On May 1, 2015, then-Governor John Duncan, supported by the government and the opposition, invited the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to send an independent election observer mission to the Virgin Islands for its general election on June 8, 2015.
The speaker of the Manx House of Keys led the six-member delegation, which also included parliamentarians from Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos Islands; election analysts from Canada and the United Kingdom; and an election coordinator from the UK. They were in the VI from May 30 until June 11, observing the electoral process in accordance with international standards, including the VI’s commitments under international and domestic legislation.
The mission met with key stakeholders, like the election administration, political parties, candidates, civil society, media representatives, police officials, academics and members of the public. It also attended campaign rallies and observed media reporting both prior to arrival and whilst on the islands.
Additionally, it considered some wider issues like gender equality, and reviewed the recommendations of reports on the VI’s 2011 general election by previous observers and the elections supervisor. During the latter part of the campaign, the mission gave particular attention to the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, association and movement, as well as the right to information.
The mission observed all nine polling stations at the advance polling on June 5. On Election Day, June 8, visits were made to all but one polling station (Anegada), including the opening and closing. Also observed were the counting and tabulation of results and the immediate post-election period.
The observers reported that the VI’s 2015 election was “genuine, vibrant and competitive;” that it met key international standards; and that it enabled voters to vote in secret and express their will in a transparent, peaceful and orderly way. The mission also commended voters’ enthusiasm and commitment to the democratic process, with a high turnout.
The report — which can be viewed at https://www.uk-cpa.org/media/2161/eom_bvi_2015_final-report.pdf — praised the supervisor of elections’ dedication and the election officials’ meticulous and impartial conduct of their duties. However, it criticised the cumbersome voting and counting procedures and pointed to defects in the regulatory framework, particularly regarding the registration of political parties and campaign financing.
Since electioneering is already under way, it is too late to establish a totally level playing field, particularly disadvantaging independent candidates. However, I commend to the Cabinet its urgent consideration of the report’s following recommendations, with its decisions reported in the press. Before the general election is called:
- Establish a code of conduct to reduce negative campaigning, like personal attacks and accusations, which candidates and parties should be required to sign at the start of the campaign.
- Create an independent elections commission to provide oversight of the Office of the Supervisor of Elections, adding another layer of public accountability.
- Regulate the establishment and registration of political parties, with clear guidelines and limits on contributions to a candidate’s and/or party’s political campaign during an election period, with penalties on candidates or parties who ignore them.
- Create a media watchdog to establish and enforce regulations evenly distributing radio and television time, and space in print media, guaranteeing all parties and candidates equal access to and balanced coverage by the media to the public.
- Give voters living, working or studying abroad who can’t vote in person other options, like proxy or postal voting, with safeguards to ensure the maximum enfranchisement of the electorate.
- Put in place before the next election the planned voter registration cards and a rigorous education programme.
Other steps should be considered for the future:
- Establish fixed-term parliaments, avoiding any unfair advantage or undue influence in the timing of an election.
- Consolidate the various electoral laws into a single statute.
An election mission reporting on the VI’s next general election would view unfavourably our parliamentarians’ apparent disregard for the previous mission’s recommendations, but the CPA and UK government may view sympathetically a VI government request for the secondment of an appropriately experienced parliamentary draftsman to the Attorney General’s Chambers to complete this work.
Some routines should also be added to Polling Day:
- Poll clerks should consistently ask voters to confirm their names and addresses, as the voting procedures require, even when identification is provided.
- Instead of handwriting each voter’s details in a poll book to register them, a poll clerk could simply draw a red line through the voter’s name on the voter list to show they’ve voted.
- Reduce queues at larger polling stations by dividing voter lists in halves or thirds by the number of people listed, then alphabetically, but not necessarily “A-M” and “N-Z,” as ‘A-M’ tends to be longer.
- Supply the appropriate quality and quantity of all election materials to speed up the closing processes. Polling station staff must ensure all materials are packed into their respective envelopes, providing extra materials, like envelopes, in case needed.
Using voting machines would make the observers’ recommendations for paper ballots largely redundant, but should be borne in mind when establishing the equivalent new routines and planning fallback scenarios if they fail (e.g. through power outages).