Highlights — 30 May 2018 — by Rowland A. Parks
Chief Justice to rule on PUP San Pedro municipal election petition

BELIZE CITY, Mon. May 28, 2018– Attorneys representing the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP)’s San Pedro municipal election petition made final submissions today in the courtroom of Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, who, at the end of today’s hearing, indicated that he will issue his ruling in the next two weeks.

Attorney Eamon Courtenay, SC, appeared for the petitioners, the six PUP San Pedro Town Board council candidates and their mayoral candidate, while attorney Estevan Perrera defended the UDP San Pedro mayor and his six councilors.

Solicitor General, Nigel Hawke appeared for the Attorney General of Belize, Chief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai and Returning Officer Catharine Cumberbatch, who has been named in the election petition as an interested party.

If the arguments used by the PUP successfully convince Chief Justice Benjamin that there were such gross violations in the way the elections in San  Pedro were conducted that the court should annul the results, the stage would be set for new elections on the island.

Courtenay began his submission by telling the court that the petitioners base their submission on substantial non-compliance to the election regulations.

“There is a mandatory requirement that once the counting is completed, the ballots become sacred and sacrosanct”, Courtenay said.

After the election, it is the duty of the Returning Officer to seal the parcel so that it cannot be opened.

“Regulation 84 is known by all and it is at the very heart of the integrity of every election. No one, including the Chief Elections Officer, shall have access to the ballots after the election”, Courtenay submitted.

This regulation was contravened in multiple ways, Courtenay told the court.

“Your Lordship will have to consider whether or not the breaches were substantial enough to affect the result of the election. We say they are,” Courtenay argued.

Courtenay told the court that an election begins on Nomination Day and lasts one year after the balloting when the Chief Elections Officer is allowed to burn the papers.

Citing a number of violations of the election rules, Courtenay went on to submit that not a single witness had brought any used and unused ballot to the court.

“The Chief Elections Officer, we submit, breached Regulation 75 by receiving the papers from the returning officer not in a sealed envelope”, Courtenay said.

He went on to submit that the Chief Elections Officer testified to the court that she and her assistant, Mr. Zuniga, and one “Mahler”, counted the ballots.

“‘I unsealed it to take out the specific forms’, the Chief Elections Officer told this court”, Courtenay explained.

“It matters not; all the ballots used and unused must be in a sealed envelope. Ms. Tamai had no right to count those ballots. If she counted them, she has not told this court what the results are,’ Courtenay continued.

“J1 and J2 are riddled with mistakes. Both Ms. Tamai and Ms. Cumberbatch said they were not verified. The 8th respondent should have brought those ballots here, but that would have been a problem, because they would have brought unsealed envelopes,’ Courtenay submitted.

Courtenay also referred to the Elections and Boundaries Commission’s published result which stated on its website that 5,684 ballots were cast, but that the total number of votes was 5,134. “This is a difference of more than 500 votes. The explanation given for this was that people voted after 6:00 p.m. If it is permissible for the Chief Elections Officer to have access to the ballots in her office alone, what does that say for the future of elections in this country?” remarked Courtenay.

Courtenay told the court that the violations in this election were substantial enough and “we ask Your Lordship to declare the election void, so that that can be a fair election in San Pedro.”

Attorney Perrera made his submission, telling the court that the San Pedro elections were conducted substantially with the laws governing elections in Belize.

“The petitioner, Abner Perez (PUP San Pedro mayoral candidate), commented in his witness statement that by and large, the polling went smoothly during the day. We add that it has been confirmed, both the PUP and the UDP had their representatives, scrutinizers and counters for every box”, Perrera told the court.

“We also say that the parties counted the used and unused ballots in the counting room”, Perrera submitted. “The petitioners also confirmed that they had their attorney present,” he said.

“Mr. Abner Perez also admitted that when the counting was completed, he congratulated the representatives, though he couldn’t remember who all he congratulated,” Perrera said.

“We say that none of the evidence presented by the petitioners that any of the notational errors affected the outcome of the San Pedro municipal election”, Perrera submitted.

“Ms. Cumberbatch, under cross-examination, stated clearly that she did not need to recount the ballots to fix the notational errors; she could do so by looking at the other numbers in the forms”, Perrera explained.

“What is important to note is that there is not an iota of evidence, in that there was not any error in the reconciliation forms by the petitioners and the respondents,” Perrera told the court.

Solicitor General Nigel Hawke began his brief submission saying, “We reiterate all the contents of our written submission.”

Hawke said that all the petitioners knew the unused ballots have no bearing on the results of the election.

“There seem to be a surreptitious attack on the integrity of the Chief Elections Officer,” said Hawke. “There is not a scintilla of evidence that the results are not in compliance with the regulations,” he stated.

“The Solicitor General explained that the golden thread that runs through this case is the unused ballots.

“The petitioners have to prove their case to this honorable court. They have not proven their case. We ask this honorable court to dismiss this petition because there has not been any substantial breach,” he said.

In his reply, Courtenay told the court that it was the Chief Elections Officer who violated the law. “Only an order from this court could have allowed the Chief Elections Officer to remove the ballots”, he said.

“When we filed the petition, she sent to the Central Bank and took out the ballots. We invite Your Lordship to use the strongest possible judicial language to condemn the way the ballots were handled by the Chief Elections Officer. If the violations were substantial, then the court should invalidate. We say the transgressions are substantial,” Courtenay submitted finally.

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