Antigua PM moves to get rid of electoral commissioners

ST JOHN’S, Antigua, Friday April 30, 2010 – A week after he suggested on a political platform that the country’s entire Electoral Commission should resign, Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer has taken the next step to have them sent packing.

In a letter written to Governor General Dame Louise Lake-Tack yesterday, Spencer has asked that three of the four remaining members of the Antigua and Barbuda Electoral Commission (ABEC) be investigated, citing their failures in the last general election and the partisan behaviour of one in particular.

The announcement of the correspondence comes as Spencer’s United Progressive Party (UPP) waits to argue an appeal against a ruling by Justice Louise Blenman who voided the election results in three constituencies, including the Prime Minster’s. 

Since last Thursday’s call by Spencer and other senior UPP officials for the Commission’s resignations, one government-appointed commissioner, Agnes Blaize, has stepped down. Four are left, including David ‘Jack’ Kelsick, who was only appointed after another commissioner, Bishop Ewing Dorsett, called it quits the month after the March 12th 2009 general elections.

“I find it very difficult to serve on a body with commissioners who see nothing wrong in associating with political parties in public”.–Agnes Blaize 

Spencer referred to the other three commissioners in his letter.

“Prime Minister Dr. Hon. Baldwin Spencer has written to the Governor General, Dame Louise Lake-Tack asking that the matter of the removal of Electoral Commissioners, Sir Gerald Watt QC, Nathaniel James and Lionel Hurst be investigated,” said a statement about the letter, which was issued overnight.

“Prime Minister Spencer said there are reasonable grounds to believe, and substantial grounds to support, a conclusion that the members of the Electoral Commission who were responsible for conducting the elections of 2009, demonstrated at the time of the election, and now, their inability to exercise the functions of their office as required by the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act 2001,” it added.

In the letter, the Prime Minister noted that on Election Day it became clear within hours of the start of voting that the Commission was not ready or able to conduct the elections as required by law and expected by the people of the state. 

This, he said, was despite the Commission saying weeks before the election, and again on March 11th, that it was ready to conduct the poll.

The Prime Minister cited several examples of ABEC’s demonstration of its inability to handle the task, including the Commission allowing an undetermined number of persons who were not eligible to vote to register as electors and taking no action to correct this illegality.  

Spencer said, additionally, that the Electoral Commission, in violation of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act 2001, allowed a picture list to be used alone, in numerous constituencies, as the Register of Electors, and the register was never published as required under the Act.

He also pointed to the opening of polls between two and half hours and six and half hours late in the constituencies of St John’s Rural West, St Peter, St George, St Mary’s North, St John’s Rural North and St John’s Rural South.  

“This lateness was compounded by the absence of ink at certain polling stations (and) the picture list provided for St. Mary’s North included electors from St. John’s Rural West,” the Prime Minister said.

He pointed out that the failure of the Commission to conduct elections in every constituency in accordance with the representation of the People (Amendment) Act 2001 was, in his opinion, a sufficient basis to examine whether the Commissioners had demonstrated their inability to exercise the functions of their office.

Prime Minister Spencer also informed the Governor General that the Commission had demonstrated its inability to exercise its function in voter education as required under section 6(3) of the Act. This failure, he said, resulted in mass confusion leading up to the elections relating to the cut-off date for registration; claims and objections; the conditions under which cards would be replaced; and the manner in which transfers from one constituency to another would be managed.

“The Commission failed to take meaningful and necessary steps to ensure that voter registration cards that were stockpiled in its office were distributed in a timely fashion,” the Prime Minister said in the letter, describing the efforts of the Commission in this regard as being, “so negligible and haphazard that they were ineffectual at best”.

“The Commission’s failure to provide guidance concerning the procedure for addressing stolen, lost and defaced cards led to a last minute rush at the Commission’s office, by affected electors, resulting in confusion in the immediate days and hours leading up to the elections,” Spencer recounted.

The Prime Minister also brought to the Governor General’s attention, what he described as the partisan manner in which Commissioner Hurst has conducted himself since his appointment. As a consequence, he said, his removal for inability or misbehaviour ought to be investigated.

In support of his position, Spencer pointed out that since his appointment to the Commission, Hurst has acknowledged himself to be, and is publicly referred to in the media, as a spokesperson for the Antigua Labour Party.

Hurst, the Prime Minister added, has since his appointment to the Commission, continued to be a regular host on the partisan programme, “Fire and Steel” on ZDK/Liberty radio and has voiced and demonstrated open political partisanship and bias.

Prime Minister Spencer advised the Governor General that a photograph of Commissioner Hurst dressed in Party colours and engaging in a partisan picketing outside the Magistrates’ Court has appeared in the press.

“Commissioner Hurst continues to function at the Executive level within the Antigua Labour Party and, upon information and belief, has discussed matters relating to the Electoral Commission with his political party and has been influenced directly and/or indirectly by the Antigua Labour Party in carrying out his functions as a Commissioner.

This behaviour of open partisan activism by Hurst, the Prime Minister said, was inconsistent with the intent of the election legislation.

In her resignation letter sent to the Governor General on Monday after four years on the Commission, former commissioner Agnes Blaize also criticised ABEC members for openly supporting political parties. Like Bishop Dorsett following her resignation letter months earlier, she also suggested the possibility of a tainted voters list.

“I find it very difficult to serve on a body with commissioners who see nothing wrong in associating with political parties in public, carrying placards in support of such political parties,” Blaize wrote. 

“This (flouting) of the electoral law is “crude” and should be addressed formally, and the person(s) taken to task. I see such actions as a travesty of justice (done) to the people of this nation. In light of this, I no longer see the Commission as a fit body to oversee any type of electoral process in our nation of Antigua/Barbuda.”

“I agree with persons who state that an Electoral Commission formed in this manner (i.e. with only political party representatives) is flawed from its inception and can only continue on a downward progression,” she added.

Prime Minister Spencer’s letter to the Governor General was sent hours after ABEC’s plan to host a press conference this morning to address the comments made about the Commission.

In a statement issued earlier this week, the Commission blasted the Prime Minister and other UPP officials for his criticism on the political platform.

ABEC said that at no time after the 2009 elections did Spencer “inquire into any matters or the reasons which caused the late opening of the polls in the constituencies in question, and the resulting dissatisfaction of certain areas of the society, notwithstanding the fact that a detailed report dated April 21, 2009, fully explaining the circumstances surrounding the late opening of the polls had been forwarded to him for his information”.