Coalition Referendum, Verdict: DOA Last night we broke the news that that the referendum triggered by the coalition to save our natural heritage was DOA, dead on arrival.
Dead because the elections and boundaries office found that 8000 of the signatures could not be verified. That means the signatures on the petitions could not be matched against those in the binders at the elections and boundaries office.
But 8000 signatures of the 20,000 collected scratched? How could that be? That's almost 1 out of every 2! Was it mass fraud or mass confusion? Or just bad penmanship? Or did people simply not remember how they had signed on voter's ID?
Whatever the case, the elections and boundaries held a conference this afternoon in Belmopan to explain it all to the media and offered examples of the discrepancies.
It was a high powered event with CEOs from many prominent ministries, but the explaining was left to the chief elections officer Josephine Tamai. Here's what she had to say:..
Josephine Tamai, chief elections officer
"In all a total of 20,160` signatures were reviewed by the department. There do not include those which OCEANA identified as duplicates. Of the total signatures that were reviewed a total of 12,113 were accepted as those signatures match those that we have on the record cards."
"In order to do the verification process what we had to do was to individually take out the record cards that we have on file to verify those signatures because those are what we used. When a person goes in to register, the information is placed on a record card and they need to sign it."
"A total of 12,113 of the signatures that we reviewed were accepted. This was 7.07% of the total number of registered voters and this is also 60% of the total signatures that were reviewed."
"A total 8,047 signatures were rejected which makes up the other 40%."
"Signatures that were reviewed were rejected for reasons mainly - majority of them was that the signatures just didn't match the signatures that we have on the record card. From those rejected we found a total of 1,180 persons were not registered any at all in our system. We had 127 persons who sign 2 times. We had 2 persons who signed 3 times."
"Under the referendum act - for those persons who signed more than once that's an offence under the referendum act and these persons actually are guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or to imprisonment for a tern not exceeding one year or to both such fine and imprisonment."
"I would want to give an advice to anybody wanted to present a referendum for the Elections and Boundaries Department in order for it to go through because at the end of the day we are all Belizeans, I am a Belizean and we want to see things go the right way, so signing or not signing the petition as professional public officers that we are our job is to simply deal with the information that is presented to us."
"We have to go according to the signatures that are presented and the signatures that we have on file. That's as far as we go because according to the referendum act the job of the chief elections officer is to verify those signatures."
"Let's say I registered I 1998 but my signature is no longer what it was then and that happens to many people, as they get older their signatures changes. Is there any way to address such a discrepancy? I ask because I can see a similarity in penmanship between the signatures that did have a discrepancy but you can see that (I am no expert) there are similarities in the shaping of the letters; the style of writing. a) is there any way to fix a problem like mine and b) what is the tolerance for discrepancies that your people showed being themselves not hand writing experts."
"I will have to agree with that, for me I am no hand writing expert and our officers at the department similarly, we are no hand writing experts. But what we did was we look very closely at each and every single one of them and as long as we could satisfy ourselves that yes; sometimes we even go look at the age of the person because like you said with age sometimes the signatures vary a little. We look at those things. We used our best judgment for every single one. Some of them we had to give the benefit of the doubt."
Louis Wade, PLUS TV
"Was there any independent organization or vetting crew that brought in to verify that your elections and boundaries commission was being fair in carrying out its duties?"
"As we mentioned when we started that what we did was request additional staff from the Ministry of Public Service and those persons included persons from within the wider public service who are not election and boundaries department employees. So those are the independent persons that we used in order to assist in this exercise."
Louis Wade, PLUS TV
"I wouldn't consider that to be independent. My second question refers to: will your department release those 8,000 names so that the individuals whose names were rejected will themselves be able to determine publicly whether their signatures are indeed the same or different from the registration cards?"
"Those will definitely be release but it's not to say that the persons will be able to say if they sign or not because at the end of the day we have to go by the documents presented to us."
Charles Gibson, CEO - Ministry of Public Service and Governance
"The second thing which I think is coming out here quite clearly is the matter of a signature and who is an expert to determine a signature. I clearly agree with what has been said earlier because I know my own signature. Over the 10-12 years has evolve, whether its age or maturity of whatever I don't know but clearly it has change and those are some of the things I think we need to look at. But please lets be fair here for a minute. This is the first time we are doing verification of signatures and we have to go by what the law says and in the event that the law needs to be amended and needs to be modernize then that is the case."
"The chief elections officer also indicated and I want to point this out clearly that she is saying that also with those signatures that were accepted, even those got the benefit of the doubt. So we have to bear that in mind and yes I do agree with you that maybe perhaps the process has to be reviewed. The process has to be a little bit more that where the time is given that in the event that the chief elections has to go outside to houses to visit, to verify signatures, to call people and come in clearly but she would not have had the time to do that on the two months which is given under the law."
"In order for us to do that we will have to change the referendum act because the act specifically states verify signatures and that's what we do. We verify what is presented to us."
"Employees in the elections and boundaries department had been instructed to disqualify as many signatures as possible. Can you assure us that that categorically has not happen?"
"As the chief elections officer I can categorically deny that because at the end of the day I know nobody told me that signatures should be disallowed for any reason and to go further they can ask any of the officers who have been assigned to that department because I have stressed because like I said we are also citizens of Belize and we want to see then best for our country."
A few points: the Elections and Boundaries Office had to take on 14 staff to finish within the two month timeline and according to Tamai they worked right through Christmas and New Year's. One thousand four hundred and forty of those signing the referendum petition were not registered, or they signed more than twice or as many as three times.
So with ten thousand signatures verified and 17 thousand needed to trigger a referendum, can The Coalition re-submit those same ten thousand names? Well, the law is silent on that - so presumably, they can. Presumably, all the names will be sent back to OCEANA - which made the submission on behalf of the Coalition for its review and records.