COMMENTARY: Dominica’s electoral reform survey: a fundamentally flawed exercise

The opinion of the people is a crucial commodity. It is the main ingredient used by leaders, across the board, to effectively lead the people. In other words, one must know what the people want in order to manage how to give them what they do not want. Political-electoral opinion surveys are therefore major operations which should not be treated lightly.

The public’s opinion can be framed and/or constructed by controllers of the system. If an authority is resourceful enough, and has controlling power over the media and other institutions of influence, that authority can have the people react/respond in a manner which suits the agenda of the authority. This is how autocrats and leaders of that ilk behave. With adequate political knowledge, however, the people – especially in a democracy – can rival the fanciful ambitions of any authority.

In his address to the Opening of the First Meeting of the Third Session of the Seventh Parliament on Wednesday, 18th July 2007, His Excellency Dr. Nicholas L. O. Liverpool, D.A.H. declared that there “seems to be a serious lack of knowledge and understanding of the electoral process,” and called on the electoral commission to carry out “programmes of education and information to promote public awareness of the democratic process.” The situation has not improved. In fact, it has deteriorated.

Instead of educating the people about the rights, duties and responsibilities within a constitutional democracy, and the benefits of a reformed electoral system to the nation, the authorities are presenting the people with an online survey on electoral reform which, in my opinion, is doomed to yield inaccurate results. It is my view that the decision to rely on an online survey for Dominica’s electoral reform opinion is wholly inadequate, professionally ill-advised, and fundamentally flawed.

I have taken the survey (twice and can take it several times again), and there are two major issues with the process: the residency matter and the potential for abuse.

  1. Voting is a residency matter, first and foremost, so if one wishes to get the opinion of the voters, she/he should design the best method which would yield the most accurate results. A purely online method is the least reliable method, especially since several Dominicans reside in areas where fixed broadband internet services are not readily available. Now, one may argue that mobile services are generally available, which is true, but how many Dominicans are able to, or might be willing to use their data to conduct a poll? The people simply do not have the resources, and I am afraid that only one set of people could be the ones providing the feedback, and they may not necessarily be Dominicans. The point I wish to make is that the results of the survey will not be representative of the most crucial demographic – the Dominican citizens who reside on island.

The current facts, as relates to internet services and access, support my claim. Since the passage of tropical storm Erika and hurricane Maria in 2015 and 2017 respectively, telecommunications companies have had to rebuild their entire network, almost from scratch. Today, we are still not at pre-2015 levels, in terms of people on the broadband networks. I know that to be the case. In fact, I can say, with a great degree of certainty, that less than 50% (much less in certain areas) of the houses that are now internet-ready, have signed up for broadband internet. There are also areas where broadband service is not completely available: Newtown, Kingshill, Loubiere, parts of St, Joseph, parts of Mero, parts of Marigot, parts of Penville (and probably even Vielle Case, Fond St. Jean, Bagatelle), and other areas – too numerous to mention – are not completely served with broadband. As I earlier stated, even in areas which are broadband ready, the sign-up reflects the reality of the times – people do not have enough money to afford internet which is a basic and very vital resource at present. Financial capacity determines participation in this particular situation, and if the people cannot access the means to participate, they won’t participate and this is unfair.

  1. The second and probably most serious matter is the possibilities which exist for widespread abuse, because of the unbridled coverage area of the online survey. If we believe that the Dominican list of 71,000 voters in a country with a smaller population is problematic, try the entire global population offering its opinion on Dominica’s electoral reform – because they can. It is Dominicans who should provide opinions on what we want, and since voting is a residency matter – as has been established – it is those Dominicans who reside on island and others, who, by law, are legitimate electors, who should respond to the survey. But this survey is flawed on arrival. The method does not adequately address the endless possibilities for abuse, because any and everyone who wishes can access the survey, and offer opinions, can do so, and this will not represent the correct views of the people.

The survey is not only flawed, but erroneously unfair in terms of its basic construction. Promoters of the survey declare that “the Electoral Reform Survey is intended to measure the level of satisfaction and opinions of all stakeholders in the electoral process on matters related to electoral process and reform in Dominica.” It was further declared that “all responses will be anonymous, with no identifiers for participation, and will be used for the sole purpose of this data collection exercise.” By their very own admission, the organizers and promoters of the survey are suggesting that the exercise is to be undertaken by Dominicans, especially Dominicans at home – because, after all, it is residents who should and can provide answers to the various questions on the survey. For instance, the question: region/residential location confirms this assertion. Does it, really?

Who is better equipped to address the following questions: Are you satisfied with the current electoral process; the fairness of the electoral process; the confidentiality of the ballot process; the procedures for counting ballots; the process for verifying votes; the process for issuing of the ballot paper; staffing to support the electoral process; monitoring of the electoral process; observers at polling stations etc? These questions taken directly from the survey should be answered by the people of Dominica. The poll’s questionnaire does not support its method of execution. If this survey was done as a face-to-face exercise, I am confident that the results would better represent the views of the people, but as it now stands, many non-Dominicans and others – including Dominicans – with high partisan stake in the process can easily manipulate the results.

I have personally put the system to the test to expose the flawed nature of the method. Based on my observation, a Dominican, or any other citizen, can take the poll multiple times while some won’t have the privilege of taking the survey even once. I have presented factual cases to support this, by presenting non-Dominicans, who have taken the online survey to show how blatantly erroneous the exercise is. Those with most to lose, if the wishes of the people were to be fairly expressed, can use covert means to abuse this vulnerable online method of the electoral reform survey. For instance, one could arrange to have 3000 people respond 10 times each – offering whatever opinion they wish to record. This adds up to 30,000 instances or inconsistencies. The purported abuse of the current bloated Dominican electoral list will pale in completion to the colossal abuse which ‘shall’ occur from this online survey which is borderless and limitless.

Because the survey is ‘anonymous, with no identifiers for participation,’ as every survey should, and with the ability for the same person to take the survey over and over and over again – based on my experience, serious questions of efficacy and confidence interval should be raised. I mean, how could one respondent be able to provide multiple answers to the same question? Am I the only one seeing the problem with this? Academic prudence hinders me from further elaboration on the frailty of the online survey. I remain optimistic. I believe in the professional applications, qualified skills, the rule of law, systems of state, and the ability of the people to take matters into their own hands. It is my view that the entire reform process needs to be reformed.

I suggest that the election authorities commission a real survey; one that will measure what the people truly wish. There is also the possibility of mail-in samples, where each and every voter will receive a questionnaire mail at his or her address. After all, there are well under 70 thousand voters residing on island, so this cannot be too much of a daunting task. It would be best if this ongoing exercise be abandoned, completely, and a polling agency is retained to measure the opinions of Dominicans. There, of course, could be an on-line component of the fact-finding mission, but the nature of the questionnaire should be different and the method should allow for control variables that would address sampling errors and other ambiguities, and eliminate possibilities of abuse. One certainly cannot have all and sundry offer ideas – multiple times – on the Dominican vote. Since the vote is an innately sovereign citizenship practice, we should treat it accordingly. If the results of this online survey are accepted, the integrity of the entire reform process, which is already in question, could suffer a massive blow.

One thing we should probably not do is to disregard this survey. The Dominican public would be tricked if we, as some have routinely done, were to treat this survey as useless, because it is not. The people behind the idea spent time and resources to create what they think would work best for the majority stakeholders – not Dominica. I have taken the survey and will probably take it again; you should do the same. There is no cap on the number of people who can take the survey, and the number of times it can be taken, so let us overwhelm the process with responses. After all, the authority owes it to the people to let us know how many Dominicans took the survey.

Let me end with this. Reform should not be a tool used for partisan advantage. Instead, electoral reform is meant to safeguard the integrity of the vote. The vote is one of democracy’s most important variable – probable even the independent variable. Electoral reform should reflect the people’s desire with no innuendo and/or partisan shortcuts. The independence of the Electoral Commission within the Dominican Constitution should be equipped to push back against partisan pressure on either side. Let us fix our electoral system in the interest of the future of our nation.

May the good spirits of the champions of the people’s struggles be with us at this crucial juncture.