s numbers in relation to eligible voters were skewed primarily because of incompetence, and not necessarily because of corruption. Since then, though, I have heard some stories about collusion between EBC officers and officials of the UNC that are frightening, even if the allegations are “padded” to justify the PNM claims of irregularities in last December’s general election.
I was told, for example, of a Mata Hari type situation, a case in which a female UNC officer used her charm and body to worm her way into the bed of a senior EBC official, and she soon had the man eating out of her hands. As a consequence of that relationship, certain stipulations that govern transfers of voters from one district to another were breached. My understanding is that anyone seeking to transfer his or her address has to appear personally before an EBC officer and fill out the necessary form before the transfer can be put into effect. Instead, Mata Hari was able to have mass transfers done—meaning that lists of pre-signed forms were submitted by party activists and approved by specific EBC officers.
It was also alleged that persons who had died were specifically targeted, in the sense that their names were put into a computer database and persons who were willing to risk impersonation of the dead individuals were substituted. The same held good for people who had long migrated but whose names still appeared on the voters’ lists. And while a stipulation to vote in a particular district is that the elector must have resided there for at least two months prior to the date of election, this is virtually ignored by tens of thousands of nationals who have simply neglected to transfer to their new addresses.
Indeed, with respect to the latter, I know of numerous nationals who reside abroad, and are unable to meet the requirement, but whose names are on the lists and who return to the country only to cast their votes. While most of the persons who fall in this category do not intentionally breach the regulation, the fact is they are breaking the law, with the full blessings of the EBC. And in the case of the last election, it seems that large numbers of foreign-based nationals were flown home just to vote.
I know that EBC chairman Oswald Wilson and CEO Howard Cayenne will argue that the EBC does not have the resources to monitor all of the above, and further, if people are bent on being dishonest, there is little the EBC can do about it since there are so many loopholes deviant electors can exploit. That may be true. But it does not excuse the EBC from putting in place mechanisms to minimise such breaches. In fact, I am more than interested in seeing what recommendations the EBC has made over the years to government(s) to have these loopholes plugged.
But having accepted that the systems at the EBC are archaic, what do we do to restore the integrity of the electoral lists? The answer seems so simple, it defies logic that nothing has been done in this regard. For anyone with a basic understanding of computers and database programming, it is unthinkable that nothing has been done to install systems that would make the functioning of the EBC, the CSO, the Licensing Department, Inland Revenue, the Police Service, the Registrar General’s Department and other associated institutions more efficient.
The UNC Government’s war cry of “a computer in every classroom” sounds hollow when you realise that these institutions that are vital to the functioning of the State remain mired in dusty, time-worn binders and ledgers even as pre-school kids play games and surf the Internet on computers bought with taxpayers’ funds. What’s the use of having our students trained to use computers if, upon completing their basic education, they find themselves working in a computer-less environment, having to rely on the dusty files and ledgers referred to above? The Government’s thrust to make the entire nation computer literate is laudable: but it falls flat if the institutions that should benefit from this modernisation remain stuck in the “donkey cart” era.
What is worse, it will not take an arm and a leg to develop and institute such mechanisms. I am no expert in the field, but I doubt it will cost us more than $100 million to establish a main database from which all the vital arms of the State can access information on every citizen, alive or dead. If, for example, the CSO is so equipped, and its systems are linked to the police, the EBC and other institutions, then there will little chance of people with ulterior motives having two or three passports or driving permits, or having two and three addresses. Such database will be invaluable to Inland Revenue, which, in turn, will enhance revenue collection, thereby boosting government’s coffers.
I do not need to lecture to those who are fully aware of what I am writing about. The point is this: does the Government want such systems in place? The UNC Government found some $700 million to pave hundreds of kilometres of roads in the few weeks before the election, so money cannot be the problem. It is the will that is lacking. But I’ll say this: having been alerted to the gross deficiencies in the electoral lists, the vast majority of the population will not accept such irregularities as the norm, and no future election will be allowed to take place unless something is done to rectify the defects.
And this is not just a case of lack of confidence in the EBC and its lists. It runs much deeper that that. Many people are convinced that the UNC stole last December’s election, and daily more and more evidence is being advanced to give credence to this perception. If the Government and the EBC ignore the many cries for a thorough investigation into the functioning of the Commission, then the voice of the people may well turn into seething anger among the masses.
We cannot continue to accept as the norm the casual approach of Messrs Wilson and Cayenne to this most vexing question. It may well be true that there is no such thing as the perfect electoral list. But when irregularities abound to the extent that they could mean the difference between a party being in Government instead of opposition, when people feel they have been cheated of their right to vote or that others have exercised theirs in a manner designed to deceive, then we are courting trouble. Big trouble.
Wilson and Cayenne would find that they enjoy no immunity if all hell breaks loose over the sewer on which they have sat for so long. A word to the wise.
Copyright © Raffique Shah