Wed | Sep 23, 2020

Coronavirus could threaten voting rights

Published:Sunday | August 9, 2020 | 12:00 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry.

Given the current upward movement in the number of cases of the coronavirus locally, there are concerns that some Jamaicans – possibly entire communities – could be under government health quarantine orders, restricting their movement and their right to vote should elections be called in the midst of the pandemic.

More than 25,000 persons are said to be currently in quarantine islandwide, with nearly 1,000 positive cases recorded in the island and 13 deaths up to Friday.

Political historian Arnold Bertram said the issue of restricting the voting rights of Jamaicans under quarantine or in isolation for testing positive must be thoroughly explored as the country prepares for a general election.

“Look, there will be no more right time to call elections, given the situation we have with the coronavirus. These are the corona elections and from now on, everything is going to be held with COVID here. So the question is: what are we going to do about those persons who are positive, isolated or in quarantine? Do they not have a right to vote should they choose to exercise it?” Bertram said in a Sunday Gleaner interview last week.

Weighing in on the matter, Queen’s Counsel Michael Hylton said that if the starting premise is that all rights can be restricted, and for good reason, it was reasonable to assume that a COVID-19-positive person would not be allowed to vote.

“If somebody has COVID, I think there is no question that the Government could prevent them from going to a polling station and therefore deprive them of their right to vote,” he said last Friday.

Noting that many persons, such as those incarcerated and those in mental institutions, were unable to vote, Hylton said that the question to be asked is one of justification.

“The question will be: Does preventing the person from voting to protect others’ health, is it justifiable and is that the least damaging solution and, therefore, should you make alternative arrangements where they can vote safely?” he told The Sunday Gleaner. “It’s a very contagious virus, but the medical evidence is that there are precautions that can be taken to prevent transmission.”

Special arrangements

Public Defender Arlene Harrison Henry said the right to vote was fundamental and all efforts must be taken to preserve it, despite the uncharted COVID-19 waters.

“It is a troubling situation where elections are to be held but communities are under lockdown, and individuals not being allowed the right to vote. Given the nature of the transmission of the virus, then I believe special arrangements would have to be made for communities placed under lockdown,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

Hylton said a legal challenge could be mounted since the election is not constitutionally due until next year, but this would not necessarily come from individuals with the virus but human-rights groups.

However, he believes it would be unreasonable to expect the electoral officials to be asked to visit persons in quarantine so they can exercise their right to vote.

“I think a court would say, ‘It is unfortunate that 100 or 200 persons lost their right to vote, but it was justifiable’,” he argued.

Harrison Henry agrees that there is the potential for a legal challenge.

“It becomes even more critical if lockdowns are in communities and parts of constituencies that are closely contested and an area or a group of persons are denied that right. And so I agree with the argument that legal challenges can be mounted, because the elections are not constitutionally due until next year,” she argued.

Director of Elections Glasspole Brown said the conditions outlined by Hylton are the stated reasons that could prevent one from voting.

“No individual can be denied the right to vote, except under the conditions stated. So if the need arises, ways would have to be found to deal with the situation that presents. But I don’t know that you can take away the right from anyone to vote,” he stated.

The next general election is constitutionally due next February, but is widely expected to be held shortly.