UNC appeals dismissal of Lengua/Indian Walk election petition

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Nicole Gopaul-Jones, the UNC’s local govt election candidate for Lengua/Indian Walk. FILE PHOTO –

THE United National Congress (UNC) has appealed the dismissal of its election petition for the local government district of Lengua/Indian Walk.

The notice of appeal was filed on Friday.

It complains of 11 findings of fact made by Justice Marissa Robertson in her ruling.

According to the appeal, Robertson’s ruling was contrary to law and went against the weight of the evidence presented in the petition.It also said the judge erred in finding that the disputed ballot was validity rejected.

In her ruling, Robertson upheld the Elections and Boundaries Commission’s (EBC) rejection of a special ballot since it did not have the returning officer’s initial as required by the election rules.

The UNC filed the petition on August 21, 2023, after two recounts led to the PNM’s candidate Autly Granthume being announced the winner over the UNC’s Nicole Gopaul-Jones on election night, August 14, 2023.

Granthume initially received 1,430 votes compared to Gopaul-Jones’s 1,425. At the end of the first recount, each candidate received 1,428 votes.

However, the returning officer rejected a special ballot in favour of Gopaul-Jones – which would have broken the tie.

Gopaul-Jones challenged the rejection of the ballot, insisting it was valid and ought to have been counted, which would have led to her being elected and returned as the councillor for the district.

The EBC maintained its reasoning for rejecting the ballot as required by election rules under the Representation of the People Act.

In its appeal, the UNC said the absence of the returning officer’s initials was but one relevant consideration but the judge failed to take into account the other provisions in the law designed to safeguard the integrity of the special voting process.

The appeal contends the irregularity caused by the negligence or inadvertent omission of the returning officer to put his initials on the ballot would not compromise the election process.

The party further argued that the judge wrongly accepted the EBC’s position on the numerical account and reconciliation in the statement of poll, saying she ignored the UNC’s argument that the procedure for special voting was so tightly regulated it would have been impossible for the disputed ballot to have not been properly cast by a special elector.

“Given that there was no suggestion of fraud on the part of the EBC’s officials or the voter, the court ought to have found that the absence of the initials of the presiding officer could not invalidate the special ballot and disenfranchise the special voter.”

The appeal also added, “Where the voter is not at fault, and his intention is clear, fault on the part of the electoral officials will not, as a general rule, invalidate the ballot.”

The judge’s ruling that the election rules did not allow a returning officer to cure any defect in the rules to allow a returning officer to treat with a special ballot which did not have the returning officer’s initials is also being challenged by the UNC.

The other complaints were also detailed in the notice of appeal. The UNC wants Robertson’s ruling reversed and for declarations that the EBC’s rejection of the special ballot was illegal and should have been counted.

The appeal also asks that in accepting the special ballot, it should be determined that Gopaul-Jones was duly elected for the local government district for the Lengua/Indian Walk on August 14, 2023.

The UNC iss represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Jayanti Lutchmedial, Kent Samlal, Saddam Hosein, and Natasha Bisram. Deborah Peake, SC, and Ravi Heffes-Doon represent the EBC. The PNM was represented by Michael Quamina, SC, Ravi Nanga, Celeste Jules and Adanna Bain.