Vanuatu Electoral Commission used innovative virtual engagement for nation-wide consultations on electoral reform
September 7, 2022
On 5th March 2022, Vanuatu’s central island - Efate, home of the central government and offshore islands entered level three lockdown as the first community transmissions of COVID-19 in Vanuatu were reported.
For Vanuatu’s Electoral Commission (EC), the timing could not have been worse. The EC had planned a nation-wide consultation tour with a team visiting each province to provide a truly nation-wide consultation, seeking opinions and winning support for a piece of new electoral sector legislation that seeks to strengthen the legal framework and propose to replace existing electoral laws with a single electoral act, which will regulate parliamentary, provincial government council and municipal council elections in a single harmonised law. Additionally, a number of innovations in the electoral process have been proposed in order to modernize the institutions and practices in Vanuatu.
Some segments were sure to be sensitive. So broad consultation – as is the time honored kastom of Vanuatu - was deemed absolutely essential to win both community support and political will to guide successful final drafting by the Attorney General’s Office of the Bill and passage through the November 2022 Parliament Sitting.
The proposed Bill, drafted to harmonise three pieces of electoral legislation is very complex. It was felt that a strong program of awareness and outreach should be undertaken on the potentially contentious and sensitive features of the Bill through a nation-wide consultation program to sensitise, inform and consult on the proposed electoral reform package features. The main initiatives and innovations include:
- Strengthening the independence of the Electoral Commission;
- Recognition of Provincial Electoral Officers;
- Electoral Lists;
- Campaign Financing Disclosure;
- Electoral Campaign & Code of Conduct;
- Single Ballot Paper;
- Special Measures for Internally Displaced Persons;
- Special Voting (remote Voting);
- Out of Country Voting;
- Electoral Petitions;
- Constituency Determination;
- Expanded Electoral Offences;
- Regulations for Electoral Procedures
- Special Temporary Measures for Women’s Voting
The potential loss of this critical final stage of broad consultation put at risk the past two years of significant drafting activity and sectoral consultation processes undertaken with the support of UNDP's Vanuatu Electoral Environment Project (VEEP). It was time to get creative.
The answer? A comprehensive nation-wide 'virtual' consultation
With the nation-wide lockdown announced and inter-province air and ship travel banned, the Electoral Office (EO) and the Vanuatu Electoral Office (VEO) with the support of the VEEP Project explored options to meet this critical challenge. Four Working Committees drawn from across the government and civil society had to continue their vital work to engage, inform and gain support. These are:
- The Electoral Reform Working Group established to review, harmonise and modernise all pertinent electoral legislation into one single Electoral Act and to establish an independent Electoral Commission, as originally imagined in the Constitution.
- The Civil Registration and Identity Management Working Group undertaking comprehensive civil registration reforms to replace the civil registration and vital statistics framework dating back 41 years to pre-Independence. Two new Acts were drafted and presented in Parliament in 2021, gazetted in January 2022 - the Civil Registration and Identity Management Act (Cap 27 2022) and the National Identity Card Act (Cap 28 2022);
- The Data Protection and Data Privacy Working Group developing policy and legislative protocols for protection of personal data, data privacy and harmful digital communication;
- The Voter Awareness Committee – made up of media groups, Transparency International (Vanuatu), disability groups, women and youth, Vanuatu Council of Churches, Malvatumauri and community-based NGOs working for electoral awareness and functioning like a 'sounding board' for targeted election public outreach, and transparency.
The decision was made to move part of these consultations online.
Nation-wide Program of Broadcasting of the Consultation for Electoral Reform
Tafea, Torba, Sanma, Penama, Malampa and Shefa Provincial Councils actively participated with often very lively debate and questioning by the combined participants who jointly numbered over 120.
The same link was shared with all Department of Local Authorities staff including Area Administrators (73 Area Councils) across the whole archipelago of Vanuatu, drawn from Chiefs, women, youths, churches and businesses. Potentially this would see 380 well-respected and engaged community representatives engaged in the discussion process. Face-to-face visits around Efate – more readily accessed within the Lockdown Bubble - would see a further 150 people participating in village-based community consultations.
The Honorable Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs, Ishmael Alatoi Kalsakau Maau'koro opened the presentation by explaining the principles and importance of electoral reform, cementing ownership of the legislation. The Hon. Maau'koro explained that legal frameworks for elections should constantly evolve and mature over time, and that is a common practice all around the world.
This segment was followed by Director General of the Ministry, Cherol Ala Ianna as well as the Chair (Electoral Commission), Principal Electoral Officer (VEO) Deputy Principal Electoral Officer and key Vanuatu Electoral Office (VEO) personnel presenting each areas of innovation in the new Bill. In this way, the virtual audience also met many of the staff of the Electoral Office themselves representing different perspectives - both male and female, younger and older.
Social Media was also utilised with the film and supporting documents such as a Frequently Asked Question’s Sheet, and an Electoral Reform Main Initiatives Summary uploaded to the Vanuatu Electoral Office website and Facebook.
In mid-May, Parliament sat to consider the Supplementary Budget for 2022 as well as a raft of legislation after the normal April timing was necessarily suspended by COVID-19 protocols. The Parliamentarians’ tablets were updated with a summary of the proposed electoral innovations, the current drafting instructions for the new Bill, the video and other supporting documents. A session has been offered to Parliament House for members to gather for a further briefing if they wish.
Challenges provide opportunities
The innovative approach pursued by the EC, supported by the VEEP Project, to answer the challenge of the nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown, gave rise to the opportunity for effective, informed, interactive and vigorous debate – with well over 600 participating in the process - thereby continuing to shape the draft Bill through the power of their voices and opinions – many, many birds with one stone.
Edward Kaltamat, EC Chair commented, “It was with great pride that I personally delivered the Drafting Instructions to the Attorney General’s Office on 27th June 2022, to be finalised as a Bill for the November 2022 Sitting of Parliament. These Drafting Instructions represent not merely the hard work of our Working Committees and the voices of our people who contributed in shaping the Instructions but continued to honor Vanuatu’s time honored custom and cultural processes of broad collaboration and consultation. However, unlike in the past where these discussions in our nasara – Vanuatu’s customary meeting places, we were able to use modern innovations to reach out and consult, hearing the voices of men, women, youth, the disadvantaged.”
The electoral reform presentation film may be viewed at: https://youtu.be/m_BoY6A-iCQ