MPs spar over new voters’ list as $4.1B approved for GECOM

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The National Assembly’s Committee of Supply on Wednesday approved some $4.1 billion for the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), of which some $1.1 billion is earmarked for the hosting of Local Government Elections (LGE) slated to be held later this year.

However, the monies were not approved without a fiery exchange between the two side particularly over the voters’ list for the local government polls.

In response to questions from the APNU/AFC Opposition MPs, Parliamentary Affairs and Governance Minister Gail Teixeira disclosed that monies to the tune of $1.1 billion has been set aside for the hosting of Local Government Elections and that preparatory activities such training for polling day staff are likely to start in the third quarter of the year.

During his contribution to the 2021 Budget debates, Local Government and Regional Development Minister, Nigel Dharamlall, had disclosed that Local Government Elections will be held later this year.

However, when asked by Opposition Chief Whip Christopher Jones on Wednesday whether monies were specifically budgeted for a House-to-House registration exercise, Minister Teixeira responded in the negative.

She noted that the seven-member Elections Commission, which approved GECOM’s budget presented to the Finance Ministry, will have to make that decision and if they in fact decided to go ahead with the exercise, then additional funding can be sought.

This sparked a heated debate with APNU/AFC parliamentarian, Tabitha Sarabo-Halley, questioning the decision of the Commission to approved the budget without recognising the need for a new voters’ list.

Teixeira responded by saying that she cannot see in the minds of the seven commissioners, and therefore cannot anticipate what led them to approving GECOM’s budget without making provisions for a new voters’ list.

“That is not an issue that I can answer here. That is for the Chairman and the Commission, and therefore, if the Opposition has a concern, they should go to Chairman and the Commission. It is not an issue that can be answered in the house under the Budget… And the Opposition has three Commissioners [at GECOM] who represent their interests. Surely, I believe – knowing the three individuals as I do, that they’re highly competent to raise their concerns,” Teixeira contended.

Despite this, the Opposition parliamentarian continued to press on issue of a new voters list citing a report submitted by the Caricom Observation Team that monitored the March 2, 2020 elections and aftermath which had recommended among other things that a new voters list be prepared before another election is held.

However, Teixeira contended, “…there are many recommendations that came out of the elections… The Honorable Member is asking me to commit to one recommendation when there about 30 recommendations made in all the international reports on those elections. I am not going to do it Madam. That is an issue for we, as a people, to look through and to also raise with GECOM.

“But there are other issues we have to raise with GECOM which are a concern to us which is to prevent any attempt in the future to hijack an election.”

“One of the recommendations in one of the reports says that charges should be brought against the people who are responsible for hijacking the elections. Will the Honourable Member support us on that?”

Meanwhile, Minister Teixeira also disclosed that funds are budgeted for the printing of 500,000 ballot papers based on the last local government polls held in 2018 – a topic which was intensely questioned by Opposition MP David Patterson.

“Our last General Elections, only about 450,000 persons vote. So I would to ask the Honourable Minister, if you are catering for 500,000… isn’t that an indication that you’re over-catering and there’re bloated numbers on the list?” Patterson enquired.

However, in defend GECOM’s decision to ascertain how many ballots to print, Teixeira pointed out that the Opposition is getting “excited” over the ‘500,000’ ballot papers earmarked to be printed but has failed to recognised that there are sometimes spoilt ballots and more importantly, there cannot be a shortage of ballots.

She further outlined that even if there are extra ballots then these are returned to GECOM.

“You cannot have exact ballots for voters… Please remember that the number of ballots have to match the number on the voters list. If the people turn up or not, the list has to reflect that… because to under produce ballot papers would mean that people would be denied the right to vote,” she argued.

The Minster went onto to address Patterson’s contention that approximately 250,000 persons voted at the 2018 LGE, saying it is irrelevant. She posited that GECOM cannot control voters’ turnout on poling day.

“Unfortunately, Mr Patterson I cannot help it if your supporters didn’t go out to vote. The point is, they were on the list. So when you had in Georgetown, 30-odd per cent turnout, they were your supporters. If you can’t mobilise your support, that is not GECOM’s fault, that’s not a fault in the ballot paper production. That’s a problem with the political parties,” she pointed out.

Moreover, Minister Teixeira reminded that the High Court in Guyana already ruled in August 2019 that existing registrants cannot be removed from the voters’ list unless they are deceased or otherwise disqualified in accordance to the Constitution of Guyana. This was after GECOM embarked on a registration exercise with the aim of creating a new list of electorates.

“We’ve had a ruling since [2019]. GECOM cannot be above the law and do what it likes. It has to obey the law and the law says you cannot remove somebody [from the list] unless the person produces a death certificate. Any other person remains on the list. That is what the Chief Justice [Roxane George] ruled in this country and so, we cant play ‘round with these issues and make them political… The number of ballots can never be less than whatever the number is on the voters’ list. To do that would be treacherous because it would mean that you would disenfranchise people,” Teixeira asserted