St. Lucia is a parliamentary democracy modelled on the Westminster system. The head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, represented by a governor general, appointed by the Queen as her representative. The governor general exercises ceremonial functions, but residual powers, under the constitution, can be used at the governor general’s discretion. The actual power in St. Lucia lies with the prime minister and the cabinet, usually representing the majority party in parliament.
The bicameral parliament consists of a 17-member House of Assembly whose members are elected by universal adult suffrage for 5-year terms and an 11-member senate appointed by the governor general. The parliament may be dissolved by the governor general at any point during its 5-year term, either at the request of the prime minister – in order to take the nation into early elections – or at the governor general’s own discretion, if the house passes a vote of no-confidence in the government.
An election allows those eligible to vote (the electorate) to decide who should represent their views and interests. Elections are held at regular intervals to enable the population to change their representative if they no longer feel that the current post-holder best represents those views and interests. Fair and free elections are an essential part of a democracy, allowing citizens to determine how they want the country to be governed.
The House of Assembly (Elections) Act, 1979 divides Saint Lucia into 17 electoral districts for the purpose of general elections. Each electoral district constitutes one constituency and each constituency elects only one member to the Assembly.
Stages of the Electoral Process
- Each voter (also called an elector) receives a form shortly before an election in their constituency and this gives the location of their polling station.
- Each elector presents his/her identification card to officials at the polling station, who checks off the name of the voter against the electoral register and issue them with a ballot paper.
- Electors vote by putting a cross on the ballot form against the name of the candidate they want to represent them and then placing the ballot paper in a sealed box. (Any other mark or comment on the paper renders it invalid.)
- When polling closes, the ballot boxes are collected from each polling station in the constituency and taken to a central point. There the seals are checked before the boxes are opened and the votes for each candidate are counted.
- When the counting finishes, the results of voting in that constituency are announced by the returning officer, who declares the winner of the election.
How General Elections Work in Saint Lucia
A general election is held when Parliament is dissolved by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. General elections must be held every five years at least.
Saint Lucia is divided into 17 electoral districts or constituencies. Voters in each constituency elect one Member of Parliament (MP) to send to the House of Assembly on the first past-the-post system.
A political party is a group of people who seek to influence or form the government according to their agreed views and principles. There are a number of political parties in Saint Lucia. Each party nominates one candidate for each constituency. Independent candidates may also stand for elections.
The party that wins the most constituencies is asked by the Governor General to form the government. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister. If the party wins in nine or more constituencies, it will have a majority government, which makes it much easier to get legislation passed in the House. If the winning party has fewer than nine seats, it forms a minority government. In order to get legislation through the House, a minority government usually has to adjust policies to get enough votes from MPs of other parties.
The party that has the second highest number of seats in the House of Assembly is called the Official Opposition.
Any citizen of Saint Lucia who is 21 years of age or older and resident in Saint Lucia is eligible for election to the House of Assembly.
In Saint Lucia, the Prime Minister may call general elections at any time, though no more than five years may lapse from one general election to the next. All seats in the House of Assembly are vacant and the political party that wins the most seats in the subsequent general election form the government. Aside from general elections, for which all seats are open, by-elections are held when a Member of Parliament dies or resigns.
The Prime Minister’s power of discretion adds an element of spontaneity to the electoral process that does not exist in systems where voting dates are fixed on the calendar. Prime ministers generally ask the head of state to dissolve Parliament when they think their party has the best chance of winning a general election.
Other factors may force an election on a Prime Minister. It is a convention (established practice) that if a government is defeated in the House of Assembly on a vote of confidence, then a general election will follow.
On the Governor-General issuing a writ, the Chief Elections Officer gives notice of the day and place fixed for the nomination of candidates, by publication in the Gazette and one or more local newspapers at least seven days before the day fixed for such nomination.
Subject to the provisions of section 26 of this Constitution, a person shall be qualified to be elected as a representative if, and shall not be so qualified unless, he-
- is a Commonwealth citizen of the age of twenty-one years or upwards
- has resided in Saint Lucia for a period of twelve months immediately before the date of his nominations for election or is domiciled and resident in Saint Lucia at that date: and
- is able to speak and, unless incapacitated by blindness or the physical cause, to read the English language with a degree of proficiency sufficient to enable him to take an active part in the proceedings of the House.
Anyone who wishes to stand for election must be nominated on an official nomination paper submitted on Nomination Day. They must stand either for an established political party or as an independent. All candidates must pay a deposit which is lost if they do not secure a specified number of votes.
Once the Prime Minister decides to call a general election then he or she will go to see the Governor General to request that Parliament is dissolved. If the Governor General agrees (there would have to be very strong constitutional reasons why he/she would refuse) then a Proclamation is issued in accordance with the Constitution of Saint Lucia which officially allows the dissolution (bringing to an end) of the Parliament. It is customary for the Prime Minister to make a statement announcing the date of the dissolution and usually the reason for calling a general election.
How long is an election campaign?
The formal campaign is a relatively short-lived affair: the Prime Minister must give a minimum of three weeks and a maximum of six weeks’ notice for a general election. In practice, informal campaigning tends to start much earlier.
What happens once Parliament has been dissolved?
Once Parliament has been formally dissolved, the Clerk of Parliament issues Writs of Election for each constituency and the election timetable commences.
During the election campaign all the main political parties produce a wide range of publicity material. Manifestos will be published setting out the party’s policies on each major issue. The headquarters of each party is responsible for preparing party election advertising material and broadcasts for television and radio.
Who can vote in a general election?
All St. Lucian citizens who have reached the age of eighteen are entitled to vote, as are Commonwealth citizens who have resided in St. Lucia at least seven years immediately preceding the qualifying date. Electors must have resided continuously in the electoral district where they are to vote for at least two months preceding the qualifying date. Members of the police force cast their ballots a few days before the general election, to allow them to work through Election Day to secure polling sites.
Election Authority and Election Officials
The St. Lucia Electoral Commission is responsible for running the island’s elections; it employs and deploys election officials. Each polling station is manned by a presiding officer and a poll clerk, who report to the Returning Officer for that constituency. Returning Officers are in turn responsible to the Chief Elections Officer.
Preparing for the Poll
It is of paramount importance that the planning and preparation for the poll be done with the utmost care. The political parties are kept up to date with the different stages in planning and preparation.
Fifteen days special registration is conducted immediately following the issuing of writs for election. During this period Registering Officers attend daily at Registering Centres during which time transfer of electors from one constituency to another also takes place.
Returning Officers and their assistants are appointed and they assist in the selection of Presiding Officers and Poll Clerks who are appointed by the Supervisor of Elections.
Ballots are printed after the nomination of candidates who must deposit $250 which they are refunded if they gain not less than one-eighth of the votes cast.
At this stage, all election officials are trained by senior staff at the Electoral Office. They are trained in the use of the different forms and in particular how the poll is to be conducted.
A final list of electors must be available at least four days before polling day.
Polling Stations are carefully selected and equipped to ensure their smooth functioning and the secrecy-of the poll.
On Election Day, Saint Lucians vote not for a Prime Minister, but for candidates running in each of the 15 single-seat constituencies throughout Saint Lucia. A party needs to win 8 constituencies to command a majority in the House of Assembly, which allows it to choose a Prime Minister, formally appointed by the Governor General. Once selected, the prime minister begins the task of forming a government.
Each constituency is divided into a number of polling districts, each of which has a polling station. Most polling stations are in public buildings such as schools and churches, but other buildings can be used on request. Polls open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 6:00 p.m
Voting is by secret ballot, and the only people allowed in the polling station are the presiding officer (who is in charge), the polling clerks, the duty police officers, the candidates, their election agents and polling agents and the voters. Just before the poll opens, the presiding officer shows the ballot boxes to those at the polling station to prove that they are empty. The boxes are then locked and sealed.
Each elector, on entering the polling station, declares his or her name, which the poll clerk checks against the official list of electors for that station. If it appears, the poll clerk calls out the name, address, occupation, and number of the elector as stated in the official list. The presiding officer then requires the elector’s identity card or other acceptable form of identification (these include passport or driver’s license). If the elector produces satisfactory identification, the poll clerk enters his or her name, address, and occupation in the poll book. The presiding officer checks the elector’s hand and, if satisfied that he or she has not already voted, requires him or her to immerse the right index finger in the electoral ink. The presiding officer then issues a ballot, instructing the elector impartially on how to vote and how to fold the paper such that their vote remains secret and the presiding officer’s initials can be seen. Having made his or her mark in the voting booth against the name of a candidate, the elector shows the presiding officer the initials on the folded ballot paper and casts it into the ballot box. The poll clerk records “voted” against the name of each elector who has done so.
Those physically incapacitated may direct the presiding officer, in the presence of the poll clerk and party agents, to cast their vote according to their instructions. Blind voters may, alternatively, be assisted by a chosen friend, but no person can act in this capacity for more than one blind voter.
A paper that is spoiled by mistake must be returned to the presiding officer. If the Presiding Officer is satisfied that the soiling was accidental, another paper is provided and the first is cancelled. At the end of the voting the Presiding Officer delivers those spoilt papers to the Returning Officer. The ballot boxes are then sealed and delivered to the central point – the Counting Station, where the count is to take place.
Much emphasis is placed on secrecy at the polls. Every Officer, Clerk, and Agent at the Polling Station must maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of the voting and they may not disclose before the poll is closed to anyone outside the Station what has transpired during polling.
All unauthorized persons are prohibited from entering the precincts of the Polling Station and they may not congregate within one hundred feet. A special feature of the day is the banning of sale of all intoxicating liquors.
Counting the Ballots
At the close of the poll, in the presence of the poll clerk and the candidates or their agents, the presiding officer counts the number of voters whose names appear in the poll book as having voted, counts the spoiled ballot papers (if any) and the unused ballot papers and checks this total against the number of ballots supplied by the returning officer, to ascertain that all ballot papers are accounted for. He or she then opens the ballot box and counts the votes for each candidate, giving full opportunity to those present to examine each ballot paper, and finally displaying the empty box. The poll clerk and not less than two witnesses are supplied with tally sheets on which to keep their own tabulation. The presiding officer rejects any ballots that have not been supplied by him; that have not been marked for a candidate or are marked for more than one candidate; or are marked such that the voter can be identified. The presiding officer records on a form in the poll book any objections made by the candidates or their agents to a ballot paper and decides on any question arising from such an objection; this decision is subject to possible reversal by the returning officer or on petition questioning the election or return.
The presiding officer lists the votes given to each candidate and the rejected ballots, putting each into different envelopes, which are signed and sealed. Immediately after the completion of the count, the presiding officer and poll clerk take an oath that the poll book contains a true and exact record of the vote at the polling station and that they have faithfully performed their duties under law. They then make several copies of the Statement of Poll: one is attached to the poll book, one is retained by the presiding officer, and one is given to the returning officer in a sealed envelope. Finally, the election officials and no more than one agent for each candidate accompany the sealed ballot box and other election materials to the Returning Office. Results are regarded as preliminary until the morning of the day succeeding the election, when returning officers perform a final count and publicly declare the winning candidates.
If the result is close then either candidate can demand a recount. The Returning Officer will advise the candidates of the figures and sanction a recount. Recounts can continue until both candidates and the Returning Officer are satisfied with the result.
An election petition may be filed with the High Court by:
(a) a person who voted or had a right to vote at the election to which the petition relates;
(b) a person claiming to have had a right to be returned at such election;
(c) a person alleging himself to have been a candidate at such election.
The petition shall be presented within twenty one days after the return made by the Returning Officer.
At the time of the presentation of the petition or within three days afterwards, security for the payment of all costs, charges and expenses that may become payable is made.
At the conclusion of the trial, the judge shall determine if the candidate declared the winner is confirmed or it may order that a new election be held.
After the Results
When all of the results are known the Governor General will usually invite the leader of the party winning the most seats in the House of Assembly to be Prime Minister and to form a Government.
The Prime Minister will appoint several members of his party for both Houses to become members of the Cabinet.
The Cabinet consists of the Prime Minister and not fewer than five other Ministers. Ministers are appointed by the Governor General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, from among the members of the two Houses. The Governor General, with the advice of the Prime Minister, may also appoint Parliamentary Secretaries to assist Ministers in the discharge or their functions.
The party that wins the second-largest number of seats in Parliament comprises the opposition, which forms a “shadow” cabinet poised to assume power at any time during the ruling government’s five-year term.
The Governor-General appoints as Leader of the Opposition the person who, in his/her judgment, is best able to command the support of a majority of those members of the House who do not support the Government.
The New Parliament
A few days after the general election the House of Assembly will assemble in preparation for the new Parliament to begin. All MPs must be sworn in by taking an oath of allegiance or making an affirmation, and must sign the official register. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker are customarily selected by a vote of the sitting members of parliament.
A by-election takes place when a seat in the House of Assembly becomes vacant between general elections. If there are several vacant seats then a number of by-elections can take place on the same day.
Reasons for by-elections
A seat becomes vacant during the lifetime of a Parliament either when an MP resigns from Parliament, for example to take up a job which by law cannot be done by an MP, or because an MP has died. The law also allows a seat to be declared vacant because of a Member’s bankruptcy, mental illness, or conviction for a serious criminal offence.
A by-election does not automatically take place if an MP changes political party.
Source: Caribbean Elections