A general election is held when Parliament is dissolved by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. General elections must be held every five years at least. The party that wins the most constituencies is asked by the President to form the government. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister. If the party wins in more than 11 constituencies, it will have a majority government, which makes it much easier to get legislation passed in the House. If the winning party has fewer than 11 seats, it forms a minority government. In order to get legislation through the House, a minority government usually has to adjust policies to get enough votes from MPs of other parties. The party that has the second highest number of seats in the House of Assembly is called the Official Opposition.
In Dominica, the Prime Minister may call general elections at any time, though no more than five years may lapse from one general election to the next. All seats in the House of Assembly are vacant and the political party that wins the most seats in the subsequent general election form the government. Aside from general elections, for which all seats are open, by-elections are held when a Member of Parliament dies or resigns.
The Prime Minister's power of discretion adds an element of spontaneity to the electoral process that does not exist in systems where voting dates are fixed on the calendar. Prime ministers generally ask the monarch, the formal head of state, to dissolve Parliament when they think their party has the best chance of winning a general election.
Other factors may force an election on a Prime Minister. A convention (established practice) if a government is defeated in the House of Assembly on a vote of confidence, then a general election will follow.
Once the Prime Minister decides to call a general election then he or she will go to see the President to request that Parliament be dissolved. If the President agrees (there would have to be very strong constitutional reasons why he/she would refuse) then a Proclamation is issued in accordance with the Constitution of Dominica which officially allows the dissolution (bringing to an end) of the Parliament. It is customary for the Prime Minister to make a statement announcing the date of the dissolution and usually the reason for calling a general election.
What happens once Parliament has been dissolved?
Once Parliament has been formally dissolved, the Clerk of Parliament issues Writs of Election for each constituency and the election timetable commences.
Anyone who wishes to stand for election must be nominated on an official nomination paper submitted on Nomination Day. They must stand either for an established political party or as an independent. All candidates must pay a deposit which is lost if they do not secure a specified number of votes.
How long is an election campaign?
The formal campaign is a relatively short-lived affair: the Prime Minister must give a minimum of three weeks and a maximum of six weeks' notice for a general election. In practice, informal campaigning tends to start much earlier.
During the election campaign all the main political parties produce a wide range of publicity material. Manifestos will be published setting out the party's policies on each major issue. The headquarters of each party is responsible for preparing party election advertising material and broadcasts for television and radio.
How much can candidates spend on the election?
The Laws of the Commonwealth of Dominica do not place any limit on the total amount that a party or a candidate is permitted to spend. There is also no provision for the public funding of parties, either directly or indirectly.
Who can vote?
Under the constitution and election law of the Commonwealth of Dominica, citizens over the age of eighteen are entitled to vote, as are Commonwealth citizens who have been resident in Dominica for a period of twelve months immediately before the qualifying date.
A presiding officer and a poll clerk operate each polling station. These election officials report to a returning officer, responsible for the electoral constituency. Members of the police are present to secure each polling station, and a party agent for each candidate contesting the election is permitted to be present to witness the conduct of the poll, as are accredited international observers.
Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. Just before the opening of the poll, the presiding officer and poll clerk display the empty ballot box to all present then lock it. Each elector, on entering the polling station, approaches the presiding officer’s table and states his or her name. The voters’ list is checked and the name and profession of the elector, as stated on the list, is called out. A tick is placed against the name of the elector.
Elections’ law of the Commonwealth of Dominica does not require a voter identity card. Under the law a person is allowed to vote if he or she is on the list of electors. Citizens are not required to show any form of identification to vote. To confirm the identity of the voter, however, the elector is required to state his or her occupation. However, because of the small size of the constituencies in the country, party agents, presiding officers, and other poll workers were usually familiar with the electors. Thus, while ensuring that any attempt to impersonate an elector could be foiled, this familiarity sometimes led to the poll staff failing to follow the procedure and require that the elector state his or her occupation as required. Moreover, in the absence of a voter identification card, specifically a picture identification card, it is quite possible that in circumstances where the staff is unfamiliar with the district and where the electors list contains two or more similar names, it would be impossible to correctly identify the voter. In that case as was observed in one polling station, the decision was taken by all present to check off the first name on the list.
The voter’s right index finger is checked and, if it is free of electoral ink, the voter is given a ballot stamped with the official seal. The applicant proceeds into the voting compartment and marks the ballot, returning to the presiding officer’s table with the ballot folded so that the mark is concealed. The elector shows the presiding officer the official seal. The elector must dip his or her finger in the electoral ink, after which he or she deposits the ballot in the ballot box and exits the station. The use of the ink however prevented attempts to vote more than once.
If at 5 p.m. there are any voters standing in line, they are permitted to vote, but no one who arrives after 5 p.m. is permitted to vote. At the close of the poll, in the presence of the poll clerk and the candidates or their agents, the presiding officer counts the number of voters whose names appear in the poll book as having voted, counts the spoiled ballot papers (if any) and the unused ballot papers and checks this total against the number of ballots supplied by the returning officer, to ascertain that all ballot papers are accounted for. Having completed an account of these figures, the presiding officer seals the ballot box and securely packs the election materials, which are collected by the returning officer and transported to the place where the count will be held.
COUNTING THE BALLOTS
The returning officer opens the ballot boxes in the presence of election officials, party agents, candidates and accredited observers, and counts the votes for each candidate, giving full opportunity to those present to examine each ballot paper, and finally displaying the empty box.
When all the votes have been counted the results are announced by the Returning Officer. Depending on the time it takes to bring all of the ballot boxes to the count and the result of the count, the final result may be announced before midnight. Most results will come in during the early hours of the morning, but some will not be known until well into the next day.
If the result is close then either candidate can demand a recount. The Returning Officer will advise the candidates of the figures and sanction a recount. Recounts can continue until both candidates and the Returning Officer are satisfied with the result.
AFTER THE RESULTS
When all of the results are known the President will usually invite the leader of the party winning the most seats in the House of Assembly to be Prime Minister and to form a Government.
The Prime Minister will appoint several members of his party to become members of the Cabinet.
The New Parliament
A few days after the general election the House of Assembly will assemble in preparation for the new Parliament to begin. All MPs must be sworn in by taking an oath of allegiance or making an affirmation, and must sign the official register. The Speaker is customarily selected by a vote of the sitting members of parliament.
A by-election takes place when a seat in the House of Assembly becomes vacant between general elections. If there are several vacant seats then a number of by-elections can take place on the same day.
Reasons for by-elections
A seat becomes vacant during the lifetime of a Parliament either when an MP resigns from Parliament, for example to take up a job which by law cannot be done by an MP, or because an MP has died. The law also allows a seat to be declared vacant because of a Member's bankruptcy, mental illness or conviction for a serious criminal offence.
A by-election does not automatically take place if an MP changes political party.
Section 56 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Dominica establishes two separate and independent institutions with responsibility for elections: the Constituency Boundaries Commission and the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission consists of five persons: a chairman appointed by the President in his own deliberate judgment; two members appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister; and two members appointed by the President on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition. A Chief Elections Officer, appointed by the President after consultation with the Electoral Commission, assists the Commission in the registration of voters and the conduct of elections. The constitutions stipulates, however that the Chief Elections Officer “shall not be subject to the direction and control of any other person or authority”.
The Chief Elections Officer is thus empowered to administer and supervises the conduct of the elections. A returning officer in each constituency supervises the work of the presiding officer and poll clerk assigned to each polling station. The returning officers report to the Chief Elections Officer.