In 2010 I wrote an article on the overseas vote in which I argued that the Constitution of Guyana permitted all Guyanese citizens over the age of 18 to vote. Since there was no residence stipulation, Guyanese residing overseas have a right to vote. As readers would imagine, it elicited some controversy. I was a member of the leadership of the PPP at that time. Mr. Robert Corbin, then leader of the PNCR, in a masterful display of irony, accused the PPP of seeking to re-introduce the overseas vote which, incidentally, the PNC had facilitated and grossly manipulated in the 1968 elections so much so that voters were registered as residing at the address of a horse pasture in the UK. The PPP was forced to issue a denial. Because of the increasing engagement of the diaspora in local affairs, and periodic inquiries as to their right to vote, I had expected that at some time a legal challenge would be instituted by an overseas resident for an order declaring that he/she had the right to vote and that the Guyana Government was obliged to facilitate that right. This did not materialize.
The electoral list is not separately compiled. It is extracted from the national register by an order made for the purpose. That electoral list is then subject to claims and objections. Periodically, there is a national registration exercise. Therefore, whenever an order is made for a new list to be compiled, it is not a new electoral list that is compiled, it is a national register or a national registration list. But the National Registration Act, which governs the creation of the national register, provides for the registration of residents. The electoral list, which is extracted from the national register is therefore a constitutionally flawed document because it omits overseas Guyanese who have a right to vote.
It became obvious to me after the 1992 elections, when there was a reconstruction of our electoral institutions and laws facilitated by numerous amendments to the Representation of the People Act, that a major legislative effort was needed to bring together these two pieces of legislation -the National Registration Act and the Representation Act – to remove the discrepancies and contradictions, including these relating to the registration of voters. But nothing has been done so far. A news report during last week indicated that the Attorney General has sought the assistance of the Canadian Government to prepare legislation. Hopefully these issues will be addressed.
For the first time last year the issue of the constitutional right to vote and the resident requirement for registration was dealt with in the case of Christopher Ram v Chief Election Officer and others before the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice held that the proposed new registration exercise could not remove for the existing electoral list those persons who are not at the addresses stated on the list. The effect of the Chief Justice’s decision was that persons who have migrated have a right to be on the electoral list because they have a constitutional right to vote. It is believed that the alleged bloating of the electoral list is due to the number of people who have migrated since the compilation of the national register. If they have a right to be on the list it could not therefore be bloated. And if they have a right to be on the list there would be no lawful way to remove them. If the current ‘bloated’ national register is scrapped and a new national register is created, what happens when an electoral list comprising only residents is extracted from it? Would not Guyanese resident overseas be unlawful and unconstitutionally be deprived of their right to vote?
Guyana is not unique in having a ‘bloated’ list. The approximate figures show that Guyana’s electoral list comprises 85 percent of the population. Comparable figures for other countries are: Jamaica 64 percent, Trinidad and Tobago 81 percent and Barbados 86 percent. While Guyana is at the higher end, accounted for by the higher rate of emigration, its figure does not lead to the inexorable conclusion that the elections were rigged, which the Opposition has so far been unable to prove. If so, Barbados would have had to endure the same accusations.
The difference between Guyana and Barbados is that Guyana had has a long history of proved election rigging by the PNC and now APNU+AFC. Barbados has had no such history. Elections in Guyana will always be overshadowed by suspicion when the PPP is in power and by rigging when the PNCR/APNU is in power. For the PPP, a magic wand removing a ‘bloated’ list by thrashing the Constitution would not alter the trajectory of Guyana’s electoral history, commenced in 1968 and still going strong. There will be something else, like 100,000 dead people emerging from their graves to vote, or 100,000 phantoms, removing the stains from their fingers, the photographs from the records before the Presiding Officers, obtaining 100,000 ID cards from the overseas persons, magically changing the relevant particulars, and voting for these overseas persons.