Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Electoral Hair Splitting
Maldivians appear to have a very short memory, at least when it comes to political matters. No one appears to remember what used to happen to ballot boxes on their perilous journey from distant islands, via atoll capitals, to Male. Double tapes, straightened paper clips, medical forceps and other paraphernalia used to fish out and replace negative votes in Presidential referendums appear to belong to a past as distant as the Paleolithic age.
Just one fair election was enough to erase our collective memory. We have conveniently forgotten that the success of that election was largely due to the decision to count the votes at the place of balloting. And today, the Majlis is debating a bill that could reverse that decision –the bill to amend Article 20 (A) of the Parliamentary Elections Act.
Ostensibly to protect the secrecy of the votes of isolated voters in islands other than their home, the amendment proposes to give the Elections Commission (EC) sweeping powers to take steps to ensure voting secrecy in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Many members of the Majlis oppose the amendment on the grounds that it could increase the possibility of voting irregularities.
The Constitution is ambivalent on the matter. Article 171 (B) of the constitution states “... Immediately after the close of the polls, the presiding officer who is appointed by the Elections Commission shall, in the presence of such candidates or their representatives if present, and any other persons authorized by law to be present, count at that polling station the ballot papers of that station, and record and publicly declare the votes cast in favor of each candidate or question in a public referendum.”
On the other hand Article 26 of the constitution says, “... every citizen of the Maldives eighteen years of age or older has the right: (a) to vote in elections, and in public referendums, which shall be held by secret ballot ...”
Points to be noted:
• What is more important, preventing electoral fraud or ensuring secrecy of a few a voters (who have the choice of going and voting in their constituencies to ensure secrecy)?
• Is it really possible to ensure secrecy in all possible hypothetic situations?
• When Article 171 specifically requires counting the votes in the polling stations, can a law change that?
• Does the phrase “...by secret ballot ...” imply that secrecy must be 100% ensured for each and every voter, or does the phrase merely refer to the choice of a voting method –secret ballot as opposed to open ballot?