Electoral Reform: ball now in court of the Electoral Commission
Last week Lennox Linton, the political leader of the opposition United Workers Party (UWP), released to the public, a letter that he wrote to Gerard Burton, the chairman of the Electoral Commission.
In that letter, dated 18 August 2016, Linton outlined the UWP's demands for electoral reform before the next general elections. Interestingly Linton has itemized the action he wants the Electoral Commission to take and he has given Burton and the Commission deadlines for getting them done.
You may recall that some months ago Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit also wrote a letter to the Commission in which he gave the ruling Dominica Labour Party's (DLP) perspective on electoral reform.
If you compare the two proposals you will undoubtedly conclude that the UWP and the DLP are light years apart on the issue of electoral reform and, therefore, we predict a long and dirty fight ahead before the two major political parties agree on the details of whatever reform is to take place.
To minimize the inevitable quarrel we have suggested that the Commission engage of an independent consultant from the Organisation of American States, for example, to advise the Commission on the measures and their implementation. In our view the current electoral Commission is way too politically polarized to consider the matter to the satisfaction of the Dominican public. In our view, Burton has a massively complicated job ahead of him and he would need the wisdom of King Solomon to get it done without rancor.
But significant levels of electoral reform have to be implemented before the next general election constitutionally due in 2020 because Dominica really cannot continue conducting general elections the way it has been over the past 15 years.
In his letter Linton requested the following, summarize here in his own words: "an accurate register of voters - a total re-registration of all eligible voters on the basis of which a new register of voters will be issued; voter identification cards - picture ID cards for all eligible voters on the new register of voters who will be obligated to use the cards as identification during elections; enforcement of the provisions in our electoral laws against bribery, treating, personation, illegal voting and election offenses in general; voting by electors living overseas – lawful facilitation of registered, eligible voters living overseas to vote in general elections in Dominica; media access for the Opposition - fair access for the Opposition to the news and current affairs programmes of all State-owned, State-operated or State-controlled media; campaign finance reform - to ensure at the very least declarations of campaign contributions and election campaign spending by any political party of no more than EC$30 per registered voter per election".
As we have stated in earlier editorials, the issue of campaign finance reform is going to be the most contentious because that matter will affect every aspect of election campaigning in Dominica. Over the past three elections the financing of general elections has been of growing concern because the cost has been increasing by leaps and bounds and is now definitely out of reach of ordinary Dominicans.
In fact the Organisation of American States (OAS) has strong views on campaign financing and the impact that unregulated practices may have on the holding of free and fair elections.
For example, in the document entitled "Observing Political-Electoral Financing Systems: A Manual for OAS Electoral Observation Missions" the OAS General Secretariat noted the following principles:
"The right to universal and equal suffrage, based on the principle of equality in elections. Each citizen has one vote and each vote has the same weight in expressing the collective will. This principle is undermined when the financing system allows or encourages wealthier citizens to assume greater electoral power through their ability to finance campaigns, compared to citizens who are only able to influence the electoral process with their votes. In theory, the right to universal and equitable suffrage is exercised on Election Day. In reality, voter equality is undermined well before the day on which votes are cast".
As we said in an earlier editorial, although we may concede that elections in Dominica have been relatively free (in the broadest meaning of the term) we have also argued on many occasions in this newspaper that elections in Dominica will not be fair until there are substantial changes to elections financing regulations. In fact, "changes" is the wrong word because these regulations do not exist at all. Without campaign finance legislation, the electoral playing field is not even.
Again the OAS has noted that the cost of campaigns has to be controlled and regulated:
"Limits on campaign expenditures are measures that set ceilings on political party costs. The direct limitation of costs seeks to reduce campaign spending and thus to prevent any resulting inequity. In cases where time limits exist, cost limits avoid the concentration of spending over reduced periods of time. Limits on campaign costs should be explicit, objective, and measurable so as to prevent different levels of discretionary power from hindering the objective of the mechanism".
The point is well taken. The 2014 campaign is considered to be the most expensive ever held in Dominica. Unconfirmed reports indicated the DLP alone spent more than EC$40 million. Hence, we are always amazed by the indifference of Dominicans towards what boils down to the actual purchase of Dominica's electoral system by persons unknown. We note too that although the UWP spent considerably less than the DLP in the 2014 general election campaign but the opposition has also failed to disclose it sources of financing because there are no laws to force political parties to disclose the main sources of financing.
So, as we stated earlier, we need to begin talking about enacting campaign finance laws and finding ways to enforce them before the next general election. Otherwise the culture of political corruption will continue to corrode our citizens' faith and confidence in the electoral process.
Now that both political parties have outlined their expectations for electoral reform, the ball, as they say, is in the court of the Electoral Commission. It must act now.