Earl Jarrett’s ECJ challenge
EARL JARRETT is no stranger to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), of which he has been a member for six years. So news, last week, of his elevation on March 1, from among the four ‘independents’ who are chosen by the governor general, should be relatively seamless. He knows the lay of the land.
This is important, for Mr Jarrett is assuming the post at a critical period and in unusual, and potentially fraught, circumstances. He can, therefore, expect that his leadership will be challenged, requiring of him deft and delicate interventions. He will probably, too, in the coming months, be called on to devote significant amounts of time to the ECJ. He would have been aware of this when he accepted his colleagues’ offer of the chairmanship.
The ECJ recommends and implements policies for the management of elections in Jamaica. It is widely held to have done a good job since its genesis as an Electoral Advisory Committee 41 years ago when elections were regularly marred by irregularities. However, despite the commission’s generally deserved good reputation, it is headed into uncharted territory.
Not only was the ECJ without a chairman – at least officially – since the resignation, five months ago, of Mr Jarrett’s predecessor, Dorothy Pine-McLarty, but Jamaica is on the cusp of a general election given that the Government’s five-year term ends next February. In normal circumstances, the commission would already be in advanced planning for the polls, which probably might have already been held were it not for COVID-19.
These, however, are not normal times. And herein lurk potential difficulties. For while the ECJ has managed plenty of elections, including difficult ones, this one will be different, made so by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the slowed pace of the disease’s transmission in Jamaica, and moves to reopen the economy and return the island to relatively normal life, it seems like our call three months ago that experts scour the Constitution for what it offers about postponing, or suspending, elections in periods of crisis may now be moot.
Nonetheless, there will have to be significant adjustments in the conduct of the coming vote. By the time Jamaicans are called on to cast their ballots, there won’t be a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Even if there is one, it won’t be so widely available for mass immunisation in Jamaica. The best prevention against the spread of the disease will still be wearing face masks in public to limit the transmission of virus-loaded droplets, the maintenance of appropriate physical distance between people, and practising good hygiene, including regular handwashing.
But at elections in Jamaica, voters usually stand close to each other, in long lines, waiting to cast ballots. Presiding officers and political party scrutineers are beside one another, poring over documents in their efforts to maintain the integrity of the election. In other words, in that environment, physical distancing isn’t easily practised. The set-up is a recipe for the transmission of COVID-19.
Some of the procedures may be liable to administrative adjustments, but others are legislatively regulated and may require the intervention of Parliament for changes. It seems to us, therefore, that the ECJ should already be discussing these issues, including inviting interventions from civil-society groups so that it has the benefit of the best of ideas on how to conduct the best election in a difficult circumstance. Limited time makes this work urgent.
The additional voices are important for another reason. It is expected that the two major political parties, each with two members on the ECJ, will attempt to manoeuvre the election’s management to their own advantage. They may well attempt to orchestrate crises for the propaganda value and to give themselves leverage in the ECJ’s deliberations.
Mr Jarrett’s skills will be called upon to navigate these difficulties. He will be in a better to position to act from a position of strength if his approach is transparent and the public perceives good sense and integrity in his actions.
The opinions on this page, except for The Editorial, do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Gleaner.