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Opinions of Saturday, 18 February 2006

Columnist: Kpessa, Michael Whyte

Diasporan Vote?Let Reason Prevail

Ghanaians all over the world have being observing with keen interest the debates relating to the Representation of People Amendment Bill. While many well-meaning citizens have written through various mediums to express their views on the issue, much of what has been said and debated so far has been skewed either for or against the passage of the Bill. Reading through the various pieces, one is encouraged by the level of analysis that have been brought to bear on the issue, however, it is very discouraging to observe that all the newspaper publications presented their positions within the framework set forth by the partisan debate that characterized the approach of parliament to the issue. This piece intends to shed some light on the subject but more importantly present an alternative viewpoint---centrist position that meets the concerns of all parties to the Bill but speaks to our sense of duty and responsibility to the nation.

The Law against the Law

Absentee voting is not an invention of Ghanaians; it is not a new thing within the practice of politics. It has been used in a number of countries without much difficulty but its usage does not entail the Amendment of existing legal frameworks particularly when those frameworks do not seem to infringe upon constitutionally guaranteed rights of which voting is a key element. In the Ghanaian case, Article 47 extends the rights to be registered to vote to every eighteen years or older Ghanaian with sound mind. In effect, irrespective of place of abode, Ghanaians can be registered for the purposes of election in the country. The problem in our law books has to do with PNDC Law 284, section 7 which introduces residency requirements as a pre-condition for electoral registration.

While one agrees with opponents of the Bill that the constitution does not bar diasporans from voting, it is proper to recognize that the residency requirements from section 7 of the PNDC law 284 needs to be repealed or amended to make it consistent with the constitutional provisions of Article 42. The seeming contradiction in our statute books is that while the constitution guarantees all Ghanaians voting rights, PNDC Law 284 unquestionably disenfranchises all Ghanaian residing abroad for six months or more. By implication, the latter also disqualifies diasporan Ghanaians from voting unless for the purposes of voting, they go back to the country six months or more ahead of any election period. This situation contains inherent difficulties, but the legal contradictions can best be resolved either by the Supreme Court or the legislature without the emotional stress the nation is going through now.

A segment of the Ghanaian population argue that there is actually no contradiction between the two legal references above and that section 7 of PNDCL 284 is meant to put flesh on the skeletal provision on elections in the constitution. Proponents of this view argue that the enactment of section 7 of the PNDCL 284 in itself is in fulfillment of the constitution. If this is truly where the bone of contention is, all we would need in my humble view is to seek constitutional interpretation or clarification on the matter from the Supreme Court. Let?s learn as a nation to make our institutions work, and work they must without the unnecessary partisan attitude that comes with everything of national concern. Gradually our national identity is being defined by the spirit of partisanship instead of the spirit if patriotism.

Against Diasporan Vote

Opponents of the Bill have also advanced some well-meaning arguments in support of their position. Among them are the claims that;

a) Diasporan voters live outside the territories where their votes will help determine who wields power and because they do not live to experience the direct consequences of their vote, many therefore vote with less sense of responsibility.

b) Diasporan voters lacked the information and input needed to initiate an informed decision because of the problems involved in presenting candidate platforms and positions to diasporans;

c) The cost associated with reaching diasporan voter who have voluntarily taken up residence else where would produce huge strain on the tax burden of fellow citizens back home;

d) The electoral commission and its officials, in the event of diasporan vote, would confront issues of ballot secrecy and transparency where they lack jurisdiction capacity and logistics;

e) Ghanaians outside are not clustered in specific regions, rather, they are scattered, hence, it would be difficult to device a system that will ensure that polling stations are closer to each voter as required by the electoral laws of the country. For example it takes eight hours to drive from Hamilton (where I live) to Ottawa where the Ghanaian High Commission in Canada is located. It would be na?ve to assume that diasporans will travel this far to vote at a High Commission whose officials are mostly political appointees, at the expense of their economic pursuit.

f) Advanced democracies like the US still have problems with external voting as seen in the 2000 presidential elections which were finally decided in a law court because Florida elections officials applied different methods to determine the validity of absentee ballots depending on where they were counted.

For Diasporan Vote

In spite of the arguments against diasporan voting, it is quite common sight in many countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina have integrated diasporan voting into their electoral process and this has actually played important role in the political re-building of their country. The Philippines parliament, in 2002 approved Absentee Voting Bill which gave many Filipino migrants the right to vote in their country?s elections as long as they intend to retain their citizenship. Other countries that use diasporan voting include the UK, Canada, Germany, amongst others, all with different residency requirements. It is also often argued that the diasporan community plays an important role by advancing the economic and cultural interest of Ghana abroad hence they deserve to be allowed to vote. Then there are those who maintained that because diasporans often remit their families back home, they contribute economically to the growth of our society hence it is appropriate to encourage further remittance by ensuring the oversea Ghanaian community votes in subsequent elections.

Form or Substance

It is important to note that countries like Russia, Australia and South Africa that practice diasporan voting by using their High Commission or Embassies have always lived with the fear of potential fraud through political pressure on embassy staff. In addition, given that embassies are located in one city, they are geographically limited in coverage, and may not serve every Ghanaian living abroad?a situation that can result in further legal problems due to the requirement in our electoral laws for polling stations to be established within certain parameters in each riding. The current tension in the nation is due to the fact that we have started debating the form of the diasporan election ahead of the legal substance. The most disturbing issue is that the debate has taken on a partisan tone thereby barring the Electoral Commission (EC) and other responsible individuals as well as institutions from actively adding their voices. Those responsible for making laws in our country owe us a duty to make the laws consistent with the constitution, and leave the form or mode of implementation to the state institutions empowered to enforce such laws. This is where it may seem that the debate on the issue in Ghana is not only dubious and misplaced, but also shrouded in the spirit of partisanship at the expense of patriotism.

Besides, it is absurd for any one group of disaporans or a diasporan to assume that the current debate in the country is in our interest or the interest of the nation we so much love. Our rights to vote are constrained by section (7) of PNDCL 284; and all we can ask for under this circumstance is for the law to be made consistent with the constitution either by parliament or most appropriately by the Supreme Court through a judicial review. This however cannot be expected to include an obligation of the state to organize elections for diasporans in their present respective countries of residence. In the same vein however, calling for our electoral laws to be made consistent is not a favour, in fact is consistent with Article 41 of the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which states ?Migrant workers and members of their families shall have the right to participate in public affairs of their state of origin and to vote and to be elected at election of that state.? It therefore, seem to me that all Ghanaians need to be concerned with now for the sake of diasporan vote is; first, to call for resolving the contradiction between the Article 41 of the 1992 constitution and section

(7) PNDCL 284 through judicial review; and second the electoral commission must be resourced, financially, logistically and technically to incorporate voting by mail/postage into its operations to reach out to all Ghanaians in the diasporan who are interested in casting their vote in various election in the country. Those self-appointed diasporan spokespersons who claim to be speaking for all of us must know that they cannot pursue their self-interest under the guise of serving our interest.

Nobody is more Ghanaian than anybody, we are all Ghanaians and if any one wants to represent our interest on an issue at home, it is just proper and reasonable that we are consulted. In the midst of this confusion generated by the Bill, a faceless and nameless group of opportunistic dinosaurs have been moving around claiming to be making a case for those of us in the diaspora.

Diasporan Vote by Mail/Postage

There are two main categories of Ghanaians abroad. These include economic migrants and expatriates, whose purpose for living outside is for reasons ranging from economic remunerations, diplomatic service and military service to personal preference. These groups of diasporans usually intend to return to Ghana and maintain their citizenship and continue to pay taxes. The second category has to do with persons and their descendants who have permanently left Ghana and do not intend to return, they generally assume citizenship of their country of residence by either renouncing their Ghanaian citizenship or assuming dual nationality. It is doubtful if we have adequate records on all these groups, particularly the latter, to determine who still maintains or renounces their Ghanaian citizenship hence, in the event of diasporan vote; we may end up extending privileges to diasporans who actually do not deserve one.

In the view of this piece, once the legal inconsistency is ironed out, a well-meaning and serious diasporan community or individual will have the option to lobby the EC to speed up any intention to incorporate the process of voting by postal mail into its systems of operations. Voting by mail is the most used form of early or absentee voting. Following request by the voter, voting material will mailed to the voter's specified address by the electoral EC. The voter then completes the ballot and returns it, either by mail to the EC. Integrity checks would generally rest on the requirement for a statement of the voter's identity and eligibility to accompany the returned ballot material. Successful mail voting systems depend on an efficient mail delivery service and trustworthiness of the postal system in Ghana. This will require that any diasporan who intends to vote in Ghanaian elections would have to request voting paper from the EC either through email, phone call, or postage in a reasonable time ahead of the elections to allow for return of the vote so cast on or before general election day in the country. The EC can design special ballot paper with security features and serial numbers for the diasporan votes to track down on any fraud or attempts to print counterfeits of such papers by any political parties, its supporters or individuals who simply want to undermine the system.

The approach of voting by postage also ensures that the diasporan bears the cost associated with posting his/her vote to EC. This approach would demand that the EC is well resourced to carry out all the issues involved in diasporan registration, background checking, building a database for diasporan voters, as well as the security of the ballot system. The confidence in mail or voting by postage lies in the fact that the EC only opens all posted votes on election night in the presence of agents of all political parties contesting in an election. The biggest challenge to diasporan voting by postage/ mail is the problem of constituency delimitation in the case of parliament and district assembly elections, unless the law is made to ensure that diasporans are automatically situated within their place of birth or town of origin, this could be a great obstacle to overcome. This form of voting has be come the practice in some countries due to its secrecy and cost effectiveness. As a nation, we can adopt a similar system but with mechanism that response to the special needs of our country?s hopes and fears. This is only a humble submission and it is hoped that, this will be subjected to some critical thinking and non-partisan debate with the view to achieving the best for ourselves.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.