EBC lessons for XYZs

By Raffique Shah
April 08, 2024

Raffique ShahI felt like a fool as I walked out of the offices of the Elections and Boundaries Commission after what turned out to be a two-hour education on polling divisions.

Readers may wonder why I spent so long on such a narrow topic. Well, Mr Whatever-his-name-was had decided to teach me a huge lesson in limited time. The year was 1976. It was a general election year and I had gone to the EBC’s offices at the invitation of the gentleman who was said to be very knowledgeable on everything on elections.

I had opened my big mouth on the hustings, batting at number 3 for the new party on the block, the United Labour Front. The EBC had, I think, changed and adjusted some boundaries in different constituencies in the country based on information gathered from our elections people, who were no experts. I, among others in the ULF, had accused the PNM of wanting to steal the elections.

Mr EBC contacted me via telephone and flatly denied that charge. The PNM, I recall, also denied it. I think those were the first elections post-Independence that the EBC had reverted to the ballot box. Prior to that, the government had used the controversial voting machine that we saw as rigged and we duly let them know that.

In returning to the ballot box PNM leader Dr Eric Williams, announcing the return of the traditional way of voting, had said in Parliament: Mr Speaker, they want ballot box, we’ll give them ballot box. Ballot box, soap box, any box, the PNM will beat them. And, there I was in the middle of it all, not knowing a ballot box from a soap box, never having voted in my life, carrying the campaign for the new labour party.

The official at the EBC was young, around 40, neatly dressed, jacket, et al. His assistants, also young male Afro-Trinis, were equally polite and one thing I remember after I walked out with my comrades was: you never judge a book by its cover.

Led by Mr EBC, they lectured me, with the assistance of maps, graphs, ballot box, et al; they had figures from elections as far back as the 1920s. They were chock-full of numbers from election ­results from 1950 to 1971.

During much of this latter period, Dr Williams had insisted on using voting machines—a very controversial move that caused justifiable accusations of rigging and stealing the elections.

The main opposition party, the Indo-backed DLP, was led by Dr Rudranath Capildeo, a PhD Oxford scholar—which was a big thing in those days. The scientist reeled off mathematics from the platform, baffling the brains of his audiences with some math and much bull. He was a very bright person, but not in politics because the DLP continued to lose every election just as Williams won election after election. So, allegations of fraud and other mischief by the EBC to favour the PNM came fast and furious from leaders of about 12 opposing parties.

And so it was that I, a not-so-humble mutineer, campaigning for the new kid on the block, the ULF, which I had helped put together, ran my mouth on said EBC, accusing them of favouring the PNM by boundary changes and other electoral shenanigans.

Returning to my trip to Mr EBC—he drilled me, ensuring that I knew everything about the indivisible polling division. At length he explained that these would only be adjusted on very rare occasions, when in the interim between two elections the number of people residing in them changed dramatically.

Many citizens would be born, live their lives, and die in those ­divisions. New constituencies were proposed by the EBC as the need for them arose, they would be taken from one constituency where the mean average (D’Math-Man again) went well above what applied elsewhere in the country.

“So, Mr Shah,” Mr EBC said, “This indivisible polling division is what generally cause changes in boundaries. Parliament debates it and then it is made law. The EBC cannot be seen to favour one party over another. Changes are made only when they need to be made to keep the averages in constituencies consistent.” It was a long lesson, but it was well worth it. I never again interacted with the EBC.

I note, however, that the norm among parties today is to arm themselves with a battery of lawyers and go to court to have changes they would like effected; invariably they fail. Sadly, though, that, too, is part of the politics. Threats of lawsuits have already begun before the next election is due. Once the EBC remains independent, it remains the voice of the voters, nobody else.

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