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All About Election Recounts

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By Ravi Nanga

ON August 10, 2020, general elections were held in Trinidad and Tobago, where the electorate went to the polls in order to elect a new Government for the next five years.

Arising out of this election two issues arose involving the electoral process. The first was the nomination of a candidate in an electoral district and the second was the request for a recount in six constituencies. I shall attempt to address these two issues in the next two articles. This article will look at the issue of a recount and what it entails.

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The manner in which elections are held in this country is governed by the Representation of the People Act. This act lays down a comprehensive code as to how an election is to be conducted, starting with the appointment of officers who will oversee the electoral process and ending in the tallying of votes and the declaration of a winner of each electoral district and ultimately, which party has won the majority of seats.

Following the last election, two political parties requested recounts in six electoral districts. Before we get to the law in relation to a recount, it is important to note how votes are cast and tallied culminating in the declaration of a winning candidate. For those of us who have exercised our franchise, you will be familiar with the Polling Station. The polling station is where one will go to cast their vote in the secrecy of the polling booth. The polling station is manned by election day staff who are all appointed by the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC).

In addition to the EBC staff, each candidate is entitled to appoint a polling agent who can be present at the opening of the poll, the taking of the poll and the close of the poll. The polling agent is appointed to ensure that the poll is taken in a fair and transparent manner, and if there are any irregularities observed, these polling agents can bring it to the attention of the presiding officer or other EBC personnel so that same can be addressed.

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In addition to the polling agent, a candidate is entitled to appoint an election agent. The duties and functions of an election agent are prescribed by the act. By law both a candidate and an election agent can visit all the polling stations in an electoral district in order to ensure that the voting process is taking place smoothly. In the event an issue arises, and the polling agent is unable to address the issue, the candidate or the election agent can be notified.

A returning officer is appointed for each electoral district, and they are overall in charge of the conduct of elections for that district. If a presiding officer fails to address an issue on polling day at a polling station, the issue can be brought to the attention of the returning officer, who can then address the situation. In addition to the candidate, the election agent and the polling agents, a candidate can also have a legal representative in order to ensure that the law and the rules are followed.

At the close of the poll, the ballot box is opened in front of the EBC staff as well as the polling agents of the respective candidates. Upon the opening of the ballot box, the ballots are then tallied in the presence of the polling agents, following which a Statement of the Poll is prepared and given to the polling agents. Therefore, as can be appreciated, a candidate is given the opportunity to ensure that the voting process goes smoothly.

If following the Statement of the Poll a candidate is unhappy with the results and is of the view that the votes were not counted properly, the law provides for a recount. Rule 101 of the Election Rules provides that a candidate can request a recount by 12:00 noon the day following the closing of the poll. A recount can be a limited recount, where only some ballot boxes and recounted, or a general recount, where all the ballot boxes are recounted. In addition to the recounting of ballots, a candidate can request that the poll cards also be recounted.

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Following the request for a recount, the returning officer fixes a time and place for the recount to take place, and this is done in the presence of the candidate or the election agent, and a counting agent can also be present. At the recount, the ballot boxes are reopened in the presence of the candidates and/or the person(s) representing him, and recounted. At the recount a candidate has the opportunity to question any ballot and query whether it was a valid vote or not. Once that is done, the returning officer is required to mark a “Q” on the back of the queried ballot and place his initials.

During this year’s recount a common question was asked as to why was the recount taking so long. As can be appreciated, each electoral district has multiple polling stations, that can number between the fifties and sixties. On election night the counting of the ballots takes place simultaneously at each polling station, so that each presiding officer has only one ballot box to count. On a recount, the returning officer is required to count all the ballot boxes in respect of the electoral district, so that in effect, the returning officer is doing a job that 50 or 60 persons did simultaneously on election night. This process of recounting further involves the marking of queried ballots, so that where a ballot is queried, the returning officer suspends the count in order to place the “Q” and affix his signature.

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Although a recount is normally abandoned after a few ballot boxes are recounted and it is apparent that there will be no change in the overall result, a candidate can insist on all the ballots being recounted, and depending on the number of challenges, a recount can take days to complete. For example, in an electoral district where there were eighteen thousand voters, that means the returning officer will be required to count every single ballot of those eighteen thousand voters, record queries, and then count every single poll card. This means that the returning officer will have to individually count thirty-six thousand items. This is in addition to opening the sealed ballot boxes, the sealed envelopes and re-sealing the envelopes.

In relation to this year’s recount, the recount in Tobago was abandoned after a short while, as the candidate there did not insist on recounting every single ballot. In Trinidad however, the candidates insisted on recounting every single ballot and poll card, which was time consuming. Although a recount is the right of a candidate, unless the margin of victory is very small, given the manner in which the poll is taken, the likelihood of the result changing on a recount is very small. This was borne out by this year’s recount, where of the six recounts undertaken, none resulted in a different outcome.

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