Forum team urges vote reform

A Pacific Islands Forum team that observed the 2019 national election, pictured here in this file photo from vote tabulation of votes at the International Conference Center November 20, 2019, provided numerous recommendations for improving the administration of national elections. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

A Pacific Islands Forum observer team that monitored the 2019 RMI national election recommends 11 government actions to improve administration of future votes.

On the conduct of the 2019 national election, the four-member team said: “It is the view of the Forum Team that polling was safe and free. The Forum Team also observed counting, which in general was conducted in an inclusive and transparent manner.”

Aside from this, the observer team recommended action to increase voter and candidate awareness, address a lack of training provided to polling officials and challenges faced in the preparation phase and readiness of the Electoral Administration to conduct the election, and establish the independence of the government agency.

They also suggested extending the voter registration deadline from December 31 of the year prior to the vote and more effort to purge the voter list people who have died.
The team included two election officials from the South Pacific, Samoa’s Assistant Electoral Commissioner Fetogi Vaai and Solomon Islands Acting Deputy Director of Operations Joy Manu, and two Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat representatives, Smaller Islands States Advisor Tasha Siaosi and Governance Officer Teanuanua Nicole. The report was delivered recently to the RMI government.

Among many points noted in the observer team’s report:
• Extend the voter registration deadline closer to the election: “Public activity and interest in elections tend to heighten closer to an election…Allowing voter registration closer to an election would allow for an Electoral Register that captures a more accurate representation of qualified voters in the Marshall Islands.”

• Independence of the Electoral Administration: “The Forum Team were informed by several stakeholders that the independence of the Electoral Administration, as a part of the Ministry of Culture and Internal Affairs, was inherently compromised. No allegations of wrong-doing as a result of the arrangement were made. However, the independence of an Electoral Management Body at the functional and perception level is important for electoral integrity and administration.”

• Election awareness: “Civic awareness is an integral component of the electoral cycle, an ongoing process that is crucial to ensure that voters and candidates are empowered to participate in the electoral process and are equally aware of their responsibilities…a lack of public awareness and information was a contributor to the low voter turn-out…While the Electoral Administration conducted much of its election awareness outreach through radio, a more comprehensive approach to voter and candidate education is necessary.”

• Clean up the Electoral Register: “Further contributing to the low voter turn-out is the strong likelihood that the Electoral Register is inflated due to a lack of updating and cleaning. The Forum Team understands that there is greater emphasis and focus on registering citizens to the Electoral Register than their removal from it as a result of death. The implication of inflated Voter Lists on election day is vulnerability to election offenses like double voting.”

• State of Health Emergency: “While the Forum Team observed great effort on the part of election officials to ensure that polling went ahead on the scheduled date, the Forum Team is of the view that the unprecedented State of Health Emergency, and its duration, proved to be the greatest obstacle to the efforts of the Electoral Administration. The unforeseen event contributed significantly to administrative and organizational difficulties and challenges that the Forum Team witnessed, and interlocutors raised.”

• Secrecy of the ballot: Polling stations inside classrooms, “the Forum team observed voting tables that were at times in clear sight of other voters, some voting tables positioned at the entrance to the room itself.

Z As voting tables did not have voting screens, at times, voters had to hide their ballots with their arms to preserve the secrecy of their ballots…Notwithstanding the commendable behavior of poll watchers, the Forum Team did note that at polling places where poll watchers were inside the voting room, it could be intimidating to voters. In one polling place, voting tables were facing and in clear sight of poll watchers less than three meters (about 10 feet) away, again compromising the secrecy of the ballot.”

• Integrity of elections: “While the ICC provided for a large space to conduct counting and tabulation of vote results, the Forum Team was concerned that it is also the site for several government ministries and offices. The Forum Team is of the view that no election preparation or counting activities should take place at the ICC, in order to preserve the integrity of elections in the Marshall Islands.”

• Transparency of tabulation praised: “The Forum Team commends the Counting and Tabulation Committee (CTC) counting process, which was very transparent.”

• Tabulation issues to address: “While the Forum Team commends the process, it did observe instances that it believes needs to be addressed. These include: CTC members talking and texting on their mobile phones during the counting process; CTC members having their personal bags under counting tables; and a lack of control for non-Electoral Administration or CTC personnel entering the counting center.”

• Election report to Nitijela: The Elections and Referenda Act requires the Chief Electoral Officer to submit a report to the Speaker after an election. “The Forum Team understands that no reports for several previous elections have been submitted by CEOs. The Forum Team is of the view that internally prepared reports assessing the conduct of an election are crucial to ensuring that (electoral officials) are able to document, adjust and learn from past practices.”

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