The Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) has scrapped its controversial pilot project for parallel data collection at 13 polling stations on the eve of Monday's Tobago House of Assembly (THA) elections.
The change of plan was announced by the EBC in a press-release issued around midday Sundayy and came hours after a meeting with political parties contesting the election and the media, on Saturday.
“The commission listened to all relevant parties and decided to defer for future elections after there is an opportunity for further consultation,” the release said.
The EBC explained that at the meeting, the political parties and the media were allowed to witness the demonstration of the project, which showed the simultaneous collection of data utilising a technology process within a mock polling station.
“This highlighted how technology would work in tandem with the existing manual process and that there would be no change in that manual process,” it said.
The EBC admitted that its decision was influenced by the fact that the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) declined the invitation to attend the demonstration and maintained their objection to this initiative.
“In light of the objection and as the EBC remains a committed partner to our democratic process, the Commission decided to defer the introduction of this initiative,” it said.
The EBC noted that the project was not going to be rolled out in all 15 districts being contested in the election but only in Scarborough/Mt Grace and Mt George/Goodwood.
It said that it would have provided more timely data collection to stakeholders and had the potential to inform plans for improved service to the electorate as it has already been used in other Caribbean countries.
The EBC said it would continue consultations so the project could be possibly introduced for the local government elections, next year.
Guardian Media obtained a pre-action protocol letter sent to the EBC’s Chief Elections Officer Fern Narcis-Scope by the PDP’s lawyers Kevin Ramkissoon and Leon Kalicharan on Saturday morning.
In the letter, Kalicharan suggested that the move was outside the EBC’s remit under the Representation of the People Act.
“We are of the considered view that any attempt by the EBC to implement would be careless and high-handed or at worst, unlawful,” Kalicharan said.
“We are of the view that having regard to all the facts and circumstances the fair minded and informed observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the EBC has carried out its functions in relation to this matter with bias,” he added, as he threatened to file a lawsuit on behalf of his client if the decision was not reversed by 12.30 pm, yesterday.
Although the Opposition United National Congress (UNC) is not contesting the election, it sought to weigh in on the issue and expressed similar sentiments.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for the EBC to proceed with such an important measure, on the eve of an election no less, without consultation with the official Opposition,” the UNC said.
The party listed nine major concerns with the project including what data was to be collected, who would collect it, the security of the collected data, who would have access to it and how long it was going to be stored.
The live demonstration of the system on Saturday, showed a voter entering the polling station, sanitising and presenting a polling card and valid form of identification to a polling clerk.
Under the proposal, the voter would have made their way to the deputy presiding officer’s station where further verification would take place and electronic devices would be lodged in a holding basket.
The voter would have then been invited to make their way to the ballot box to cast their vote.
After completing their vote, the voter would show their stained finger to the deputy presiding officer, who would update a count using an electronic device using specialised software in full view of the returning officer of each contesting party.
The pilot project is not the first time the EBC has come under criticism in the run up to the election.
In October, June McKenzie, a concerned citizen from Bacolet, filed an application for judicial review against the EBC over its report on the creation of three new electoral districts in Tobago.
The move to increase the electoral districts was the result of a deadlock in the THA elections in January, in which the People’s National Movement (PNM) and PDP each secured six districts.
The three new districts are Lambeau/Lowlands, Darryl Spring/Whim, and Mt St George/Goodwood. All but two of the original 12 districts were slightly modified to make the change.
In her lawsuit, McKenzie claimed that the EBC breached its statutory duties under Section 4 of the Election and Boundaries Commission (Local Government and Tobago House of Assembly) Act by allegedly utilising considerations that were not expressly or impliedly conferred by the legislation.
She also questioned the EBC’s consideration of community boundaries as they suggested that natural boundaries such as major highways and rivers should have been considered.
Through the lawsuit, McKenzie was seeking a series of declarations against the decisions contained in the report as well as an order quashing it.
Responding to the lawsuit, the EBC claimed it strictly complied with the legislation and was permitted to consider community fragmentation in addition to natural boundaries such as rivers and highways.
The EBC also noted that if the Providence/Mason Hall/Moriah area was selected instead of Goodwood/Belle Garden West as suggested by McKenzie, it would mean that residents of Mason Hall living on opposite sides of the Northside Road would belong to different electoral districts.
Late last month, High Court Judge Avason Quinlan-Williams refused McKenzie leave to pursue the case as she ruled that she (McKenzie) failed to raise arguable grounds which would have a realistic prospect of success.
She said that even if McKenzie had an arguable case, she would have still been barred from pursuing the lawsuit as litigation seeking to invalidate an election is confined to election petitions after they are completed.
Quinlan-Williams also stated that there was delay in the case as the lawsuit should have been brought after the EBC’s report was approved by Parliament.
Quinlan-Williams noted that while McKenzie was claiming that the EBC improperly considered community fragmentation for the 15th district after using a numerical analysis of the areas with the most electors, she said that allegations were based on a few words plucked from the EBC’s methodology and not from a detailed examination of the report.
McKenzie has signalled her intention to appeal the decision.