Wed | Apr 1, 2020

Editorial | Tighten election-reporting requirements

Published:Tuesday | February 25, 2020 | 12:22 AM

Now that the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) is back to its full complement of ‘independent’ members after last week’s appointment of former Chief Justice Zaila McCalla, it should not only get on with preparing for the imminent general election, but should be aggressive in holding candidates and parties to their obligations under the electoral law. And the ECJ should be transparent about it.

At the same time, as this newspaper proposed last month, there should be changes to the election laws to ensure greater accountability to the public from the ECJ in reporting election-related information. The commissioners, we hope, will back this suggestion.

The ECJ, which has responsibility for the conduct of elections in Jamaica, comprises eight members, four appointed – two each – by the island’s big political parties and four selected by the governor-general, one of whom is to be the chairman. They are joined by the director of elections, the professional who runs the day-to-day operations of the Electoral Office of Jamaica and who gets a vote on policy.

Among Mrs McCalla’s first tasks will be to meet with her fellow ‘independents’ to decide on a chairman to succeed Dorothy Pine-McLarty, who she replaced on the commission. We expect that long-standing member Professor Alvin Wint, a distinguished economist and competent manager, will be elevated to the position, unless he says otherwise.

There is, however, much more for the ECJ to do in the short term. The general election is constitutionally due by next March, but Prime Minister Andrew Holness, as he is allowed to, is expected to schedule the poll much earlier. A national election, a logistical enterprise, demands much preparation if things are not to go awry, with the danger of denting confidence in the process and a country’s democracy.

Jamaica, these days, is celebrated for the competence with which it manages its election and related affairs, which is a long way from where it was less than four decades ago when even though the poll reflected the will of the majority, voting irregularities and campaign violence were common. Much of the change is due to the efforts of the ECJ and its predecessor, the Electoral Advisory Committee. We can’t go back to those bad, old days.

One way to help ensure this is for appropriate electoral rules to be in place and that they are adhered to, as well as proper monitoring of spending on election campaigns.

Under Jamaica’s election law, a candidate for a constituency can spend up to J$15 million while in the event of a national poll, a political party can spend up to J$630 million, assuming that it entered candidates in all 63 constituencies. A candidate, or his agent, has six weeks after an election to file an expenditure report. A party is given 180 days, or six months.

REDUCE THE TIME

The last parliamentary election in Jamaica, for the East Portland seat, was on April 4 last year, or nearly 11 months ago. In the aftermath of the poll, the People’s National Party’s Damion Crawford told the ECJ that he spent J$4.6 million. The Jamaica Labour Party’s Ann-Marie Vaz said she spent nothing but clarified that the campaign expenditure was via the party.

Yet it was only towards the middle of January, 10 months after the election, that the electoral office reported that it had “recently” received the filings from the parties, which it was about to review. Nothing further has been reported.

We believe that the time that parties have to file these reports, even in the case of a general election, is inordinately long. It limits transparency and opens up the opportunity for malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance. The reporting period for parties should be halved to 90 days, or three months, failing which,the ECJ should be obligated to make a public disclosure of the delay, and in the absence of a compelling reason for the delay, institute criminal proceedings against the party and its responsible officer.

Further, the ECJ should have a month (30 days) after a party files its expenditure report to publish a preliminary analysis of the information, with appropriate qualifications and provisos. A final report should be ready 60 days later.

These changes should be enshrined in legislation and be in force for the next general election.