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Senator warns of problems facing ECJ

BY BALFORD HENRY Senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, January 21, 2013    

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OPPOSITION Senator Tom Tavares-Finson has warned of 'a danger' lurking on the horizon for the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), unless it gets funding to upgrade its Electronic Voter Identification and Ballot Issuing System (EVIBIS).

With EVIBIS, registered electors can be identified and verified at polling stations by using their fingerprints to produce an authenticated ballot for voting. The system is considered one of the most critical elements of the electoral reform process, although it is not available at all polling stations during elections.

Senator Tavares Finson told the Senate on Friday that since the system has been implemented, however, nothing has been done to improve is capabilities. He said that this has resulted in the EVIBIS, a local prototype which has become a model for other countries, including the United States, falling behind in meeting voting challenges.

Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis, in her recent Information System Review Report on the ECJ, noted that the commission did not have a comprehensive information security policy that defined its intentions on information security, and provided general direction for protecting the confidentiality, integrity and availability of its information resources, "especially access to the ERS (Electoral Registration System) and the EVIBIS systems".

She said that this has created a situation in which greater reliance has been placed on the experience of certain key IT/IS personnel within the ECJ, rather than on established information security policies.

"This increases the risk of service disruption, in the event of the departure or absence of any of these persons, especially at or around the time of major elections," Monroe Ellis cautioned.

Tavares-Finson said that not only was the system falling behind in cutting-edge technology, but the country had also failed to reap any financial benefit from pioneering the EVIBIS system.

"We have failed to remain on the cutting edge of the EVIBIS technology, and we have failed to capitalise on the financial aspect of the technology," he told the Senate.

The senator, who is also a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) commissioner on the ECJ, noted the departure of chairman of the ECJ, Professor Errol Miller, last December and the expected departure this December of two more "selected" commissioners — Dorothy Pine McLarty and Justice Clarence "Billy" Walker — and paid tribute to Miller's six years of contribution to the development of the commission, the electoral process and the country.

"As a country, we have to ensure that the impending transition takes place seamlessly, and without acrimony or political divisiveness, so we can preserve the gains we have made in this critical area of national life," he told the Senate.

Miller left the ECJ on the first of December last year. He had one year remaining on his seven-year contract but chose to leave for personal reasons. Dr Herbert Thompson has been elevated to acting chairman for a period of one year. With the departure of Miller, Pine McLarty and Walker, the governor general will be required to name three independent members this year to replace them, as well as a new chairman.

The four independent or selected commissioners are jointly agreed upon by both the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition, and they elect one of their members as the chairman of the commission. The four nominated commissioners are nominated two each by the prime minister and the Opposition leader. The ninth member of the commission is the director of elections, who currently is Orrette Fisher.

Parliament passed the Electoral Commission (Interim) Act in 2006, clearing the way for the creation of the ECJ, to protect the electoral process from the immediate direction, influence and control of the Government. The ECJ was preceded by the Electoral Advisory Commission, which had been effective since 1979.

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