The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association observer mission declared last week’s election to be “well-administered,” but it also highlighted the relatively low voter turnout compared to previous elections.
“Following a lively campaign, voters were able to choose from a wide range of candidates,” mission head Fatoumatta Njai, a member of the National Assembly of Gambia, read from a statement at an April 26 press conference. “The mission also notes that a considerable number of voters chose to stay away from the polls, with lower turnout compared to previous elections.”
This year, 9,275 of 16,130 registered voters cast ballots, for a voter turnout of 57.5 percent, according to finalised figures released yesterday by the Office of the Supervisor of Elections. By contrast, nearly 65 percent voted in the 2019 elections, when 9,720 ballots were cast, and 67.5 percent voted in 2015, the office reported at the time.
In a preliminary report released two days after the election, the eight-member observer team said they visited all 18 polling stations across the nine districts and watched the central vote count on election night.
Polling Day, they found, was “orderly, peaceful and well-run.”
“The mission assessed the implementation of opening, voting and closing procedures as good or very good,” the report stated.
The observers noted “a few technical issues with the functioning of the electronic pollbooks and ballot scanners” but stated that these problems “were resolved without delay and did not impede the voting process.”
On Advance Polling Day, the team visited seven out of ten polling stations across Tortola and Virgin Gorda and found that the early voting also “proceeded smoothly.”
“The mission also noted that that some voters with disabilities and elderly voters who otherwise appeared capable of voting independently have apparently resorted to assistance due to their lack of familiarity with the machine-readable ballot and equipment,” the statement added.
Additionally, the observers noted that women are under-represented in VI politics and that there are no “special measures” in place to promote their participation.
“Seventeen among the 42 candidates who stood for election were women,” the report stated. “Three women were among the 13 people elected to the House of Assembly, two representing the [Virgin Islands Party] and one from the [National Democratic Party]. Three women were also elected in 2019. This represents approximately 23 percent of the elected membership of the House.”
At last week’s press conference, observer Anne Marlborough said the mission also observed “some instances” where voters without a strong command of English struggled during the voting process.
“We saw fantastic efforts on the part of polling staff, presiding officers, to offer the assistance that was needed,” she said. “But yes, it was certainly something that we observed: In one case, there was somebody having difficulty casting her vote due to the absence of Spanish language.”
She described the issue as a “technical” one which the team intends to address in its final report, which is to be published within two months of Election Day.
“It is very important that people are able to cast their vote, that they understand the ballot paper, that they understand the ballot scanner machine,” she added. “So we certainly will offer comments for consideration by the authorities to ensure that voters have adequate information.”
The observers also weighed in on a recent belongership issue.
Days before the election this year, the House of Assembly was recalled by Governor John Rankin to validate the status of 688 people who were granted belongership in 2019 and early 2020 even though they did not meet all the necessary requirements.
The CPA mission commended the move, noting that the team “welcomes the momentum towards achieving legal certainty and improved implementation of the granting of belongership status to enfranchise eligible voters.”
The mission also highlighted the absence of campaign finance regulations in the territory.
That issue — which has been flagged repeatedly in reports by previous observer missions — leaves voters “unaware of sources of campaign funding, which is not in line with international best practice,” the mission stated.
The team added that although the issue was discussed by Cabinet prior to the election, the introduction of reforms was postponed until after the election.
“The mission was also informed of the high cost of campaigns, which some interlocutors attributed to the lack of rules safeguarding a level playing field,” the report noted.