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Justice and Peace Commission of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston reflects on election

Published:Thursday | March 24, 2016 | 3:00 AM

With the results of the February 25 general election now clear and a new administration in place, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston has offered its reflections on the proceedings:

 

STATEMENT FROM THE JUSTICE & PEACE COMMISSION OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHDIOCESE OF KINGSTON

With the general election now concluded and the results clear, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kingston offers its reflections on the proceedings.

The Catholic Church has a substantial corpus of social teaching concerned with the dignity and liberty of the individual, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

In the Jamaican context, the Church has long had an interest in the functioning of our democracy, particularly free and fair elections.

In this regard, there is much to applaud. Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) has noted that the 2016 election was largely free of violence and criminality. No longer are politicians returned with over 100% of the vote, nor does intimidation appear to be a major issue. This reflects well on the growing maturity of the Jamaican electoral process. We have made laudable progress from our recent past.

Despite this progress, there has been, in recent decades, a notable and steady decline in voter participation. The recent election had the lowest voter turnout in contested elections in Jamaican history. Citizens are disengaging from the political process. This trend must be reversed if elections are to remain a viable and meaningful way for citizens to participate in the political process.

We suggest that the low voter turnout points to issues of credibility and confidence - that is, the trust that citizens place in political leaders and the electoral system.

What might the sources of this lack of confidence be? And how can Jamaica reverse the worrying trend Citizen confidence and engagement requires accurate and timely information from trusted officials. On this account, we note some unfortunate deficiencies.

At the level of the political parties, the late publication of manifestos and the lack of debates hurt the democratic process. The public was not given the fullest opportunity to examine party positions, which exacerbated the commonly-heard complaint that voters did not know what they were voting for. Moreover, uncertainty regarding the election date, fueled in part by statements from party officials, created unease.

There were deficiencies in accuracy and timeliness of information coming from the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ). The lack of timely information from the EOJ over the weekend of February 26th concerning the results of recounts allowed confusion and rumour to run rampant on social media. And, most unfortunately, the tone of statements from the EOJ, particularly at their press conference on February 29th, seemed more high-handed and defensive than reassuring. Some statements, such as one related to varying capacities for counting among election workers, were alarming. The actual ballot paper lacked a clear space for the inscription of a voter's mark, which led to confusion among voters and election workers. Instructions as to the correct marking of the ballot paper seemed to have varied among polling divisions.

There also remain issues of administration. The voters list needs to be cleaned up, as required by law. The processing time for transfer of voters between constituencies was longer than for new registrations, and the requirements more stringent; thus It was more difficult for a registered voter to change constituencies than for new names to be added, forcing some of the electorate to travel long distances to vote in constituencies they no longer reside in.

The reason given for the difference was that address verification was necessary for the transfers. Was there no address verification for new registrations? There should not be any difference between transfers and new registration on this account.

Other logistical issues, such as malfunctioning electronic equipment, malfunctioning integrity lamps, and slow voting, were sporadic but notable. We share CAFFE's concern regarding the exclusion of their observers from the preliminary count, which further undermined trust. These anomalies must be corrected in order to restore confidence in the system.

Despite these issues, and recalling the great progress Jamaica has made in the quality of its democratic process, we are confident that all these matters can be resolved. To these ends:

•    We call for a spirit of humility and openness among officials of the EOJ and the political parties.

•   We call for public education in the electoral process to minimise confusion and maximise engagement. In particular, we call for the ^introduction of civics in schools and more careful training of Election Day workers.

•   We call for greater participation of citizens in elections in a non-partisan way, through GAFFE, Vote Jamaica, and other civil society initiatives.

•   We call for a fixed election date, with appropriate restrictions on the timing of electioneering.

•   We call for a redesigned ballot paper with a designated box for the voter's mark.

With concrete steps and a renewed spirit of service among public officials, we look forward to smoother, fairer, cleaner and more participatory elections in the future.