Who can vote
The holding of elections to elect representatives to Parliament involves two related processes. In the first process, persons who are entitled to vote are registered to do so. This is done by making application to have their name, address and occupation placed on official lists containing all those who may cast a ballot on election day. As is well known, there is a list for each polling district of each of our twenty-one (21) constituencies. In the second process, persons who are registered voters go to various polling stations and cast their ballots for candidates of their choice.
To vote on election day you must be registered in the Register of Electors to be used at that election. And, to vote for a particular candidate, your name, address and occupation must appear on the List of Electors for a polling district of the constituency that candidate is contesting. Further, your name, address and occupation may appear on any such list only if you are qualified to be registered to vote.
U nder Section 5 of the Registration of Electors Act, two categories of citizens qualify to be registered. The first category is, quite obviously, a citizen of the Commonwealth of Dominica. And, the other is a citizen of the British Commonwealth, provided he or she has lived in Dominica "for a period of twelve months immediately before the qualifying date".
Such citizenship without more is not enough. Additionally, the Dominican or Commonwealth citizen must at the same time meet two other requirements. One is that he or she must be eighteen years of age or over. The other is that the citizen has lived in the polling district where he seeks registration for a "continuous period of at least three months immediately preceding the date of registration". But, where the intended voter reaches eighteen years of age "within the period of three months immediately preceding the date of his registration", this three-month continuous residential qualification is not required.
As to qualifications for registration, three further points need to be made. One is stipulated in Section 5(2) of the Act. It is that you are not qualified to be registered to vote in more than one polling district. Another, relatedly, is that you may not, at any election, vote more than once in the same polling district. This is provided under Section 4(a)(b). The third point is set out in Section 5(3) of the Act and is that where you are registered in a polling district and have stopped living there, this does not cause you to become disqualified from registering to vote in that polling district. Your qualification to register to vote there comes to an end when you have qualified to be registered for another polling district.
Most importantly, once registered, you remain registered until your name is deleted from the Register of Electors. Your name may be so removed in one of four situations: one, you have died; two, someone files an objection to your registration and the competent authority has allowed the objection; three, you have been absent from the Commonwealth of Dominica for "a period exceeding five years"; four, you have become disqualified from registering to vote either under the Act or by "any other written law imposing disqualifications for registration as an elector".
Section 6 of the Act sets out four classes of persons who are automatically disqualified from registering to vote. In the words of the Act, they are: "(a) (a person) found or declared to be a person of unsound mind or a patient in any establishment maintained wholly or mainly for the reception and treatment of persons suffering from mental illness or mental defectiveness by virtue of any written law; (b) (a person) undergoing any sentence of imprisonment in Dominica; (c) (a person who) is under sentence of death imposed on him by a court in any part of the Commonwealth or under sentence of imprisonment (by whatever name called) exceeding twelve months imposed on him by such a court or under some sentence substituted therefor by competent authority and has not suffered the punishment to which he was sentenced or received a free pardon therefor; or, (d) (a person who) is under any written law disqualified for registration as an elector."
Needless to say, the Registers of Electors are all-powerful in the matter of holding elections. They represent conclusive proof that a registered person resided or did not reside on the date of publication of the particular register at the address shown. Further, they tell whether or not the address shown is in any polling district or part of that district. And, while a registered person will not be prevented from voting on the ground that he is not a Commonwealth citizen, or eighteen years of age or more, or was otherwise disqualified from voting, any ballot cast in these situations may be rejected.
Given the decisive importance of these Registers, the Act makes provision for the following: (a) a preliminary register of voters for each polling district; (b) annual lists of persons with changed addresses or who, for reasons including that they have attained the age of eighteen years, recently qualified for registration; (c) revised quarterly lists; (d) revised annual lists; (e) a public Notice from the Chief Registering Officer "not later than five days" after the publication of the preliminary annual lists of electors from each polling district, to persons whose names are omitted from these lists and who are entitled to be registered in the revised annual lists; (f) a Register of Electors to which no amendment may be made after the day on which notice of election is given; (g) publication, within seven days of the issue of the writs for the holding of elections, of a Supplementary List of Voters.
Thus, the Act provides for continuous registration of electors. The effect of such registration is that the Register of Voters and the Supplementary Register are deemed to be the Register to be used for any election. Section 17 of the Act explains: "The revised annual list of Electors and the Supplementary Register of Electors published for each poling district ... in any year shall constitute the register of electors for that polling district and shall be used for any election held in that polling district after the publication thereof until it is superceded by the register of electors published and constituted for that polling district in the next succeeding year ...".
The Act also makes provision for adequate manpower to facilitate such registration. Included are a Chief Registering Officer, a Registering Officer for each constituency, an Assistant Registering Officer for each polling district, and "as many enumerators as may be considered necessary." Further, by Section 13(1), persons are allowed to make claims for their names to be registered as well as to raise objections to the registration of persons thought to be disqualified from registering.
The seriousness with which the framers of the Act approached the question of the right of citizens to register to vote is apprehended in Section 22 of the Act. This Section makes it an offence to omit the name of a qualified person from the register. A Registering Officer, assistant Registering Officer or an Enumerator who does so "willfully or without reasonable excuse" is made liable, if convicted in a Magistrate's Court, to a fine of $3,000.00 or to imprisonment for six months. But that is not the end of the matter. Two further penalties are imposed on any official so convicted. He or she is to forfeit his or her right to payment for services rendered. And, as well, he or she is to be disqualified, for a period of seven years from the date of conviction, from voting at any election and from being elected to Parliament or to any local government body.
Of course, a conviction carries the right of appeal. But until the appeal is determined the penalties, first, as to forfeiture of payment for services rendered as well as, second, to disqualification from voting and being voted for, remain. And, if the appeal is disallowed, the seven-year period of political disqualification is to remain in force from the date of disallowance of the appeal, unless the Court rules otherwise.
The Registration of Electors Act and its guiding Regulations rests, for implementation, on the Chief Registering Officer and support staff of Registering Officers, Assistant Registering Officers, and Enumerators. But, in our view, both bits of legislation depend, for proper implementation, on the attitudes and conduct of electors. The law is clear. It provides for the right and freedom of qualified Dominican and Commonwealth citizens to register with a view to casting a ballot, which right and freedom is guaranteed by Section 33 of our Constitution. It allows ample opportunity for those citizens to exercise that essential right and freedom. It criminalizes breach thereof. And, except on the question of "whether the Chief Elections Officer has acted in accordance with the directions of the Electoral Commission", as stipulated by Section 38(3) of our Constitution, the Courts stand ready.
© Copyright, William Para Riviere, October 2013