A significant number of Jamaicans would be robbed of the right to vote if Parliament were to change the law to request would-be voters to produce a birth certificate as proof of age to register, according to Director of Elections Orette Fisher.
The declaration was made during yesterday's sitting of the Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at which members supported a recommendation made by Auditor General Pamela Monroe-Ellis for the ECJ to get legal advice on the extent to which it can request proof of age from would-be voters, pointing to inadequate age verification procedures used by the Commission. The auditor general said she made the recommendation "from a point of risk" following her review of the Information System of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica.
The Representation of the People's Act states that no person under the age of 18 is allowed to vote.
Addressing the matter yesterday, Fisher said that the commission would have no issue acting if the dictate was made by Parliament, but warned that there could be challenges.
"Mr Fisher, we have a keen interest in this matter. Would you be prepared to entertain an opinion that the birth certificate ought to be the main instrument for proof of eligibility?" PAC Chairman Audley Shaw asked.
"No, Mr Chairman. But if the Parliament of the country so dictates, and electors are required to provide birth certificates, what I would assure you is that a significant number of Jamaicans, based on our experience in the field, would not be afforded the right to vote," Fisher replied.
Fisher's admission that there was no requirement for the Electoral Office to request any such documentation prompted Shaw to admit that "there seems to be a flaw in that there is no absolute method of proving someone's age, this is a serious matter".
"Absolutely, and I would be happy to request birth certificates if the Parliament so requires, but I am just putting the point to you that if that is the case, a significant number of Jamaicans who are unable to provide this proof would not be able to exercise their franchise," Fisher responded. "This would make life easier for the Electoral Office even in terms of registration, but I am not seeking to make my job easier, just to ensure that people's rights are maintained under the Constitution," he added further.
He, however, rejected a suggestion by Shaw that because of the "inherent weakness" it could be that "there might be many persons on the voters' list who went on before they were 18".
"I would not agree to that because the system as it is set up, has checks and balances. So in any polling division, the political representative has the right of objection or if in the opinion of the person carrying out the registration the person appears to be underage they can take a decision," the director of elections said.
In the meantime, Fisher — who yesterday agreed that "legal advice should be sought" — said the framers of the law had left the provision as it is because they "recognised that a lot of persons would not have the birth certificates".
Secondly, he said the ECJ had attempted to issue an administrative directive for persons to be issued with birth certificates, but this was not met with approval by the political directorate.
Shaw, meanwhile, said the matter could not be brushed under the carpet since it could hold crucial answers.
"I don't know about anybody else, but under one million people keep voting, but the voters' list keeps getting bigger and bigger. It's now $1.7 million people and the same under one million people are voting. So there has to be some proper explanation as to this exponential growth of the voters' list and the voting number being static, and in that investigation anything must be pursued as some of the reasons the list is getting bigger and bigger, including potentially underaged persons being registered," Shaw argued.
Opposition committee member Pearnel Charles cautioned that if persons were going to be forced to get their birth certificates as proof of identification, they would not vote as several factors, including the cost, would be a deterrent.
Government committee member Dr DK Duncan also predicted difficulties
"If all you are saying is that we must seek to have documentary proof of age, the Electoral Office is saying we do not because the overriding principle is the constitutional right to vote. If that were to be the case, immediately I am saying 30 to 40 per cent of the persons would be disenfranchised and that's why I say the law is a shackle," Duncan noted.
Government committee member Damion Crawford yesterday made it clear that he was at odds with the recommendation to seek legal advice and could not support it.