Earl Jar­rett’s ECJ chal­lenge

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION -

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.

SIG­NIF­I­CANT AD­JUST­MENTS

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.

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