Sun | Feb 16, 2020

Editorial | ECJ must be robust in enforcing election-spending reporting

Published:Thursday | January 16, 2020 | 12:28 AM

For anyone paying attention, it ought to be obvious that the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) hasn’t acquitted itself well in enforcing the rules on the reporting of spending on election campaigns, and there is need for changes to the law to ensure greater urgency by the commission in this regard. These amendments should happen before the next general election, constitutionally due in little over a year’s time, but which the smart money expects to happen by mid-year.

The last parliamentary election, for the constituency of East Portland, to replace the murdered member of parliament, Lynvale Bloomfield, was 288 days, or more than nine months, ago. Under Jamaica’s election law, the candidates in that contest, the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) Ann-Marie Vaz, the winner, and the People’s National Party’s (PNP) Damion Crawford, or their agents, had up to six weeks after the poll to submit full accounts “of all expenditure incurred in connection with the election”, including statements on all money received for the respective campaigns.

These reports should have been ready by May 16, 2019, which, by the ECJ’s account, they were. Mr Crawford reported that he spent J$4.75 million, or approximately 32 per cent of the cap of what individual candidates are allowed to spend on their campaigns. Mrs Vaz reported that she spent nothing. In the face of raised eyebrows, the JLP soon clarified that it did all the spending for her campaign.

Political parties, under section 52BJ Election Campaign Financing Legislation & Regulations, have up to 180 days after an election to submit a “campaign period expenditure report”, which is separate from those demanded of candidates. By this newspaper’s calculation, the JLP and the PNP should have filed these reports by October 1, 2019. The law requires that once these reports are reviewed by the ECJ, summary statements of expenditure are published and the public informed of a time and place where they can review the full reports and underlying documents.

This week, the director of elections, Glasspole Brown, reported that the parties met their filing deadlines, but that the ECJ had requested additional information. “I understand from the registration that they (PNP and JLP) have submitted that information recently,” he told this newspaper.

The ECJ’s staff, therefore, is now in a position to prepare a final report for the commissioners to decide on its publication date. In other words, nearly 10 months after a by-election in a single constituency, Jamaicans don’t have a handle on what was spent in East Portland, but for J$4.5 million claimed by Mr Crawford. Some interpretations of the law is that his party could have spent up to another J$10 million, but this is one of the issues which appears to be in need of clarification in the law.

STIFF PENALTIES

There are, though, other fundamental issues to be addressed. The cap on election campaign spending, and the reporting procedures associated with these, are aimed at ensuring transparency in the electoral process and that Jamaica’s democracy doesn’t become one that belongs only to people with deep pockets. It is not without good reason why failing to comply with the rules carry stiff penalties, including the possibility of going to jail for up to five years and the candidate being barred from elections for at least seven years.

But the longer it takes for election expenditure reports to be finalised, with the passage of time diminishing interest in the specifics of a long-gone contest, the greater the possibility for the erosion of transparency and of the electoral process being corrupted. It is the job of the Electoral Commission to be vigilant against such occurrences. That is why we are concerned that the commission has allowed such as long time to elapse since the East Portland by-election without the publication of the final expenditure reports.

Further, we question why it should take six months for a political party to prepare a campaign expenditure analysis, even in the case of a general election when all 63 parliamentary seats are in play. This concern is more acute when it is a single one.

The law should be amended to reduce the time parties have to file declarations, with further limits in cases of by-elections. They should also be given a time frame within which follow-up questions are to be answered, failing which the ECJ proceeds with legal action. The ECJ, too, should be given a specific period, after it receives the requisite information, for it to publish reports.