Guyana's Chief Justice Roxane George has ruled that the Returning Officer for the country’s largest electoral district, District Four, breached the law in the adding up of Statements of Poll during last week's general elections and should return to the process, either afresh or from where they left off.
She thus ruled that the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) cannot declare the overall results until the Returning Officer complies with the law and set aside the declaration of the general election results made last Thursday. George also ordered that Returning Officer or the Deputy Returning Officer must return to the process by 11 am Thursday (March 12).
According to a report from News Room Guyana, George reportedly told the court it was saddening that 19 years after a similar case, she had to restate the words of then Chief Justice Desiree Bernard that GECOM's role is to take action to ensure impartiality, fairness and compliance with the law.
The CJ said every effort must be made to ensure that everyone is satisfied that the process is fair, adding that confidence in the electoral process must be restored.
Reeaz Hollander, a private citizen, supported by attorneys from the opposition PPP, had filed an injunction blocking the announcement of an overall winner of the March 2 elections once it included the unverified vote count of the votes cast. Hollander argued that the process of verification is referred to in the law as “counting of the votes polled” and is provided for by Section 84 (1) of the Representation of the People Act, Chapter 1:03.
The law states that the Returning Officer shall, “in the presence of such of the persons entitled” to be there ascertain the total votes cast in favour of the parties.
Section 86 (1) lists the persons who shall be present at the counting of the votes.
These persons include:
(A) The Returning Officer, and such other Elections Officer appointed by him
(B) The Elections Commission
(C) Duly appointed Candidates
(D) Counting Agents
(E) Such other persons, as in the opinion of the Returning Officer, have good reason to be present.
Returning Officers for nine of the ten electoral districts followed what the law states and had party agents and local and foreign observers present. However, this was not done by the Returning Officer Clairmont Mingo for the disputed District Four region. Neither candidates of the Opposition PPP nor observers were present when the votes for the district were declared.
George ruled that the provisions are designed to ensure transparency.
District Four had 897 polling stations but the Returning Officer only allowed others to be present for the tabulation of 421 Statements of Poll and aborted the process after. He then declared the votes counted and handed it to the country’s Chief Elections Officer, who went ahead and prepared a final report of all ten electoral districts for GECOM to declare a winner.
Six affidavits were presented in the case Tuesday, including from the Returning Officer and the Deputy Chief Elections Officer Roxanne Meyers.
According to T&T-born Senior Counsel Douglas Mendes, who represented Hollander, the affidavits of Meyers, Bond and Trotman all agree that the process described in law was suspended sometime on the evening of March 4 and it was to resume on March 5. Their witness was different from that of the Returning Officer, who claimed the entire process was completed on the night of March 4.
The Returning Officer swore to the court that at around 11 am last Wednesday (March 4), he began feeling unwell and went upstairs and instructed Senior Clerk Michelle Miller to continue the process. He said that he had to be rushed to the hospital, but again, left Miller in charge. He said by that evening, Miller, along with others, inputted information, purportedly from the Statements of Poll, into the computer and then produced a spreadsheet. That information as then used by Mingo to produce a tabulation which he then declared on Thursday at around 2 pm.
However, the Deputy Chief Elections Officer, in her evidence, stated that sometime on Wednesday, the use of the spreadsheets was discontinued and the process was reverted to verification from the Statements of Poll.
Mendes also argued that it was the responsibility of the Returning Officer to do the adding up, but that he can appoint other elections officers. In this case, he said, Miller was a senior clerk and not an elections officer and so she could not have been used or designated by the Returning Officer.
He said if the legal process was not followed it could lead to mistrust, suspicion and lack of confidence in results declared and so there should be no reason why the court should not order to set aside the declaration of the Returning Officer.
Senior Counsel Neil Boston, representing Mingo, argued that the Returning Officer can adopt whatever methodology he decides he will pursue to come up with the results. Boston said the Returning Officer can sit with the persons who are entitled to be there and he will go through the Statements of Poll, or he can prepare a spreadsheet from the Statements he has and thereafter declare what the amount of votes received by each party.
Boston argued that the Returning Officer is duty-bound to rely on the Statements of Poll which were remitted to him from the various polling places. According to Boston, the Returning Officer does not have to go through a period of resolving discrepancies that arise in relation to the Statements of Polls. He said resolving any dispute is provided for after a declaration of the count is made, with Section 84 (2) providing for a recount.
Boston also argued that even if Mingo did not comply by doing a count in the presence of people who were entitled to be there, it does not invalidate what was done nor did it invalidate the declaration made by him.
When the vote count for nine regions had been verified and declared, the Opposition PPP had won six of the nine regions and was 52,000 votes ahead. But with the unverified report of Region Four, the APNU+AFC Coalition was put in the lead and on course to win the elections.
The ruling came even as a CARICOM delegation, led by chairperson, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, arrived in the country on a two-day special mission to try and help restore calm and oversee the process in the situation which has developed due to the election dispute.
She was accompanied by Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, St Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, Grenada Prime Minister Keith Mitchell and Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
The delegation was welcomed by APNU+AFC leader David Granger on their arrival.