Letter: Is there a need for another House-to-House Registration?

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Dear Editor,

Julianne Gaul (JG) on November 21, 2022, challenged few of my ideas on the voters’ list but failed to produce any evidence to show how voting at home (Guyana) by registered overseas-based Guyanese would be detrimental to the country and the integrity of the election process. Instead of evidence, JG revelled in rhetorical flourishes. JG implied that H-to-H Registration is the panacea for credible elections. To suggest that H-to-H Registration would shape the way to deliver credible elections is a myth. It is also noted that the legality (and constitutionality) of the names of overseas-based Guyanese on the voters’ list and their right to vote have already been competently addressed by the Attorney General, Mr Anil Nandlall. There is no need to revisit this issue.

JG wanted to know if I agree that the 1992 elections were free and fair and whether I supported the preceding H-to-House Registration in which he asserted: “thousands of Guyanese living and working abroad were removed from the Register of Registrants.” Where is the evidence for this claim? However, what is of interest in this discussion is not the Register of Registrants, but the voters’ list compiled from the 1991 H-to-H Registration that was precipitated by the widespread electoral fraud at general elections perpetrated by the PNC from 1968 to 1985. Here are some startling data on the scope of electoral fraud.

In 1980 the PPP, being the most popular with largest constituency-based party, was allocated 26.4 per cent (or 14) parliamentary seats vs 69.8 per cent (or 37) parliamentary seats for the PNC; while in 1980 the allocation to the PPP was 18.9 per cent (or 10 seats) vs 77.4 per cent (or 41) parliamentary seats for the PNC; and in 1985 that percentage of PPP parliamentary seats continued to shrink to 15.1 per cent (or 8 seats), while the PNC’s parliamentary seats continued to rise to 79.2 per cent (or 42). Incredible!

This pattern of electoral abuse led to widespread political agitation and persistent calls for reform of the electoral process by Opposition forces, including the PPP (which along with other political forces formed the Patriotic Coalition for Democracy) and NGOs. The rapid downturn of the economy in the 1980s (when real GDP was negative (-3.28 per cent); the national debt was (US$) 2.1 billion; the Guyana currency was devalued significantly; and the Government laid off 6000 State workers) plus the push by Americas Watch, the Carter Center, and the Commonwealth, played a key role in bringing the PNC and other parties to the negotiating table. Americas Watch observed: “a free and fair election cannot be held without fundamental changes in the deeply flawed Guyanese electoral process.”

The PNC agreed to, among other things: (1) to count votes at polling stations and not at army headquarters or other locations; (2) there would be a H-to-H Registration because the entire electoral system including the voters’ list was compromised; (3) the Election Commission to be expanded to three Commissioners each from the PPP/C and the PNCR, with the Chair appointed by President Hoyte from a list of 6 candidates submitted to the by Dr Cheddi Jagan, the PPP leader.

Despite these and other measures at electoral reform, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) observed in 1995: “the Guyana electoral system requires extensive rehabilitation to achieve adequate standards of fairness, efficiency and sustainability.” This statement aligns to my position that the voters’ list is just one aspect of the electoral system, and that other components like professionalisation of GECOM staff, are equally important.

The implication that “thousands of overseas-based Guyanese voters” were disenfranchised in the H-to-H Registration is not supported by evidence. The 1992 voters’ list shows a 3.8 per cent (or 15,109 voters) reduction in voters’ names, compared with the previous voters’ list of 1985. The number of registered voters in 1985 was 399,304 compared with 384,195 in 1992. How much of the reduction was applicable to each of the following categories is not known:(1) names of deceased persons being deleted; (2) emigration (1980s had the highest rate of emigration than in any other decade); (3) the likelihood of the discarding of names of overseas-based Guyanese; and (4) declining fertility level of families.

Notwithstanding the struggle to make changes and correct errors in the electoral system which had been skewed in favour of the PNC, it was evident that a voters’ list compiled from H-to-H Registration is not without serious flaws. To suggest that H-to-H Registration is a better method than “continuous cycles of registration” to achieve clean and credible elections is not borne out by historical or empirical evidence. What the evidence shows instead is that the electoral process could be sabotaged, for example, by the Elections Commission and its staff. This level of corruption found its finest expression in the post-March 2nd elections of 2020 when there was a brazen attempt to stage an electoral heist, a situation described by the head of OAS Observer Mission as: “the most transparent attempt to steal an election.”

Despite these and other measures at electoral reform, the International Foundation for Electoral systems (IFES) observed in 1995: “the Guyana electoral system requires extensive rehabilitation to achieve adequate standards of fairness, efficiency and sustainability.” This statement aligns to my position that the voters’ list is just one component of the electoral system, and that other components like professionalisation of GECOM staff, are equally important.

While a clean voters’ list is a vital component of a credible election process, the lessons from the fraudulent elections of the 20th century and the recent 2020 general elections, demonstrate that an immensely powerful force of unprofessional and partial GECOM staff, could derail the integrity of the electoral process. A GECOM staff complicit with political operatives poses a graver threat to democracy and election integrity than taking away the right of registered overseas-based Guyanese to exercise their franchise.

Sincerely,
Dr Tara Singh