The attitude of the Prime Minister towards the call for outside election observers for Trinidad and Tobago’s general election on August 10 has prompted me to document my experience with the Election and Boundaries Commission during the Local Government Election of 2019.
We often hear about ‘free and fair elections.’ We are also hearing that there has never been any problems with our election process since we started having democratic elections in T&T. But then that is the political mamaguy being spun by Dr Rowley. The court verdict that found that the EBC erred in extending the voting time by one hour in 2015 general election should have been the cause for the raising of red flags when it comes to the administration of future elections.
While the elections petitions case was in the national space, my experience of inconsistent and questionable practices by EBC officials was live and direct on the ground in a polling station.
Firstly, what was observed in last year’s Local Government Election held on December 2, 2019 was the ‘privilege’ and power given to returning officers to select polling agents to work for the day.
The EBC advertises to the general public for election day workers. Training sessions are also advertised for those who satisfied the criteria for work on polling day. Why then, after following and fulfilling all the conditions—including attendance at afternoons of training, an applicant’s fate in being selected as a presiding officer, deputy presiding officer or poll clerk is determined by the whims of the EBC’s returning officer for the electoral district or constituency.
Somehow it is no longer based on the performance of the applicant at the final examination but ‘who the returning officer wishes to select.’
On November 25, 2019, at the start of special voting, our team sent a polling agent to Arouca to witness the vote taking place—as was customary. Much to our shock, within minutes of the agent’s arrival, she was told that no one would be allowed to witness the special voting.
The Representation of the Peoples’ Act provides for a candidate to have either himself or an agent present at the taking of a poll. What new rule was this? Totally taken aback, we called the party’s lawyers who immediately sent legal personnel to challenge this arbitrary dictate. After terse discussions, the polling agent was allowed in. Most ungraciously, she was given a chair alone to use. No desk.
The next day, election day, December 2, I found myself having to function as a polling agent for the Bon Air/Arouca/Cane Farm candidate. I entered the polling station at the Bon Air Secondary School at approximately 3.30 pm. This was to ensure I beat the cut-off time to change polling agents which was 4 pm. What struck me at first was how casual and unofficial the whole atmosphere was. As voters filed in, they conversed matter-of-factly with the presiding officer, then the polling agent of the opposite party of which I was representing; even the police officer stationed inside the room chatted and laughed with the voters.
The only neutral government official there appeared to be a poll clerk who officiously conducted voters through the different steps.
The animated, lively atmosphere changed drastically, however, at around 5. 10 pm. It was around that time that the agent from the other side yawned and said she wanted to go home ‘and rest for later.’
In contravention of the rules of the polling station, she began conversing with a person outside via the louvres. This was in full view and hearing of the presiding officer. The person then came inside and was about to replace the polling agent. I raised an objection citing the time and the rules which barred any such exchanges after 4 pm.
The agent on the other side retorted ‘Geez, allyuh does take this ting serious, boy.” Commendably, the presiding officer upheld my objection to the presence of the replacement. They all fell silent. They glared at me. The heat and venom then became palpable. Unfazed, I held on to the count after polls closed at 6 pm.
A tally sheet was shoved to me by the lead officer who said to sign it. I objected. No count had been done. The ballot box had not even been opened.
The other agent and deputy presiding officer who, I assumed acted as a witness to the proceedings, went on and signed the form.
The unfurled ballots were then quickly flashed before us and the count taken. Any objection was met with a gruff, sarcastic response as though no one should contradict any inaccuracy that was observed on a ballot paper or with the process used in counting.
I strongly support the call for election observers for the upcoming general election. Retraining and sensitisation of the roles of EBC workers needs to be addressed by Parliament, so then the politicians can say we have ‘free and fair’ elections.