Charles Wilkin QC
By Clive Bacchus
BASSETERRE, St Kitts (WINN) -- Free and fair elections? The electoral system in St Kitts and Nevis is free but certainly not fair, says Queens Counsel Charles Wilkin.
“The word free connotes in relation to elections that persons who are entitled to register as voters and to vote in elections, are not unreasonably impeded in their exercise of those rights. Fairness is a more elusive concept but is generally accepted to connote that there are laws which reasonably provide for the conduct of elections, that there are genuinely equal opportunities for all competing candidates, that the electoral process is under control independent of the politicians and that there are transparent regulations as to how persons are registered to vote.
"In a small country like St Kitts and Nevis with a constituency and winner take all system, and approximately 30,000 registered voters, a few votes can make the difference in deciding which political party gains the government in an election. The slightest abuse, or distortion of or error in the system can therefore have a significant effect. By and large, elections in St Kitts and Nevis have been free but not fair," he said.
Wilkin made his case while delivering the lecture "50 Years After Statehood: St Kitts and Nevis at the Crossroads" at the UWI Open Campus on St Kitts as part of activities to celebrate History and Heritage Month.
“There are not fair manly because of the poorer system of qualification and registration of voters. The system of supervision and oversight are grossly inadequate leaving politicians with too much control of the process. These issues have been extensively ventilated over the past few years. I will repeat a summary of my criticisms and suggestions for reform:
1) The overseas vote is unfair in a constituency system and in a small country like this and it should be discontinued.
2) Registration to vote should be based on actual residents in a constituency, that resident should be proven by the voter. A person opposing the registration should not have to disprove a claim to residence. Documentary proof of residence is available in many official and business records and should be required in the process.
3) Disputes over residence should be determined by the court not by a registration officer.
4) The electoral office should take an active role in verifying residents on an annual basis. St Kitts and Nevis are small islands and lend themselves easily to this.
5) The Bryant clause and the dual nationality clause should be removed and any citizen resident in the country should be allowed to run for election.
6) Residents of seven years rather than one as present should be required for citizens of commonwealth countries to qualify for registration as a voter.
7) The Supervisor of Election should report only to the electoral commission, he should be appointed only after a debate in the national assembly as to his qualifications.
8) The staff of the electoral office should be appointed by the electoral commission after the publication of the names of applicants and a process for objections to political activists.
9) Electoral commission should be expanded, it should an office and staff including its own legal advisor and an adequate budget to enable it to perform its critical functions effectively. The commission should issue a full report after each election.
10) The counting of votes should take place at each polling station promptly after the end of the poll, subject to recount later in the evening at a central point in the constituency if necessary.
11) Campaign finance regulation is required to enable the public to ascertain who is pulling the strings of political parties.
I could go on but 11 is a cricket team, so I’ll stop.”
Successive Commonwealth Reports on elections in St Kitts have made similar points. Some recommendations include:
1) Provision should be made to facilitate the widest possible consultation with political parties in the appointment of Election Commissioners and the Supervisor of Elections, to ensure confidence in their impartiality.
2) Provision should be made for the Supervisor of Elections to be a full time position, and for strengthening the Electoral Office.
3) A system of complete re-registration should be explored. The redistribution of electoral boundaries needs to be finalised, to ensure that each constituency contains as nearly equal number of inhabitants as practicable, in accordance with the Constitution.
The practice of retaining the counterfoil on the ballot before it is delivered to the voter who returns it to the presiding officer for removal should be discontinued. The counterfoil should be retained by the presiding officer and the ballot paper separated by a perforated line. The practice of handing the ballot paper to the Presiding Officer for placement in the ballot box should also be discontinued and this step should be done by the voter after the digit is immersed in the electoral ink.
Republished with permission of West Indies News Network