By Liz Rahaman
Barrister-at-law J.E. Ferdinand has suggested that building public awareness on electoral reform is a social obligation.
Ferdinand said it would be a serious dereliction of civic mindedness if it were left up to the political parties to do so.
This remark was made during a presentation on July 13 themed, “Beyond Party Politics: Some Issues in Electoral Reform in St. Kitts and Nevis.
Ferdinand in his presentation read excerpts from the Commonwealth Report of 2004, which stated that “political parties are mainly responsible for educating their supporters on how to register and vote… However, because of the controversy over the registration law and the accusations of possible attempts to vote fraudulently, both main parties in St. Kitts spend a great deal of time educating its supporters according to its own version of the electoral law…
“… a proactive public education campaign would be important should an electoral reform programme be undertaken because of the perception that public discussion suffers from a lack of informed input and because there has been a high level of confusion on issues such as voter registration and balloting procedures during the last election campaign.”
Ferdinand said that a debate on electoral reform would provide an opportunity for citizens and political parties to examine the broader structures and principles aimed at strengthening and enhancing the democratic process. He pointed out that the electoral reform should not be limited to a mere “who should vote and where.”
In this context, while he noted that electoral reform must be extended to embrace Constitutional amendment, Ferdinand acknowledged this is an unlikely achievement without political consensus across the divide.
Ferdinand pointed to several possible amendments including the composition of the Electoral Commission as being separate and distinct from the Constituency Boundaries Commission.
“In my opinion there ought to be, as part of the electoral reform process, an amendment of the Constitution to establish a single Electoral and Constituency Boundaries Commission,” Ferdinand said, and noted that the members of that commission should be appointed by the Governor General.
Ferdinand said the Prime Minister would be able to advise the Governor General on two appointments. The Leader of Opposition would be able recommend one appointment and other parliamentary representatives will be allowed to advise on one appointee. The Governor General will make two more appointees, including the chairman on his own deliberate judgment after consulting persons he deems appropriate.
“A Commission thus constituted would offer a greater prospect of independence from partisan political control in the execution of its constitutional duties than presently obtains in relation to the existing Electoral Commission and the Constituency Boundaries Commission,” Ferdinand said..
As it relates to changes in the National Assembly Elections Act, Ferdinand suggested that the law be amended to remove the “loose concept of domicile” that forms a basis for voter registration.
“Registration should be based on actual ordinary residence at the time of registration and, if a voter’s ordinary residence changes, his registration should be open to challenge, resulting in the removal of his name from the register of voters,” he added.
Speaking to the voters list, Ferdinand stressed that the list, which is published at election time should be the final list.
“No election official should have any discretion to allow a person to vote whose name is not on the last published voter’s list,” he cited from the Commonwealth Report while adding that the electoral laws should allow voters to use a valid passport, a valid driver’s license or social security card as voter’s identification.
He noted that virtually every voter already has one or more of these forms of identification. He said there can be provision for a special voter identification. However, due to cost and potential complications such as the card being misplaced or lost, Ferdinand would rather the traditional form of identification.
With reference to overseas-based nationals, he acknowledged that while many of them pay close attention to the happenings in St. Kitts/Nevis out of genuine patriotic interest and concern, and contribute significantly to the economy by way of remittances, they are not “in the kitchen and therefore do not feel the heat.”
“The number of potential overseas voters, if domicile is retained as a basis for registration in the electoral law, is sufficient to be decisive in close elections and it seems fundamentally unfair for political parties to fund scores of two-day visitors who take a joy-ride, cast their vote, and jet back into the great beyond, leaving us here to live with their choice of Government,” Ferdinand said.
He said that in keeping with the Commonwealth’s objective to achieve balance and fairness in the number of voters in each constituency, it is imperative that a new national registration and enumeration exercise precede any boundary realignment.
Other Constitutional Amendments he called for dealt with the legislation governing campaign financing and integrity in public life; whether to continue with a Constituency voter system as opposed to a proportional representation as is practiced in the BVI and Montserrat; whether the restrictions should be maintained that require Members of Parliament to be born citizens or that one of their parents must be born in St. Kitts or Nevis.
These restrictions, he said, are not consistent with the ethos of the OECS and CARICOM.
In addition, Ferdinand questioned the restriction barring a candidate who fails to win an election from becoming a Senator.
“I think that this is an irrational and unnecessary prohibition since a losing candidate may still have much to offer in Parliament and electoral loss in a particular constituency may not reflect their wider national support,” Ferdinand said.
He further questioned if Members of Parliament, serving in both the Federal Parliament and the Nevis Island Assembly, should be allowed to earn salaries from two public sources.