Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Two-in-one election? - Renewed calls for local gov’t, national polls to be held together in COVID-19 era

Published:Sunday | June 7, 2020 | 12:00 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Davis Whyte
Brown
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With both the local government and general elections on the horizon, there are mounting calls for the Government and the Opposition to give urgent consensus to holding both polls simultaneously in light of a number of prevailing conditions being faced by the country.

The last local government elections were held in November 2016 and with the next polls due between November 2020 and February 2021.

Jamaicans last elected a government in February 2016, with the current administration’s five-year term ending in February 2021 and the next election due within a maximum of three months thereafter, closing the window in May.

For years, there has been debate on the feasibility of holding both elections together, especially when their due dates fall within a close range, but both the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) have steered clear of throwing their weight behind such a proposal. Critics are again calling for the idea to be revisited, citing the dwindling national voting percentages for both over several cycles, the financial benefit to the country, and health and safety concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic as reasons enough to move forward this time.

Howard Mitchell, chairman of the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal and immediate past president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, said the country should have taken this step long ago.

“In general, it should have been done all the time. It gives voters a proper perspective on what they are getting and the people who they believe should be working together. I hold that in democracies like ours, that are not fully developed, we should allow for the structures for the citizenry to exercise their democratic rights,” he argued last week.

For him, local government and national elections should not be held just because they are due, but for real benefits to the citizens and the country.

“We should be able to judge all at the same time, especially as the low voter turnout goes straight to the credibility of the elections ... . So present all of them at the same time, and it will reduce much of the noise that passes for campaigning anyway,” Mitchell added.

His position finds agreement with trade unionist Helene Davis-Whyte.

“I have always felt that they should run simultaneously. First of all, the cost would be considerably less than running two elections. In fact, even issues of referendum should be held at election time,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

“You cannot continue to justify holding local government elections with 25 per cent voter turnout nationally,” she argued, saying the change was needed. “It can be done, and it should be done. And since COVID-19 is not going away any time soon, it has to be considered now and going forward.”

Voter apathy towards general and local government elections has been increasing locally. In the 2016 general election, only 47.7 per cent of the 1.82 million registered voters participated in the process, the lowest turnout since 1983, when the PNP boycotted the 1983 snap election. Municipal elections have fared much worse in terms of turnout over several cycles.

Director of Elections Glasspole Brown said the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) has the capability and competence to handle both polls at the same time, provided that it be given adequate notice.

“We have asked for a budget of $2.4 billion, which has been granted as per the Estimates of Expenditure. We are guided by the protocols established by the Ministry of Health, so we would not seek to do anything that runs counter to what is in place, especially in view of physical distancing and sanitising,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.

According to him, once there is agreement, the process chosen will inform execution.

“No legislative changes are needed. Let’s say they agree, and they choose to have one ballot. We would not need additional ballot boxes. If they choose one election and separate ballots, it would require additional ballot boxes that would make it easier for counting. It all depends on the process,” he said.

The EOJ boss added that the organisation would now be working out how it can operate within the COVID-19 conditions and remain within budget.

“Initially, when we were casting our budget, we did not take into consideration COVID-19. So we have to now consider how best we can work costs associated with the virus within the budget we have,” he said, adding that his office is beginning training for election workers this month.

The final publication of the voters’ list, which was due on May 31, was also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing the date to July 31.

When contacted on the issue of holding both polls together, PNP General Secretary Julian Robinson said the party does not have a position on the matter currently.

“This would require a public-education programme because of its novelty. There would be a number of concerns, for example, if it’s one ballot and the elector spoils the member of parliament part of it but not the councillor part, does that mean the whole ballot is spoilt? How would issues like that be addressed?” Robinson said.

Repeated attempts to reach JLP General Secretary Dr Horace Chang were unsuccessful.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has given a commitment not to hold elections while the current states of emergency in sections of the island are still in place. They are set to expire next month.

Attorney-at-law Dr Paul Ashley believes the elections will be announced on Twitter.

“There will be no Half-Way Tree or Mandeville meeting for announcement. There will be no long campaigning either. In fact, there will be no campaigning,” he said. “I am looking for elections in a few weeks, and by that, I mean in the next 10 weeks. But while I believe that we should have one election, and support all the attendant evidence, it ain’t gonna happen.

“All the giveaways have been done already. The back-to-school assistance programme is going to be used as the carrot before the voters, for revenues are low, so the elections will have to be very soon,” he theorised.

Public commentator Shalman Scott disagreed, but said the element of surprise exercised by all political leaders in the calling of elections is slowly being lessened, given the short window which currently exists.

“I believe the elections will be held later rather than sooner. A lot is going to depend on what happens with the reopening of the economy. That process will have to be done with a lot of caution. But we can be sure that if the MOH (Ministry of Health) protocols remain in place, there will be an end to mass gatherings. But I suspect that it will be closer to the end of the term and it will be informed by the pattern of the pandemic,” Scott suggested.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com