Warning against any attempts to usurp the powers of the Returning Officer (RO), Chief Justice (ag) Roxane George-Wiltshire, in the High Court on Wednesday, made it clear if candidates are dissatisfied with the returning officer, in terms of what is recorded, it is not for them to challenge the figure at that point in time, so as to cause disruption or chaos.
“I do not conclude that the [Representation of the People] Act provides for verification or reconciliation in this sense. This is especially in the context of the well-known fact that 10 political parties contesting the 2020 Elections in District Four, if each were to object, more so in a vociferous or hostile manner, the tabulation process would definitely be delayed, and indeed there may be risk that it is not completed,” she reasoned.
The Chief Justice noted that while the aggrieved persons would no doubt make their concerns known and take note for further action including but not limited to an application for a recount or the filing of an elections petition following the declaration of the results for the general and regional elections, such must be done in an orderly and respectful manner. “To permit otherwise, would be to invite protest and possibly chaos,” she posited.
The Chief Justice, at the time, was handing down a judgment in a case brought against the Returning Officer of Region Four, Clairmont Mingo; the Chief Elections Officer, Keith Lowenfield; and the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), by Reeaz Holladar on behalf of the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C). In Mingo’s Affidavit in Defence, he told the court that GECOM’s Command Centre was flooded by a large contingent of PPP/C agents who were demanding “verification” of the statements of poll before the declaration of the votes for District Four. “I was made aware of their demands and after consideration of same and having found no merit for their request, I announced that I intended to make my declaration in accordance with Section 84 of the Representation of the Peoples Act, Chapter 1:03. This was met by a loud uproar, threats of violence and menacing conduct by the PPP/C representatives in the building…,” the returning officer had informed the court through his Affidavit in Defence.
The Chief Justice told the parties present that chaos and confusion would not lend to the overall credibility of the process and would “exacerbate the already tense and even volatile situation” that exists during the election period. As such, she called for the duly-appointed candidates of the various political parties to respectfully indicate their concerns, if needs be, going forward, and in a similar fashion, the respectful consideration of the concerns, including the making of corrections or adjustments by the returning officer.
“However, it is not for the persons to so intervene in or stop the tabulation process and ultimately the declaration of the votes, which declaration must be made public because there are of the view that the returning officer has not addressed their concerns,” Chief Justice George-Wiltshire warned. The Chief Justice was also keen on noting that the only official documents that the returning officer can consider are the statements of poll that have been transmitted to him by the presiding officer of the various polling stations pursuant to Section 83. “Any statements of poll, in the possession of agents of political parties or others would not be such,” she made clear.
It was noted that only the returning officer can decide on the avenue to be taken to address any objections or concerns. Such decision, the Chief Justice emphasised, is not within the remit of those persons who are entitled to be present, and to do so, would be to usurp the powers and responsibilities of the returning officer.
Having ruled that the returning officer erred during the process of tabulating the SOPs, the Chief Justice nullified the declaration made by Mingo on March 5, 2020, and ordered that the process recommence.
“It would be for the returning officer and or the deputy returning officer to decide whether in the interest of transparency, the addition process should be restarted or continued where it was left off. It would also be for these functionaries to determine the best method of tabulating the statements of poll,” she stated, as she warned against any attempt to usurp the powers or the returning officer or his deputy. Again, the judge warned that it is not for the parties’ representatives or any other person to determine how the tabulation should be done. Nonetheless, she said one would expect that the returning officer acts reasonably.
Before concluding her judgment, Chief Justice George-Wiltshire, as was done by Chief Justice Bernard some 22 years ago in application by Aubrey Norton, stressed that the decision does not decide the results or validity of the elections for District Four, regionally or nationally.
The Chief Justice said too that is particularly saddening that 19 years after the Hamilton’s case, the words of Chief Justice Bernard still ring- true. “The role of the Elections Commission and its staff is to take such actions as appears necessary to ensure impartiality, fairness and compliance with the provisions of the Constitution and any other Acts of Parliament. In the presence of volatile situation which pervades our country, no effort must be spared to assure everyone that the process was fair and impartial…” Justice George-Wiltshire said as she quoted Justice Bernard.