GECOM Chair denies intent to suppress, frustrate voting

Reducing polling places

…process must be easy not harder – Irfaan Ali
…resolve possibly “discriminating”, “disenfranchising” decision – PSC

Chairperson of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), retired Justice Claudette Singh has dismissed claims by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) that the Commission is attempting to frustrate and suppress voters on Elections Day by reducing the number of polling places.

PPP/C Presidential Candidate Irfaan Ali and Chief Elections Scrutineer Zulfikar Mustapha

In a statement on Thursday, the PPP/C pointed out that the reduction in the use of private residences, which is being implemented discriminately, will result in voters not only travelling distances to vote but will create confusion on Elections Day since many of the Polling Stations are placed within polling places that are cramped together at certain locations.
The party added too that many of the polling places that were removed are from within its strongholds and supporters are being forced to travel to polling places that are located within strongholds of other political parties.
However, when asked about these concerns raised by the PPP/C, Justice Singh on Friday explained that the use of private residences was reduced in accordance with recommendations made by foreign observers following the 2015 elections. She further pointed out that there was no reason to continue using private residences when there are public buildings available.

GECOM Chair Justice
Claudette Singh

“It’s not that the Polling Stations are removed in the area, it’s just that private residences – they’re moving away from those… Why would you use private residences when you have a public place,” she contended during an interview on the sidelines of observing Friday’s voting process by the Joint Services.
According to the GECOM Chair, the concerns raised by the PPP will be looked into. However, when asked about PPP’s claims of suppressing voters, Justice Singh dismissed the accusation.
“Well I’m not aware of that at all. I’m aware that they’re using the public buildings… I don’t think [the voters will be at any disadvantage] but if there is any problem, I think it will be dealt with. It will be raised and it will be investigated,” the GECOM Chair surmised.
Meanwhile, Chief Elections Officer, Keith Lowenfield told reporters that of the 2339 Polling Stations, about 92 of them are private residences – a reduction from the amount used at the 2015 polls.
He noted that the Elections Secretariat is satisfied with the limited use of private residences at the upcoming elections, saying that the current locations tie into the ordinary mode of transport that electors utilise on a daily basis.

“Surprising” changes
However, Chief Elections Scrutineer of the PPP/C, Zulfikar Mustapha on Friday explained that the party was initially given a draft list of all the Polling Stations that were used in 2015, which it was generally satisfied with. But it was only on Monday that GECOM forwarded the final list with the “surprising” changes. He said that the new list was only sent after the party had requested it.
Mustapha noted that the PPP/C is very concerned about the reduction of Polling Stations. He noted that the practice has been to use private residences where there are no public buildings as polling places. However, he pointed to Chesney in Canje, Berbice, where they have removed the use of all private residences despite there being no public buildings nearby.
“In the Local Government Elections, they have used a private residence to accommodate polling. However, this time around they have moved out from the area and moved the polling place to two miles away,” he noted.
The polling place for that area will be on the Corentyne Public Road at an orphanage, which is privately-owned.
The PPP Chief Elections Scrutineer further drew attention to the situation in Mon Repos, East Coast Demerara, where the two polling places are two schools – primary and nursery – which are in the same compound.
“So all those 7000-plus voters will have to be accommodated in one compound, and the logistics there will be challenging. Chaos and confusion will rain on Elections Day… So we still have to continue to represent this issue because it will have serious consequences for Elections Day,” he stated.
According to PPP/C Presidential Candidate, Dr Irfaan Ali, GECOM is supposed to ensure that the voting process is made easier for the electorate to exercise their franchise.
“You can’t make it more difficult for the electorate to exercise their franchise. The system should make it easy for them… You have voters now [who] have to walk two miles before they get to the Polling Station,” he asserted.
Ali contended that removing Polling Stations from out of an area and putting it further away is a form of suppressing voters’ will because it will be harder for them to exercise their franchise.

Meanwhile, Leader of the incumbent APNU/AFC Coalition, David Granger, commenting on the concerns raised by the Opposition party, distanced his party’s role in the matter.
However, he recalled that during previous elections under the PPP Administration, there was the same situation.
But Ali rubbished the claim by Granger, saying that it is an excuse to deflect attention from the PPP/C’s concerns.
“This is the first time I’m hearing about that. In all the elections, we’ve never heard any complaints from the PNC (People’s National Congress Reform – the leading party in the APNU fraction of the coalition) or any other party that contested those elections. So this is just an excuse. We’ve never heard but suddenly when this issue is raised, then he goes to that as a saving clause per se. This was never raised before, why wasn’t it raised before if it was a problem,” Ali asserted.
The PPP/C Presidential Candidate went on to point out that it was GECOM’s responsibility to identify polling places and not the then PPP Administration.
“The Polling Stations that were agreed on in the past, the Commission agreed on those Polling Stations and the political parties would’ve gone through all those Polling Stations and never objected to those residences. So that has no bearings, it is just an excuse and a lousy one,” Ali contended.

Meanwhile, the PSC in a statement on Friday evening said that it is concerned that the decision by GECOM to revise the number and location of polling places has invited complaints that these changes may have the effect of discriminating against and possibly disenfranchising a significant number of persons by making it difficult for them to vote by having to travel unreasonable distances or encountering overcrowded places of poll.
The Private Sector called upon the Chairman of GECOM to examine and resolve these complaints as a matter of urgency.