Chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), Professor Errol Miller, says Jamaica can be proud of its electoral system, which has improved significantly since Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944 and continues to advance through the leadership of the ECJ.
“The reform of the country’s electoral process is one of the great accomplishments of the Jamaican people in Independence,” he tells JIS News.
“We have reached a stage where our electoral process is recognised around the world and measures we have developed here are being adopted elsewhere. We are called upon to assist many countries in the Caribbean and outside, and our people serve on various committees and are part of various bodies,” he boasts.
According to Professor Miller, Jamaica adopted from its colonial masters, a “flawed electoral process” and from 1944 until 1979 the electoral process was managed “colonial style, on a winner take all” system. “The party in government sets the laws, conducts the elections, and Parliament itself sets the boundaries of constituencies all to their advantage,” he says.
He credits the changes to the work of Parliamentarians and former Prime Ministers and party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, “who took the decision that this could not continue and they established the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) with responsibilities to protect the electoral process from the direct control of the Government. It operated from 1979 to November 2006, when the Senate passed the Electoral Commission Act for the creation of the ECJ.
The ECJ is comprised of two commissioners nominated by the Prime Minister, two by the Leader of the Opposition, four commissioners agreed on by both Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, and the Director of Elections appointed unanimously by the eight commissioners.
The ECJ and its predecessor, the EAC, have been meeting with representatives of political parties, civil society and members of Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) after each general and local government elections.
“We agree on a set of items that will further improve the electoral system,” Professor Miller informs, noting that it is best to have these discussions just after an election and “before the contest gets hot again.”
After the general and local government elections of 2007, the Commission met three times in 2008, and came up with six items, five of which had to be approved by Parliament.
Among the issues, was the increase in the upper limit on the number of constituencies into which Jamaica is divided from 60 to 65, which has already been approved by Parliament, and the Constitution has been amended to recognise the change. “The country has grown significantly in population so it was agreed to increase the upper limit from 60 to 65,” Professor Miller informs.
Other important issues include political party and campaign financing, the entrenchment of the Electoral Commission in the Constitution and the assessment of boundaries. Professor Miller said that the Constitution requires the ECJ to conduct a general review of boundaries every four to six years.
Turning to the election rules, Professor Miller says there are several laws that govern elections in Jamaica.
These are: the Representation of the People Act that regulates general elections; the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation Act, which governs elections within the corporate area; the Parish Council’s Act, which governs Parish Council elections; and the Election’s Petition’s Act, which provides for aggrieved candidates to apply to the courts for redress.
The Representation of the People Act, Professor Miller says, provides for the setting up of a body called the Constituted Authority, comprised of a retired judge of the high court, who acts as chairman, a member of the Privy Council and four selected commissioners.
He said that the Constituted Authority can halt a general election on several grounds, such as if the polling stations are not opened five hours after the start of the polls or an act of God that disrupts the poll and prevents persons from voting. “In this case the Constituted Authority sets a new date for the election that is halted,” he informs.
Additionally, persons can apply to the elections court to void an election if it is run in violation of certain cardinal rules of the democratic process under the Representation of the People Act.
According to Professor Miller, there are penalties for persons, who breach the law. “If a presiding officer, for example, forces an elector to expose his ballot, that presiding officer is guilty of a criminal offence and will go to prison,” he says. He notes that it is also a criminal offence for an elector to expose his ballot openly.
As it relates to the eligibility of candidates, Professor Miller says that anyone can contest the elections providing the person is over 21 years, a citizen of Jamaica and resident in Jamaica for at least a year and has not sworn allegiance to a foreign power and is not a felon.
“There are seven affirmative and three negative prohibitions that must be satisfied. Once you do that you are eligible. If there is a contest about it, then it goes to the courts. We in the Electoral Commission, the Director of Elections and the returning officers have no part to play in that,” he points out.
He says that the ECJ can disqualify persons from running in an election if they do not appear at the nomination centre between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to pay their $3,000 fee with the requisite forms filled out bearing the names and signatures of 10 electors from the particular constituency. “Once they have done that they are duly and properly nominated,” he says.
Apart from conducting the general elections, by-elections or referenda, the ECJ is responsible for compiling and maintaining the register of eligible electors; verifying the identity of every eligible elector; approving political parties eligible to receive state funding; and administering electoral funding and financial disclosure requirements.