When Steve Surujbally, a former advisor to the minister of agriculture, accepted a presidential appointment as chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission in September 2001, he had no experience in election administration. In accepting the appointment, Surujbally recognized how politically charged his new role would be. Guyana had a history of tense racially-aligned politics between the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese with roots in colonial policies, suspected Cold War alliances with the Soviet Union, and personal political rivalries. Campaign seasons were marred by violence, ranging from riots to assassinations. Political candidates competed fiercely for every vote in a country of just 760,000 and a parliament elected by proportional representation.
Electoral conflict was concentrated between two parties: the primarily Indo-Guyanese supporters of the People's Progressive Party (PPP) and the primarily Afro-Guyanese supporters of the People's National Congress (PNC). The election commission included three representatives from each of these parties, an uneasy balance that slowed deliberations, which then spurred critics to attack the commission as biased or indecisive. Nevertheless, Guyana's elections commission worked with international donors, and civil society groups before the last election in 2006 and was able to defuse conflict, thwart violence, and deliver free and peaceful elections.
This cooperative solution was rooted in public frustration with the violence surrounding the March 2001 regional elections, which were particularly contentious. When voters found their names missing from the registry on election day, the opposition PNC accused the incumbent PPP of dirty tricks. Moreover, the elections commission reported results four days after the election, exacerbating tensions. Television and radio hosts contributed to the frenzy by pushing rival narratives about the source of the delay. Although international observers ultimately declared the election free and fair, many citizens believed it was rigged. Incidents of violence quickly escalated into angry public protests and retaliation. The elections commission needed to restore trust between the Indo- and Afro-Guyanese communities, and trust in the electoral process, ahead of the fall 2006 elections.
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Surujbally and his six electoral commissioners knew they had to revamp the elections commission in order to rebuild credibility and avoid the mistakes of 2001. Their first priority was to improve the voter registration process. In 2001, the commission had registered voters only during the few months preceding the election, when tensions were already high and parties were quick to seize upon any perceived fault in the process. In this charged atmosphere, the registry became a political football.
Assessing their options before the 2006 elections, the three PNC-nominated commissioners wanted a full door-to-door verification of the registry. Surujbally and the three PPP-nominated commissioners argued that this would not be cost effective, and lobbied for a continuous registration system grounded upon the existing registry. They contended that spreading registration across the electoral cycle would also make the process less open to political criticism. After many meetings, the PPP-nominated members overruled their PNC-nominated colleagues and called for the reuse of the 2001 registry -- an outcome that created significant tension within the commission.
In order to do this, the commission had to go and create registration field offices. It placed one office in each of Guyana's 10 administrative regions, and established additional offices in more populous regions to avoid overcrowding. In total, the commission set up 23 permanent field offices and 160 temporary ones, to cope with increased registrations right before the election.
Field offices assigned voters unique computer-generated identity numbers to safeguard privacy and reduce errors. Under the old registration process, there were mix-ups between voters who registered together with their relatives and received similar numbers. The commission resolved the problem by adding two randomly-generated "check digits" to the end of each identity number. After voters registered, elections officials visited their homes to take digital pictures of the voters, their source documents, and fingerprints. Two IT operators separately keyed in each form so that the system could flag data entry errors.