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More time for runoff

By Andre Bagoo Saturday, August 30 2014

click on pic to zoom in
Desk-thumping: Government Senators (back row from left) Keitha Smith, Daniel Solomon, Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine, Raziah Ahmed, (front row from l...
Desk-thumping: Government Senators (back row from left) Keitha Smith, Daniel Solomon, Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine, Raziah Ahmed, (front row from l...

THE ELECTIONS and Boundaries Commission (EBC) will be given a potentially wider window to conduct any runoff polls during a general election process under amendments passed in the Senate on Thursday night.

The Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014 stipulated that if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, a runoff poll was due, “on the fifteenth day following the date of the first poll.” However, sources said the EBC had confidentially responded to a request for comments on procedural matters issued to it by the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel.

One concern expressed by the EBC related to the 15-day provision, stating that a fixed 15-day window was potentially too narrow, given the possibility of a recount being taken.

As such, on Thursday night, the Government tabled an amendment which stated that the 15 days will run not from the date of the first poll, but rather the declaration of the results. This means that, potentially, there will be a longer time-frame between the first and second poll, if a recount is called for in a seat.

“The EBC expressed concern about their ability to be ready for a runoff between the first and second poll, if there is a recount,” Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissesar said yesterday. “We therefore made a provision which says it will be 15 days, following the declaration of results by the EBC. You still have the 15 days, but time will run from the declaration.”

On the question of the 15-day provision, chairman of the EBC, Dr Norbert Masson, yesterday confirmed the matter had been raised. He said, “the 15-day period is going to place a tremendous burden on the EBC, as this is the first time you will be having this procedure.” He added, “however, all hands will be on deck.”

Under the Election Rules, any candidate may, the day after a poll, request a recount, a process which itself has no specified time-line in the Rules.

The Constitutional (Amendment) Bill 2014 was passed at 11.07 pm on Thursday with amendments after three days of debate.

Due to there being amendments, the bill will now return to the House of Representatives – where it had been approved more than two weeks ago – for approval of Senate changes, a matter which can be brought as a motion on the Order Paper.

However, Government sources yesterday confirmed the last stage of the bill will not be taken before the Budget, which is due on September 8. Thereafter, the Budget debate is due to begin on September 12 under the new Standing Orders with the response of the Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley. The debate will run for, at most four days. There is then a possibly five-day Finance Committee meeting. This means that there will be more time, possibly several weeks, before the House is called upon to approve the Senate amendments.

The Government has the option of passing a simple motion to approve the amendments at the very end of the Budget debate, whenever that may be. The matter is to be determined by the Parliament caucus.

Among the amendments on Thursday were: a provision tabled by Independent Senator Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir stating that a third party that comes within five points of second place can participate in a runoff; a higher threshold (20 percent) to trigger recall petitions; making recall possible after two years and six months; giving the EBC custody of all recall petitions; ensuring the runoff law text is in harmony with Section 73 of the Constitution and consequential amendments to Representation of the People Act, relating to regulations guiding the custodians of election records.

In relation to the amendment to give the EBC custody of the recall petitions, Persad-Bissessar said, “The EBC will have total custody and control of all the signatures and venues to safeguard the integrity of the process.”

On the Government’s decision to accept Independent Senator Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir’s “triangulaire” amendment to the runoff – which will see third parties that finish close to the second place candidate contest a supplemental poll – the Prime Minister said this was accepted in light of concerns aired.

“There were concerns with respect to the effect upon third parties,” she said. “The amendment gives an opportunity to third parties who come fairly close to get another chance. In effect, if you come that close you get a chance again. In this way you will more precisely give effect to the will of voters.” She said the two-candidate runoff remains in cases where the third party does not fall within five points, and none of the top performers get a majority.

Sources yesterday said the EBC has also expressed concern over any additional costs that may have to be met by a runoff, or series of runoffs, given that general elections normally can cost between $23 million to $40 million. As such, it is understood that the EBC has proposed “a large contingency fund” to provide support to any election, a matter which is now under consideration by the Cabinet, and which is likely to be addressed in the Budget 2015 provisions, or a supplemental appropriation. No figure, however, has been disclosed for a fund. Masson declined comment on this issue.

After Senate amendments on a bill are approved by the House, that bill will then have to be assented to by President Anthony Carmona. But in the case of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2014, should it become law it will still not take effect until the President proclaims it, upon the advice of the Cabinet.

On Thursday night, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan stated in the bill’s committee stage that is when the law comes into effect, is a matter for the Cabinet. Ramlogan said, “The date for proclamation is a matter of Cabinet, and when a decision is taken, that is a matter that will be Gazetted and published.”

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