Sun | Feb 23, 2020

Orrette Fisher | Two elections for the price of one?

Published:Sunday | February 2, 2020 | 12:19 AM
Orrette Fisher
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Most election watchers are predicting that the general election will be held this year, even though the constitutional life of the administration does not come to an end until sometime in 2021.

Some may even have forgotten that what is actually due this year is the local government elections.

So if the parliamentary elections are going to be held this year, and with the local government elections due this year, the age-old question will arise: why not hold both elections together in order to save the country millions of dollars?

THE COST OF HOLDING ELECTIONS

Most Jamaicans are by now aware that the holding of national elections carries with it a huge price tag. In 2016, the cost to stage the general election was in the region of $1.2 billion. The local government elections followed months after and carried a slightly lower price tag, since the number of training sessions was reduced for poll workers, who worked in the general election, plus no new equipment was required.

Now four years on, with the increase in the cost of living and the devaluation of the Jamaican dollar, one could hazard a guess to say conducting a national election will exceed $1.5 billion.

Each time an election is due and the cost of holding the election comes up, the same question is asked: why can’t both the general and local government elections be held at the same time? It is clear the savings to the country would be significant. However, once the elections are held, the question goes away until next time elections are due.

CAN BOTH ELECTIONS REALISTICALLY BE HELD AT THE SAME TIME?

There must be very good reasons why the option of holding both elections at the same time has not been pursued. The authorities have not, to the best of my knowledge, articulated it in a way the country can understand, and have the matter put to rest. It cannot be based on the Electoral Office’s inability to conduct both at the same time.

In fact, the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) has indicated that given adequate notice, it would be able to conduct both elections on the same day. The question for the EOJ was whether the electors would vote using one ballot, with both the parliamentary and local government candidates listed, or for them to be given separate ballots.

If the decision was to use separate ballots, then the EOJ would need a second set of ballot boxes to facilitate two separate elections being held on the same day.

Actually, there is precedent for this in Jamaica, as electors in the Portmore Municipality currently vote on separate ballots when voting for the mayor and a councillor. This, therefore, is not outside the scope of the Jamaican electorate to do.

THE PROS AND CONS

The main argument in favour of conducting both elections on the same day is, of course, the huge financial savings to the country. In addition, the argument is that the local government elections would benefit from a larger voter turnout, since traditionally the turnout for local government elections is usually way below that for parliamentary elections.

Other arguments put forward include the possibility that with local government candidates sharing the campaign stage with their parliamentary counterparts, they would be thrust into the limelight, thus receiving greater publicity.

These are all reasonable arguments on the face of it.

Those not in favour of holding both together will point out that the monetary savings cannot be the major factor for twinning both elections. They will point to the fact that in all CARICOM countries and most, if not all, Commonwealth countries, the parliamentary and local government elections are held separately. Quite apart from being a colonial legacy, local government candidates have the right to stand on their own, and not be overshadowed by parliamentary elections.

THE ELECTIONS WILL REMAIN SEPARATE

The authorities in Jamaica sent the country a very clear message in 2015 with the passage of the Local Governance Act, that the elections will remain separate. For both elections to be conducted at the same time on an ongoing basis, it would require that length of the term be the same for both administrations. This was clearly not the thinking when the three pieces of legislation which formerly governed the holding of local government elections were repealed, and the Local Governance Act passed.

The life cycle for local government was changed from three to four years, and not five, which is the existing term for parliamentarians.

The message is clear: holding both elections on the same day is not being considered.

If the assumption holds that both elections will not be held on the same day, then some interesting questions arise for the timing of elections in 2020. If the general election were announced for later this year, what is the likelihood of the local government elections being postponed?

Persons have mooted in the past that local government elections be used to test the waters prior to a general election. There is no evidence of this being done, at least not in recent times.

If successive administrations think the timing is right to call an election, then the general election is announced and the local government elections usually follow shortly after. Holding local government elections shortly after the parliamentary election is a strategy that almost guarantees a win for the Government, simply by riding on the waves of the recent success at the polls.

History would suggest that the local government will be held after the general election, which could very well be in 2021.

Whatever the order, Jamaica will be going to the polls twice in quick succession at a huge financial cost, so it helps to remember the saying: ‘democracy has no price’.

- Orrette Fisher is an election management consultant and former director of elections. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.