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Fiji gets the better of New Zealand voting system

In past Fijian elections, there have been several incidences of vote tampering, ballot box stacking and in one particular example, more votes cast than registered electors in a constituency.

Despite international observers in the past declaring elections free and fair it is obvious to all that Fiji’s past elections have been far from that.

I had an extensive interview with the Fiji Elections Office Supervisor Mohammed Saneem in Suva last week.

FEO is independent, just like New Zealand’s Electoral Commission. It is charged with overseeing the election and electoral law, which at present is by decree, but it is the law nonetheless.

I spent time understanding their voting processes and there are some quite innovative techniques they are utilising to combat voter fraud and vote rigging.

Voter Registration

The first step was a comprehensive voter education and registration process that has been running for two years. Registered voters have a Voter Id Card. This is not at all like the Easy Vote Card that is so easily rorted in New Zealand. The Fijian Voter Registration Card is a Photo ID, with biometric data (fingerprints) which require a match of at least eight points.

Fijian registered voters carry these cards everywhere. This is a significant advancement over our voter registration processes in New Zealand. I should know as I have just watched my 18-year-old son register to vote in New Zealand and our processes are farcical to say the least, compared to what Fiji has initiated.

Ballots Security

The next step in ensuring that votes are secure is the voting system. The voting booths are replicas of New Zealand voting booths. In fact, they have been supplied from New Zealand. This is a change from Fiji’s previous system for voting where a voter entered a secluded booth and cast their vote. No one could see them vote, or indeed see if anything was produced from pockets or shirts to assist in altering or damaging voting papers.

The system is very interesting. It prevents vote stacking. All the ballot boxes are transparent. Therefore, the first voter into a polling station to cast their vote will be able to see that their vote is indeed the first vote. Likewise all voters can see that the person before them has voted as the ballots, once sealed are placed in the transparent ballot box.

To further ensure vote stacking is prevented, voters are assigned an actual polling station to vote. No more than 500 voters are assigned to a polling station. If a village has 900 registered voters, there would be two polling stations established.

One will accept 500 voters, and the other 400 voters. You can only vote at the station you have been assigned to unless a special vote request is made before the election.

Counting Votes

Officials would count the votes on the election night and must tally with the total allowable votes. It is not possible for a voting station to record more than 500 votes. If they do, an investigation would begin immediately and all votes from that station would be sequestered pending investigations by the Police and the Fiji Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Once counted and the result notified to the FEO the ballots are sealed once again in the ballot boxes and sent to Suva.

They expect to be able to declare results at around 9 pm on election night. Previously elections have been conducted over seven days; Not anymore.

Parties’ behaviour

They have also established rules around the behaviour of political parties on election day, in order to prevent voter intimidation. A zone around each polling station (300 m) has been established. No party political colours, signs, hoardings or brandings are permitted within the 300 m boundary.

On top of that, political parties are forbidden on election day from displaying colours, ribbons or signage on vehicles nor are they permitted to officially provide transport to or from polling stations and the treating laws and penalties are also very severe.

The famous KFC activities of Labour in South Auckland would result in a FICAC investigation and prosecution. These are all sensible rules and regulations to ensure an intimidation free voting experience while maintaining transparency with the voting process from beginning to end.

Breaches addressed

The FEO administers the law, and if they discover breaches and what appears to be a prima facie breach of regulations, it would immediately refer the complaint to the FICAC, which is charged with investigating and if necessary prosecuting offenders.

Both the FEO and the FICAC are independent of government and act under their own set of laws. The Director of Public Prosecutions is not involved at all in these stages, though may become involved after FICAC has completed their investigations an laid charges.

This is in stark contrast to the situation we have in New Zealand where the Electoral Commission refers to the Police who then do absolutely nothing.

Already there are several investigations underway against individuals and political parties for breaching electoral rules. The FICAC is onto it.

Equality Mantra

That is the mantra of the FEO and from what I have seen the FEO is looking at ensuring that Fiji will have an election that is free and fair; certainly a vast improvement on previous elections.

There was a constant bustle of activity at the FEO headquarters, with elections officials heading out for training sessions, people registering to vote and a general positivity that what they are doing is making a difference.

I asked who else in the media from New Zealand has visited and asked similar questions. The answer was telling.

No one else.

The changes here are astonishing, and suffice to say that the impression from roaming Suva and interviewing anyone whom I please would suggest that Kiwis are being misled about the changes that Fiji has undertaken – misled to the point of actually being deliberate and politically motivated.

I have bothered to come here, I have bothered to understand the changes occurring in the country of my birth and I have to say I am proud of what I am witnessing.

Will Fiji’s elections be free and fair?

Yes they will be, indeed I think they will be freer and fairer than that of New Zealand.

Cameron Slater is an Auckland based journalist. His blog ‘Whale Oil Beef Hooked’ attracts thousands of visitors from across New Zealand and overseas. He was in Fiji recently to interview key people ahead of the general election scheduled to be held in that country on September 17, 2014.

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