Voting from the grave

Dead voters remain a strange, spectral threat . . . [but] there are just easier ways to win than to raise voters from the dead. – Caira Giaimo and Sarah Laskow

For as long as I can recall, allegations surrounding death and voting have been peddled at every election in the Caribbean. I have always thought it perplexing, for Commonwealth Caribbean countries do not have laws pertaining to absentee voting. You may think it odd to link absentee voting with voting from the grave, but the point is that absentee voters where this is allowed, could legally cast a vote prior to the poll day and die before poll day itself. Thus it could be a truism that the dead can vote.

Similarly in the United Kingdom (UK), the legality of the postal vote makes it possible for the dead to vote. Not literally of course, but it is quite possible that a postal vote could have been sent out to a registered elector and could be fraudulently used and or returned preceding the death of the elector. Thus, in Britain there were fears that potentially up to 3,000 “zombie voters” could participate in UK general elections. According to research conducted by Kingsley Purdam, given that the UK electoral registration process usually closes around two weeks before polling day, approximately 25,500 potential voters could die. With the increased use of postal voting in the UK, the potential for the dead to have voted is quite plausible.

However, in the Commonwealth Caribbean allegations of dead people voting are not linked to the issue of absentee vote. Rather it seems to be the run of the mill kind of allegation made by party supporters and candidates who have lost an election. It is advanced as an example of a vote rigging ploy designed to steal the election for a party, typically the incumbent. But let us logically examine the potential for such an occurrence.

Barbados, like most other Commonwealth Caribbean jurisdictions, engages in a continuous process of voter registration. It is anticipated that this process will not only enable first time voters (young people just turned 18, older individuals who had not bother to register before, permanent residents and other qualified individuals) to register and therefore reduce the risk of disqualifying eligible voters, but it would also provide ample opportunity to purge the electoral roll of persons who have been continuously absent from the country for five years and those who have died in the state. It is far more complex to purge the list of persons who have died overseas and so such persons may remain on the list.

In so far as purging the list of persons who have migrated and have been continuously absent for five years, it is indeed a difficult enterprise as it would require updated information from immigration departments which we have yet to figure out. But I am mindful that registration officers do visit constituencies and investigate to ensure accuracy of the voters list. That in itself may not be sufficient to purge a name off the list, so I am doubtful that this practice occurs for those who have migrated. So yes, the voter’s list may well be padded and it is nearly impossible to avoid this possibility.

But can the dead in the Caribbean actually vote? If they could, this would be a remarkable phenomenon that would constitute outright fraud, but could only materialize if persons knowingly assume the identity of a deceased person in order to vote in various constituencies. For let us be clear, no single person will turn up to vote in a constituency in the same polling station multiple times. That would be grounds for instant detention. We are just too small for such activities to occur without the collusion of the presiding officer, poll clerk, party agents, media and election observers where they are permitted. And let us not forget the observing elector who sits by the roadside, watching and waiting until the close of the poll. It is just too fantastical for my mind to process.

Do the dead remain on the registration roll?

Of course they do. It is simply not so easy to purge the list of all the deceased in time for an election. So no registration roll is perfect. The fact however that the deceased stays on the registration roll does not translate to a vote cast by them.

Legally, the EBC has the right to purge the voter’s list of ineligible voters and this includes the deceased. But getting an accurate picture is not always easy. However, the EBC of Barbados regularly scours the newspapers for news of deaths which are then compiled by dedicated staff within the Election Department for purging. Besides the newspapers (especially the pages and pages of death notices), the Department depends on the hospital and registry for information on deaths which is then used to purge the list. However, before such final action is taken, workers at the Commission (The Registration Officers) visit the community where the deceased resided to validate information received. Again this is standard procedure.

Furthermore, every political party and independent candidate is entitled to an agent in the polling station, who has the right to be present and question the presiding officer on ballot issues. Therefore the presumption is that party agents and other candidate agents will be properly trained to defend the interests of their constituency candidate and by extension the party they represent.

Additionally, while in Barbados voters can enter the polling station without a valid ID card, the presiding officer and the agents at the polling station have access to duplicate records which can be used to verify the identity of the elector. This would therefore make it difficult for an individual to enter the polling station without a valid ID card and assume the identity of a dead person since the verification process will kick in. In other words there are checks to limit voter fraud of this kind, and the likelihood of this is minimal.

But it would be remarkable to see the dead rising from the grave and voting.

Source: (Cynthia Barrow Giles is senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill)

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