Opinion by Crosbie Walsh
Pre-Polling is causing problems that seem to be due to the tight schedule and the late announcement of pre-polling stations, situations that could have been avoided had the Electoral Decree and Constitution set more realistic targets that allowed for electoral processes to take longer than expected. The legislation apparently made no allowance for exigencies such as the need for the Electoral Office to visit some of the 500-odd prospective polling venues, or for their need to be in Court answering appeals and objections to the candidate list, both of which were very time consuming activities.
Overall, the Electoral Office and the Electoral Commission have done remarkably good jobs. It is only in the short one week time frame, between the announcement of pre-poll venues and the start of pre-polling, that the the Electoral Office has fallen short. Given the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that a much longer period was needed.
Some of Government's opponents have accused Government and the Electoral Office of leading people to believe that all voting would be done on one day. It is true that one day voting was frequently mentioned, but the three modes of voting —pre-poll, postal and the September 17th one day poll— were publicized by the Electoral Office weeks ago. It appeared in the media, on TV and the radio. If some people still thought that all voting would take place on September 17th, the fault lies less with the Electoral Office than the political parties and the media for not informing them otherwise.
Whatever the cause, Fiji has to live with the outcome. Political parties will not have been able to canvass in several pre-polling areas, most particularly in the islands of the Lau Group where pre-polling has already commenced and where only one day is available for voting. Similarly, people registered to pre-poll in these areas who are not there will have missed the opportunity to vote.
I asked an informant what measures are now being taken by the Electoral Office to inform people of the day they are to pre-poll (or days, for some venues are open for more than one day). He told me radio stations are being used to make the announcements, turaga ni koro have been informed, and DOS offices and the local churches are being asked to inform people in these areas. At the pre-polling venues, it is also likely Electoral Office personnel will be active in informing people.
Another informant (and this I find hard to believe) told me that some candidates did not know that some voters could pre-poll:
" 'What *@!!##* is pre-poling???" quoth he, with much exasperation (as were we all). All I could suggest is that in most overseas countries, pre-poling usually refers to absentee voting and I urged him to ask his party's leadership what on earth it meant."
To summarise, the Electoral Office should have announced pre-polling venues much earlier. The late announcement has penalised all political parties who have been unable to canvass, and some pre-voters will not be able to vote. The Electoral Office is now making every effort to inform people in pre-polling areas of the day, or days, on which they should vote, and with 12 pre-polling days left, most people will have been told in time. But some candidates, and possibly some parties, did not know anything about pre-polling, and they should have known. Even with venues unannounced, they could have canvassed in likely venues such as the main islands in the northern Lau Group.
I'm sure those opposed to Government and FijiFirst will say the pre-polling fiaso is a deliberate act to confuse. I don't so. A sufficient explanation is found in people working under stress within a short timeframe.
We will not know how many voters will ultimately have been affected until election day, September 17th, when the pre-poll votes will be counted. But with somewhere between 50 and 66,000 registered pre-voters, it could be a substantial number. And to this extent the 2014 Election has not got off to a good start.