Voter education should address postal ballot registration issues : ECB

A 19-year-old student, Durga Katel from Gelephu gewog came twice to the polling station on April 20 enquiring why she could not vote.

The electoral roll reflected the private school student had registered for the postal ballot facilitation booth facility. She claimed that she had not voted in the school.

She was not the only one to have missed the opportunity to exercise their franchise during the poll day of the third National Council elections.

The presiding officer at the Food Corporation of Bhutan depot at Gakiling gewog, Sarpang had to return four voters from the polling station as they had registered for the postal ballot facilitation booth facility.

In a similar incident, a high profile official in Thimphu had come to the polling station but he could not vote. His wife had registered him as a postal ballot voter.

Similarly, more than 40 voters from Paro, Wangdue, Thimphu, Sarpang, Haa, Punakha, Chukha, Dagana, and Zhemgang could not vote as they were registered either for postal ballot facilitation booth or the conventional postal ballot facility.

Some voters said they were away or on tour so they could not send the ballots. They thought they could still vote on the electronic voting machine at the polling station.

Head of Election Department, Sonam Tobgyal, said the Election Commission of Bhutan does not know the voters individually to include them in the list and that someone must have registered them as postal ballot voters. “It could be their family member or office colleagues,” he said.

He said ECB is mindful while listing individuals for the postal ballot facility, as the facility is not provided to everyone.

He also said ECB notifies individuals to check the draft electoral roll and gives 10 days to make claims and objections to their voting status. “In that period, people can check if they are in the right voter list and inform us if they need to make changes.”

Sonam Tobgyal said voter education is the only measure they could take to make people aware of such facility, as no one seems to check their voting status.

Meanwhile, a day after the National Council poll day, an anonymous account user posted on social media site, Facebook, alleging Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay of going to Haa to vote despite availing the postal ballot facility.

The person claimed that many people had to return home on poll day after they were listed on postal ballot facility and questioned if the ECB allowed the Prime Minister to avail the EVM facility because of his position.

Sonam Tobgyal said Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay applied to avail conventional postal ballot facility but he wrote to the returning officer (RO) in Haa, requesting for reissuance of postal ballot on April 11.

He said Lyonchhen reasoned that his personal secretary sent the ballot without him ticking the ballot B form. “The RO directed the issue to ECB and the commissioners decided that PM could go to Haa and vote on the EVM on poll day.”

Sonam Tobgyal said Lyonchhen’s postal ballot was cancelled on April 19 during the postal ballot ‘A’ opening time after the RO informed the candidates and their representatives about the ECB’s decision to allow Prime Minister to vote on poll day.

He said ECB’s decision to allow the PM to vote on the poll day was in accordance to the precedence set in 2008 where a woman from Lhuentse who works with the tourism industry applied for postal ballot but went to vote on EVM. “ECB then considered her case genuine and allowed her to vote. We followed the same with the Prime Minister as a genuine case and not because of his portfolio.”

He said it was also in line with the election rules and regulations.

On the postal ballot issue, Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay declined to comment and asked Kuensel to contact Election Commission of Bhutan.

Chief Election Commissioner Chogyal Dago Rigdzin said that it was put up to Commission by the returning officer with proper documentation much before poll day.

“It is not a case of double issuance of ballot to a voter, it was permissible as per electoral laws or notification,” the chief election commissioner said.

The Opposition Leader (OL) Pema Gyamtsho’s (PhD) had also made a similar request to the ECB on April 7 but said that he was denied the same treatment.

OL’s office assistant Sangay Wangmo had called a postal ballot focal person, Sonam Wangmo and asked if the OL could change from voting at the facilitation booth in Motithang to either postal ballot or voting in person.

He had to travel outside on the designated dates of April 12-14.

“She called me later and said that it was not permitted,” Sangay Wangmo said.

The OL wrote on Facebook that the ECB needs to clarify on whether the prime minister was exempted from following their rules, if PM’s personal assistant could fill in and post his ballot without his knowledge or whether he could even authorise his PA to do so.

“How did the PM even know that his ballot was not filed properly? If this same information is available to everyone and if in lieu of the mistake, one can go and vote in person, then why all the fuss about declaring invalid postal ballots?” he said.

ECB’s spokesperson Sonam Tobgyal said that the commission was not informed of such a request from the OL. “We’re not aware of this,” he said.

He said that the postal ballot officials have not raised the issue with the commission, and there was nothing in written. The PM’s request to the ECB had come in writing. “If there was anything then we would have discussed,” he said.

Tashi Dema and Tshering Palden

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