Strengthen the Electoral Commission

The members of the Vanuatu Electoral Commission managed a small miracle when they wrangled this snap election to a mostly successful conclusion. Were it not for the valiant efforts of the Commission members and the staff of the Electoral Office, things could easily have gone wildly awry.

We cannot afford to let this happen again. To do so would be flirting with disaster.

The Electoral Commission is not a beast that wakes every four years, runs a national election and then sleeps again. Far from it. There are municipal and provincial elections to be run, there is the electoral roll to be managed, there is the review of electoral districts and voting processes to be considered, and last but certainly not least, there is the long-delayed research into future voting procedures to correct the problems that inevitably arise during elections.

The Electoral Commission and the Principal Electoral Officer have done well—better than well, actually—in the face of chronic staff and budget shortfalls. But that’s only because of the stalwart, hard-working and principled people who fill the ranks.

There is no substitute for having the right people in the right positions, but their mandate and their abilities can be enhanced by taking a few simple measures.

The Electoral Commission and the office of the Principal Electoral Officer must be strengthened, and their independence and mandate must be enhanced. In the past, there have been attempts made to provide oversight of the Commission, the office and even the elections themselves from within the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

While the budget for the office must of course come from within departmental funding, that is the extent of their interaction.

The phrase ‘Minister responsible for elections’ is inaccurate and frankly misleading. The ministry has no legal responsibility—and no legal role—in the running of elections, the management of the electoral roll and the definition of districts.

This is not a criticism of any well-intentioned individual; it is an attempt simply to make the lines clearer between those who run the elections and those who run in them.

The independence and the mandate of the Electoral Commission under the Principal Electoral Officer must not be abridged, either by act or omission.

This means that the government of Vanuatu not only needs to be reminded to step back from peering over the PEO’s shoulder, it also needs to respect his decisions and to provide him with the means to do his job.

Staffing of the Electoral Office is provided by the Public Service Commission. Once again, there is no role here for elected officials, either in the selection of candidates or in deciding the composition of the office staff.

In theory at least, Parliament—not the Ministry—provides approval of the PEO’s budget, both for elections and for ongoing operations. If it doesn’t allow for direct input yet, then consideration needs to be given by Finance about how to manage the budget-making process such that the PEO can provide an independent submission, whose merits can be considered independently of any political considerations.

For symbolic as well as pragmatic reasons, we should construct a new Electoral Office outside of the Internal Affairs precinct. Assuredly, those donors who have traditionally shown interest in the integrity of our democratic institutions will be willing to assist.

It is critically important that we act now, and not ignore the problem for another four years. If we do act, we can ensure a valid electoral roll, and we can begin considering what changes—if any—will be needed to better protect the stability and robustness of our government.

We need to ask ourselves if it is worthwhile, reasonable and possible to move to single candidate electoral districts. And the PEO needs to have the space to consider such options in light of our democratic, not political, needs.

The benefit for politicians is this: When a player knows he’s got a good, consistent referee, he’s able to spend more time concentrating on playing the game, and less time crying foul against his opponent.