Any election in Vanuatu, an archipelago island nation in the South Pacific, is a logistical challenge for the electoral commission. This is a country with a population of 265,000 spread across more than 60 islands, some of which are a thousand kilometres apart.
The Vanuatu Electoral Office, which has a permanent staff of just seven, is today preparing for provincial polls next month. What makes this year's election different is that the commission has been aided by Michael Clancy, an electoral expert deployed by the Commonwealth Secretariat.
— The Commonwealth (@commonwealthsec) February 15, 2017
According to Mr Clancy, Vanuatu’s young democracy shares many similarities with other Commonwealth countries in the Pacific, but there are a few unique characteristics when it comes to election day.
“Voters are given a pad with small pages in it, and each page has the photo and name of the candidate,” he says. “The voter removes the page with the candidate they wish to vote for and seals it in an envelope, and places the envelope in the ballot box.”
As part of his assignment, Mr Clancy worked with officials to strengthen operational plans for the 23 March poll, provide training for staff and develop an elections procedures manual. He also helped to offer advice in the event of a future national referendum on political and constitutional reforms.
A major part of his work was the refining and testing a new electronic system of registering eligible voters. This was one of the key recommendations of Commonwealth election observers following the January 2016 general elections.
Former Prime Minister of The Bahamas, Hubert Ingraham, who led the Commonwealth Observer Group, had urged the electoral office to undertake a “continuous voter’s registration process, develop an electronic and alphabetical register, provide for photographic voter identification, and remove deceased persons from the register”.
“The existing register had many duplicate entries due to people moving from one province to another and re-reregistering,” explains Mr Clancy. This weakness, which was identified by the electoral office, had meant up to 50,000 additional ineligible names, including deceased persons, had been wrongly registered during previous elections.
He says he is confident that the changes will help to instil greater confidence in the integrity of the democratic process. “The voters in Vanuatu have great trust in the work of the VEO but this could be eroded if systems and procedures are not continually evaluated and improved.
“The job is very satisfying because I am able to bring my electoral experience of working in many different countries to assist in developing plans and procedures. The staff of the Vanuatu Electoral Office and the people of Vanuatu are very welcoming and great to work with,” he adds.
According to Father Charles Vatu, Vanuatu's Principal Elections Officer, the Commonwealth's assistance has helped the electoral commission "to become more proactive and efficient.”
“Having someone like Michael with extensive experience in electoral process is very beneficial to the Vanuatu Electoral Office now and in the future. Vanuatu is a young country that is still developing its democracy. With the help from the Commonwealth and others we will see Vanuatu’s democracy become stronger and stable.”
Albert Mariner, Head of Caribbean and Pacific at the Commonwealth Secretariat, says the project forms part of the organisation's broader engagement to strengthen electoral processes and institutions in the Pacific.
The Commonwealth has been supporting Vanuatu to strengthen its democracy since it first deployed observers to the country in 2004, and has provided technical support to governments since 2010 to build political stability, he says.
“We are glad to support the efforts of the Vanuatu Electoral Office to strengthen the credibility and inclusiveness of elections and ensure eligible citizens of Vanuatu can exercise their franchise and have confidence in the electoral process,” Mr Mariner says.
This project has been delivered through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation. Through the fund, which was first established in 1971, the Commonwealth Secretariat dispatches short and long-term experts to member countries in support of local development and democracy-building initiatives.