By Aaron Humes Freelance Reporter
Better vetting of the 2,002 signatures presented to Governor-General Sir Colville Young on November 28, 2013 by officials of the People’s United Party (PUP) could have saved the petition to recall Cayo Northeast area representative Elvin Penner.
This is the view ofChief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai. The recall effort fell short of the 30% threshold by 79 signatures.
“This is something about the people; it’s not about the Election and Boundaries Department,or anybody else … if these petitions had been properly vetted … I don’t think that we should have found so many signatures of people not in the division,” Tamai said.
She explained that it took dedicated work of eight senior public officers and other staff members of the Election and Boundaries Department one month to vet the signatures collected by PUP’ caretaker in the area, Orlando Habet, and his lieutenants.
Of the 5,815 registered voters in the division (as of September, 2013) the signatures of 1,744 were needed to advance the petition.
But of the 2,002 signatures officially gathered only , 1,665 signatures, were confirmed.
Of the other 337 signatures, 52 were rejected for not matching the department’s official record; another 52 belonged to voters who were not registered in the division and a third set of 52 were not registered to vote at all. Eleven names did not carry corresponding signatures.Seventy-nine persons signed twice and four signed three times, in violation of the law.
Following the failure of the OCEANA-led effort to petition for a referendum (on offshore drilling in 2012), the department enlisted the aid of forensic handwriting expert Genoveva Marin of the National Forensic Science Service and the Criminal Investigation Branch of the Police Department for those 61 signatories who used a thumbprint or ‘X’ mark.
Mindful of the time they had to review the signatures, the Department chose to depend on its records to clear the 1,665 signatures and not go out and personally interview each and every signatory.
However, they did seek to find the signatories who used thumbprints and X’s, not all of which matched thr department’s record .
In the case of thumbprints, many were not taken correctly. It turned out that all but one of the 52 who used these marks did in fact give their prints (though seven of them signed twice).
The Department sought advice from the Governor General to contact the presenters of the petition to assist, but in a reply they were told that some of the signatories felt harassed by the actions of the Department in going going house to house in some cases.
Especially embarrassing for the PUP were the duplicate and triplicate signatures. Tamai maintained,that it was correct procedure to disqualify all the repeat signatures.because legally they could not be accepted
“Remember, at the end of the day, according to the Act , those persons have committed an offense!
“Whether you sign more than once… twice, or three times, those are all more than once,” Tamai pointed out.
Later she addressed the existence of precedent in the law for rejecting repeat signatures. “It does not matter whether they match or not”, she explained.
“You won’t find anywhere in the Act to say that you (should) reject those [signatures]. Similarly you won’t find anything in the Act to say that you [should] accept them.”
On the matter of criminal prosecution for alleged offenses on duplicate and triplicate signatures, this would be left to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Tamai said,
“On the issue of prosecution, I must say that presently a file is being compiled for submission to the Director of Public Prosecutions who will advise on the matter “
“I must mention also that duplicates and triplicates were checked several times to ensure that they were indeed duplicates and triplicates. Extreme care was taken to ensure that persons are not accused of signing more than once when it could not be proved,” she stated.
On the matter of possible interference by the Government, Tamai was quick to dispel such stories.
“I will go on record to say that there was never any interference. As we mentioned, we had very senior public officers to assist the Department. These senior public officers, as I mentioned, are deputy and assistant Heads of Departments” she pointed out.
As to any suggestion that the Department was biased in its findings, she observed that “We are mandated to carry on this exercise in accordance with the [Recall of] Elected Representatives Act. It doesn’t matter who the government is or who presented the petition. We deal with a matter with what is being presented to us and we work with the information presented.”
Though the Chief Elections Officer eschewed any comparisons, the OCEANA petition which died in 2012, mere days before general elections, saw 65 percent of all signatories (13,112 of 20,160) accepted, with 8,047 signatures rejected, most of thembecause they did not match or because they were not registered voters.
The accepted signatures missed the 10% threshold of registered voters nationwide, by 4,028 signatories.
The Recall of Elected Representatives Act of 2010 provides that only one petition can be lodged in each division during the term of the Government The section of the law effectively put an end to the hopes of the PUP to unseat Elvin Penner before the next general elections.
The PUP has maintained that the UDP sabotaged the recall petition process from the very beginning by initially encouraging voters in the division not to sign the petition.
The PUP says it plans to ask for a judicial review of the Department’s decision.
Alvin Penner by default continues to hang on to the seat he first won in 2008 over Orlando Habet.
A 2012 recount was decided by 17 votes and Habet’s appeal to the Supreme Court ended in June 2012 when he was denied leave to go to the Court of Appeal with his election petition.