Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Editorial | Voter reverification and the national ID

Published:Friday | June 9, 2017 | 6:00 AM

There are sensible and rational reasons the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) wants a reverification of voters and to issue them with new identification cards. The aim is to preserve the integrity of Jamaican elections.

That's not something that this newspaper takes lightly. For while Jamaica's democracy is in reasonable decent shape, with voting largely free and fair and electoral outcomes reflecting the will of the majority, we were not always so sanguine about the system.

There was a time when our campaigns were marred by violence and intimidation, and irregularities common. In some constituencies, ballot boxes used to be stolen, and in some cases, openly stuffed. It was not uncommon in these ridings for the winning candidate to receive more voters than there were registered electors.

What changed was a people's desire for transformation supported by technology. Critically, the register of voters was underpinned by bio-data, especially fingerprints. Each elector was issued with an ID card. It became difficult for a voter to impersonate someone else.

The development and maintenance of such a system is expensive, as the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), the operational arm of the ECJ, indicated in disclosing its reverification plan. It will cost at least J$2 billion, but probably more, according to the director of elections, Orrette Fisher.

That is part of the economics of a democracy. Which brings us to an issue we raised two months ago when the administration tabled its bill to establish a national identification system. What will be the relationship between the national ID and existing identification arrangements, and would it be sensible to attempt to rationalise resources?

We do not as yet know what it will cost to set up this new ID system, but it is likely to run into billions of dollars as well.

Every Jamaican resident will have one of these cards, which will be part of a database filled with bio-data such as fingerprints and perhaps retinal scans. The cards will be legally required by persons doing business with government agencies, which suggests that it will make obsolete the current requirement for a tax registration number.

 

PRIVACY CONCERNS

 

But the national ID, if it stands up constitutionally, is intended, it appears, to stand apart and independent from that issued to registered electors. The bio-data in the voters' register - unlike what is intended in the new ID system in limited circumstances - cannot be shared with other bodies or agencies. That is understandable given concerns for privacy and the potential for official overreach, especially at the time when the electoral system was reformed. That was before the sharp escalation in global terrorism and an erosion of some previously sacrosanct rights as part of the efforts to combat the terror threat.

We, of course, adhere to the right to privacy and its protection, and, therefore, support the provisions in the ID bill to undergird these constitutional guarantees, even though the law will make the national ID obligatory. The question, under the circumstances, given the economics of maintaining two separate and standalone databases, is whether it is not technically feasible to use a single ID for voter identification and for doing business with the government, without compromising the integrity and independence of the election mechanisms?

It is something that the policymakers and their technical advisers may be inclined to discuss with the rest of us.