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Help perfect electoral system

Published:Tuesday | March 29, 2016 | 3:00 AMDaynia Harper

The Jamaican electoral system has been significantly transformed since colonial times when, for instance, candidates seeking political office engaged in practices of skulduggery, malfeasance, and even imprisoned legal voters, replacing them with ineligible electors, a situation that occurred under the governorship of Prince Rupert, the Earle of Albermarle, in 1687.

Post-universal adult suffrage in Jamaica, in December 1944, a new electoral system was established, with an organised body headed by the chief electoral officer, under the new Representation of the People Act. This replaced the old electoral law of 1884; however, the new system did not eliminate misconduct, although such instances were often obscured by the Crown government of the day.

Subsequently, clandestine malpractices emerged during post-Independence Jamaica in the form of voter impersonation and the stealing of ballot boxes. And, by the mid-1970s to 1980s, an ugly wave of violence erupted between the supporters of the two major political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People's National Party (PNP), which undermined the implementation of the electoral process.

Today, the electoral system has matured and is far removed from those days of anarchy and deep-rooted distrust, and it now serves as a model to even its former colonial masters in Great Britain.

The Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) was established under the leadership of Opposition Leader Edward Seaga, leader of the JLP, and then Prime Minister Michael Manley, president of the PNP in the 1970s. Management of its remit, to govern the electoral process in a fair and transparent manner, has enabled the EAC to evolve as a reputable entity, now known as the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), which is regarded as an example for many states in the Caribbean region and other democratic jurisdictions.

The fundamental mandate of the ECJ calls for continuous identification and implementation of new strategies to improve the Jamaican electoral process by ensuring that, for example:

1. Electoral boundaries are maintained in keeping with the Jamaican Constitution.

2. The public is educated and kept informed about the registration and voting processes.

3. Recommendations are made to Parliament in support of new laws that will continue to improve the electoral process.

The framers of the ECJ sought to ensure that the organisation received full support from the political parties, in an approach recognised as a convention, whereby matters proposed are debated by the ECJ, and consensus achieved with political representatives to the commission.

This intricate, inclusive system has served Jamaica well, and has been critical to the development of the trust accorded in the electoral process, resulting in the reduction of violence during election periods. This was evident in the 2016 general election, where questions were raised but political parties accepted the final results, despite the very close outcome.

 

JA INFLUENCING UK

In 2010, four years after the establishment of the ECJ, the United Kingdom adopted the Jamaican convention, appointing four part-time commissioners to the UK Electoral Commission, who are nominated by the leaders of political parties, scrutinised by the Speaker's Committee on Electoral Commission and approved by the House of Commons.

The Jamaican convention is also becoming the standard in other parts of the world, and is a model of which all Jamaicans should be proud.

The ECJ welcomes suggestions from citizens to improve its effectiveness, as it seeks to further modernise the election machinery through the computerisation of the voting system and counting process, as well as to improve the quality of the voters' list through a house-to-house process of enquiry.

Given those achievements, any suggestions to improve the effectiveness of the ECJ should seek to enhance the approaches it now employs, rather than to eliminate a model that has proven to be beneficial to the continued development of the nation's electoral process, and that of other states.

- Daynia Harper is public education officer of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and dharper@eoj.com.jm.