Guyana, a South-American nation known for its rainforests, rice fields, and gold reserves, recently underwent a period of elections. Shelley McThomas, a Kansas City native and former Democratic Director of the KC Election Board, was in Guyana earlier this spring with The Carter Center to observe the election process. Global Ties KC had the opportunity to hear from Shelley about the election. In her own words, the election . . .
. . . was considered the “mother of all elections” for this small, environmentally rich, but economically poor country. From January to mid-March, I had the honor of serving on The Carter Center’s delegation as a Long-Term Observer (LTO) for Guyana’s regional and presidential elections. Due to the recent discovery of historic amounts of offshore oil and gas, the winner of this election will be responsible for the initial distribution of wealth generated by these oil revenues. According to some experts, Guyana could become the richest country in the world. Couple that with an ethnically diverse, and sometimes racially divided, the population of less than 750,000 whose distrust of each other dates back to Guyana’s first election after gaining independence from Great Britain in 1966.
Guyana’s 2020 election campaign period was robust, lively, and sometimes intense. The election was instigated by a 33 to 34 vote of “no confidence” against the current President. That vote took place in the General Assembly last December 2018. The deciding vote was cast by a member of the President’s party who unexpectedly switched his vote, fled Guyana, and took refuge in Canada. Although according to the Guyanese constitution, an election should be held within three months of a no-confidence vote, legal wrangling delayed the election for a year.
As an LTO, I and my teammate — an Observer from the Philippines — were responsible for monitoring four regions (counties), of which three were located along the country’s Atlantic coast. The regions included the most populous two cities in Guyana — Georgetown, the capital, and New Amsterdam, a charming Dutch-influenced town of 33,000. In contrast, the other two regions comprised Guyana’s sugarcane and rice fields, and the mountainous interior gold-mining areas, primarily accessible via a 12-seat plane. On a daily basis, we collected information, while assessing voting preparations and the elections environment. We conducted meetings with elections commission officials, ruling and opposition party leaders and candidates, indigenous (Amerindian) and women leaders, reporters, media executives, civic and religious leaders, local and regional elected officials, and others. We also attended many lively campaign rallies and engaged in daily “man/woman on the street” discussions.
Guyanese citizens came out to vote on March 2. Unfortunately, counting irregularities in the most populated region occurred. The announced results were deemed not credible by the opposition, the contesting parties, nor the diplomatic and international observer communities. A series of court filings, injunctions (one to block a recount agreed to by the President in conjunction with the leader of the opposition and Caricom officials), and appeals ensued. Consequently, the final election results and official presidential winner have yet to be officially declared.
A recent ruling by the Appeals Court paved the way for a recount of all 400,000-plus ballots. That process began on May 6. Regrettably, The Carter Center observers were not granted permission to return to Guyana to observe the recount. There are, however, observers from the OAS, EU, and a team of scrutineers representing CariCom.
As international observers, we monitor all aspects of an election: voter registration, campaigning, media coverage, campaign finance, voting, poll management, vote tallying, and more. We abide by a Code of Conduct and methodology that is impartial and objective, as well as adhere to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation.
Every election observation mission (EOM) has its own distinct character, traditions, highs, and lows. The Guyana mission was certainly no different. All who champion good governance, transparency, and the principle of representative democracy will continue to closely watch the developments in Guyana.
Global Ties KC thanks Shelley for sharing her experiences in Guyana. Indeed, we will be closely following developments in Guyana over the coming weeks, both in terms of the outcomes of their elections and in terms of their natural resource discovery. This South American nation has transformed into a fascinating player in regional politics, and we are eager to see what happens next.
On a final note, Global Ties KC was able to speak with Shelley about the importance of elections. We asked her what she wished she could tell Americans about voting in our democracy. Shelley noted that sometimes, Americans take voting for granted. Countries around the world are eager to set up democratic institutions and hold fair and free elections; many look to the United States as a model for these processes. Knowing just how many citizens globally are anxious to vote, why is it that we at home don’t celebrate our democratic rights more? Why do we have a consistently low voter turnout rate? Shelley reminds us that everywhere, election observers want us to be excited to vote. They want us to exercise this right, and to not take it for granted.
So, Kansas City, no matter who you cast a ballot for in upcoming local, state, and national elections, it is vital to exercise your democratic rights. Doing so not only contributes to a flourishing democracy at home, but it allows us to participate in global efforts to guarantee freedom, human rights, and access to political institutions. Transforming the world’s governance starts right at home here in Missouri.