In recent days, the opposition PPP has raised concerns about a decision by the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to reduce the use of private residences as polling places.
On the face of it, the decision is one that appears sensible as private residences will always elicit concerns about whether the abode was known to be associated with political activity of one stripe or another or whether its owners are hostile to neighbours and the not insignificant question of who is actually in charge at the station. It is also known that at one time or the other, the major parties have frowned upon the use of private residences.
That said, however, the reduction of the number of private residences has raised several concerns and these have been enunciated by the PPP.
While the number has been reduced, a significant amount remain and many of these can be found in what are perceived to be strongholds of the governing APNU+AFC. Is it the case that there has been a vast reduction of private residences in some strongholds of the PPP whereas these have been largely retained in what are seen to be APNU+AFC strongholds? If this is the case, won’t it be conferring a distinct advantage to the supporters of APNU+AFC while disadvantaging those of the opposition party? A cogent explanation is urgently needed from GECOM on whether the reduction in the use of private residences was done in an evenhanded and fair manner.
Second, there are concerns that the reduction in the use of private residences will lead to congestion at certain polling places. The PPP has said that at Mon Repos, East Coast Demerara which is reputed to have around 7,000 electors, GECOM has cut the number of polling places from ten to two, eliminating completely all private residences. As a result, all of the polling stations for the area have been fitted into two schools situated at the same location. The PPP also cited Annandale where no private residences are being used and the entire community has to vote at three schools, adjacent to each other, at the northern end of the village.
Even if the average number of persons per polling station remains the same, there is a possibility that in areas with a high turnout there may be congestion if one public building hosts more voting stations than it has in the past. This must certainly be looked at in the days remaining before general elections. Where large numbers of persons congregate – as is likely in the early hours of polling day – there is also a potential public safety risk and there will have to be adequate personnel to direct electors to the various polling stations, ensure orderly lines and to respond to any potential disorder.
The PPP has also alleged that in the reduction of the use of private residences, voters will either have to travel farther to cast their ballots and do so in terrain that is not familiar or considered to be the stronghold of its main opponent. The opposition party cited several examples. It said that Lusignan, East Coast Demerara has one polling place which is located at the Lusignan Prison, located over a mile in the deserted backlands from where the closest voter resides. The PPP said that in Chesney Village, Region Six, residents will have to traverse over two miles to the polling station instead of voting in their own community as was the case in previous elections. Further, the party contended that there is a public building in Chesney Village but the place where persons now have to vote, two miles away, is a private residence.
The PPP also cited La Grange where it said that there is no polling place in what is a very populated community and the residents are expected to vote in the neighbouring village of Bagotville. The party also referenced the community of Foulis on the East Coast Demerara where a decision has been taken to use tents. The party contends that this decision will lead to traffic congestion and can prompt security concerns.
The cases cited by the PPP are worthy of full and urgent consideration by GECOM to determine what mitigating measures can be put in place before March 2nd.
When asked by the media on Friday about the reduction in the use of private residences as polling places, GECOM Chair Justice (rtd) Claudette Singh curiously cited as a rationale, recommendations made by the Carter Center which is one of the groups presently monitoring the period leading up to general elections.
“Those have been reduced because they’re using public buildings, it’s not that the polling stations are removed in the area, it’s just the private residences –they’re moving away from those…well that was a recommendation made by the Carter Center…Why would you use private residences when you have a public place?” Ms Singh told the media.
The GECOM Chair would be well aware that recommendations by the Carter Center are simply recommendations which have to be developed into regulations or laws in a feasible manner. Such recommendations have never been received as gospel by any administration of this country let alone GECOM. Further, had any of the many recommendations made by the Center over its years of observing elections in this country been implemented, the Commission that the Chair is currently presiding over would have been far different in nature. Finally, it is hardly likely that the Center would countenance the implementation of any of its recommendations in a manner that potentially creates disruptions in the ease with which electors can cast ballots just days before the polls.
The GECOM Chair and Chief Election Officer (CEO) Lowenfield must urgently take steps to ensure that electors are not unnecessarily inconvenienced on polling day as any such occurrence could constitute another form of voter suppression. It would also be advisable for the CEO to make personal checks on polling day at the various areas cited by the PPP and to have contingency measures in place to address any difficulties.