The recent election was ground-breaking in any number of ways, not least of which is the fact that someone was actually charged with an election offence.
Such an occurrence was so rare that it became clear that outside of the wide parameters of the Constitution, the actual nitty-gritty of elections ranks along with nuclear physics in the minds of most Barbadians.
Ignorance of the law is no excuse but this could be an area rife with opportunity for unknowingly running afoul of the laws of the land. The Election Offences and Controversies Act, CAP. 3 of the Laws of Barbados gives guidance.
The casual remarks of no less a personage than the Prime Minister occasioned by rampant allegations of “vote-buying” was quite interesting. Interesting in the context of section 6 of the act which provides that a person may be found guilty of bribery where that person gives whether directly or indirectly, money, and gifts or procures any office for an elector either before or after an election with the intention of inducing the elector to either vote or abstain from voting.
Treating, or the “providing of food, drink, entertainment or provision to or for any person” with the intention of influencing their voting is also made an offence by section 7. Incidentally, the elector who accepts is also guilty of the same offences.
It should go without saying that using undue influence whether by violence, threats etcetera is forbidden and section 8 makes it clear.
Certain elements of the election atmosphere which we have come to expect and accept are also categorised as “corrupt practice” or “illegal practice” by the terms of the act. Interestingly enough, it is an offence to supply clothing whether before, after or during the election “bearing a political slogan, photograph or image advertising any particular candidate or party in the election”.
The number of blue and yellow and red T-shirts, bags and other paraphernalia in evidence during the last election was staggering. In any event, perhaps this section may need revisiting in more modern times.
As a supplement to the general law of defamation, section 17 states that it is an illegal practice “before or during an election, for the purpose of effecting the return of any candidate at the election makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of the candidate … unless he can show that he had reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, the statement to be true”.
Now anyone who has ever been remotely near to an open-air political meeting must surely be agog at this. The scurrilous personal attacks which form a part of our political landscape and which Barbadians seem to love must on a nightly basis infringe this particular provision, yet no one including the Electoral and Boundaries Commission seems to remember its existence.
Section 48 of the Representation of the People Act, CAP. 12 limits election expenses for each candidate to $1 for every registered elector in the candidate’s constituency and candidates may not incur any expenses in excess of such amount.
However, these provisions may be fairly loosely interpreted and I am sure that the fees for the performance of international artistes eviscerate the authorised figure. Truthfully, however, in this day and age when one full page print add runs into the thousands of dollars these figures are insupportable and therefore the section is observed more in the breach.
The process of an election is sacrosanct and underpins the very democracy of our nation. As such, the standard for the Supervisor of Elections and his subordinates is that much higher. Election officers must maintain the secrecy of voting and may not canvass, speak on political platforms or associate with a candidate or political party.
Failing to uphold such standards of behaviour exposes them to imprisonment for six months. As the young man who attempted to take a photo of his ballot and was charged can attest, procuring or communicating information as to how an elector has voted is an offence and he now faces up to six months as a guest of Her Majesty in the lovely parish of St. Philip.
The general penalty upon conviction for a corrupt practice such as bribery or treating is $500 and/or six months imprisonment and in the case of an illegal practice the penalty is $500.
The greatest consequence, however, is that specified in section 54 and to the extent that a candidate is found guilty, whether directly or indirectly, his election to the House of Assembly shall be declared void.
Where the infraction has “so extensively prevailed”, section 55 disqualifies the candidate from running for office in the by-election or in some cases for periods of five to seven years thereafter.