BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Feb. 26, 2015–Opposition Senator Lisa Shoman told Amandala that she has grave concerns over a decision by the Elections and Boundaries Department to conduct simultaneous counting of ballot boxes in Belize City for next week’s municipal elections, because it could lead to chaos and mistakes, especially in the Lake I electoral division – the largest in the City – where there will be as many as 12 boxes to count on election night.
Yesterday, PUP Secretary General, Myrtle Palacio, wrote Chief Elections Officer, Josephine Tamai, a three-page letter dated Wednesday, February 25, setting out concerns raised by Shoman after a meeting this Monday with Belize City Returning Officer Hugo Miranda.
In that letter, the Opposition also said that it is disappointed that the decision was made to move the ballot counting from the ITVET compound in Belize City to 10 different counting stations across the City, each to be supervised by a designated election clerk.
The PUP says that they were promised that they would be consulted before a final decision was made on the location of the counting stations, but the information was published in the newspapers last weekend without consultation with the Opposition party.
Also, Shoman reported that at the meeting this Monday, Miranda said that the Elections and Boundaries Commission had mandated that all public officers who will serve as returning officers and election clerks will commence counting as soon as the boxes arrive at the counting stations, which means that “at some point there will be a simultaneous count in Belize City of some 85 boxes.”
Palacio’s letter said that “…the counting process in the Belize City Council is rife with possibility for confusion, chaos, mistake and inaccuracy, particularly as the ballot is one which involves two different contested races – mayoral and councilor and which traditionally are more difficult to count than in general elections.”
While the party raises questions over the legality of the returning officer delegating supervisory responsibilities to election clerks, Tamai said that the decision falls fully within the ambit of the law, citing the Belize City Council Act, Chapter 85 of the Laws of Belize, as well as its subsidiary regulations.
The former indicates that the other officers may be appointed to assist the returning officer or to carry out all the functions, although the subsidiary law says that the returning office shall open the unsealed boxes – something which the Opposition argues cannot be done if all 10 locations are assigned as counting stations since he could not be in all 10 locations to do so.
The PUP said that although it has serious issues with the process, the matter is not something that they would take to the court for a stop order, given that elections are only a few days away. Still, Shoman said that the decisions are “undemocratic” and she is urging the Elections and Boundaries Department to rethink the procedure.
However, Tamai told us that the window period for changes has already closed, as elections are to take place next Wednesday.
She said that she respects that the PUP might have the right to take the matter to court, but maintains that the Department is not doing anything that is against the law.
She also said that Palacio had initially written a letter outlining her concerns on February 4, the day after they met with the political parties and candidates, and the Elections and Boundaries Commission, which has two members from the Opposition PUP, met on February 6 and unanimously supported the decision to use 10 counting stations. After that Commission meeting, Tamai wrote a letter to Palacio on February 9, stating that counting would be done at 10 locations in Belize City.
“The decision was taken due to the large number of registered electors in Belize City. Simultaneous counting of ballot boxes was also done in 2009 and accurate final results for Belize City were available before midnight,” Tamai told Palacio.
This time, the officials are saying that they could be done as early as 10:00 p.m., according to the letter from the PUP.
Shoman told us that they are concerned that there will not be enough persons to supervise counting, and in some cases, it appears that one or two persons could end up counting a box of ballots. She said that the number of personnel assigned to take on the task is insufficient, and because some of the persons who will start working at 6:00 a.m. at the polling stations would also end up working at the counting stations on election night, they would also get tired during the counting.
Tamai told us that they have a full cadre of people, numbering in the thousands, who will work on election day.
She also said that on February 17, 2015, the finalized list of polling and counting stations was sent to the parties.
She maintained that the designation of the 10 counting stations, right within the electoral divisions where votes will be polled, and in some cases at the same polling station, is being done to make the counting more efficient and to minimize movements with ballot boxes within the electoral divisions.
Belize City has 42,540 registered electors – which represents 41% of the persons who are eligible to vote in the March 4, 2015 municipal elections.