House Suspends Debate on Election Bills


The House of Representatives yesterday (June 26), suspended the debate on amendments to three Bills, recommended by the Electoral Commission to rid the electoral system of open voting.
Leader of Government Business in the House, Dr. Peter Phillips, called for the postponement after members of the Lower House disagreed over amendment by the Senate to the Bills, changing a provision for mandatory sentencing of persons who intentionally display their ballots, to a discretionary ruling by the Courts.
The Senate on Friday (June 15), proposed an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 2007, to remove the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence for breach of Clause 4, with the punishment instead, to be left to the discretion of a judge.
The three Bills that are being examined are the Representation of the People Act, The Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation Act and the Parish Council Act.
Dr. Phillips, who opened the debate, read a letter from the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Professor Errol Miller, which stated that, “we resolutely disagree with the action taken by the Senate and would respectfully ask the House of Representatives to abide by its original action.”
Agreeing with the Electoral Commission that it is the convention of Parliament not to amend legislation arising from Reports submitted by the Commission, Dr. Phillips said that “on only one occasion in the 28 years of the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC)/Electoral Commission, has Parliament ever interferred with their recommendations.”
However, Member of Parliament, K.D. Knight opposed the position taken by the Commission, stating that the Houses of Parliament should not be bound by any convention.
“It is not a matter that you are setting a precedence that Parliament will disagree and move away from recommendations. Each must be looked at on its own merit, lest Parliament itself be embarrassed and fall into error,” he said.
He suggested that a Joint Select Committee of Parliament be established to deal with the amendments.The Lower House passed the three Bills without amendment on May 29. However, the Senate broke tradition when it amended the Bills, removing the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence for breach of Clause 4, with the punishment instead, to be left to the discretion of a judge.
Following is the text of the letter from the Electoral Commission of Jamaica: “The Electoral Commission of Jamaica has no disagreement in principle with the objection of the Senate and others to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for offences under the Representation of the People Act and other legislation dealing with elections.”
“In dealing with voting openly, the Electoral Commission treated with this matter consistent with all similar offences in the Representation of the People Act, which prescribes penalties in the exact manner for all offences. To treat voting openly differently would introduce inconsistency in the Act with offences that may be regarded as, or are, very similar.”
“The Electoral Commission sought to avoid a piecemeal approach to the matter of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines within the Act. It is necessary to repeat, the Electoral Commission sought to avoid recommending a penalty for the offence of voting openly that is different from other similar offences under the Act for which mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are currently prescribed.”
“It does not appear that the Senate and others objecting to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for voting openly have taken the legislation as a whole into account.”
“More fundamentally, it is our considered opinion and firm conviction that the convention that the Houses of Parliament will not amend legislation arising from Reports submitted by the Electoral Commission should continue to be observed. For that reason we fully support the advice that you gave to the House of Representatives, and upon which it acted, in passing the Bill. We resolutely disagree with the action taken by the Senate and would respectfully ask the House of Representatives to abide by its original action.”

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