High Time for Electoral Reform

During the current election season, I have heard different voices saying different things about different aspects of our current election process. I started off by writing about the question of fixed election dates, but this soon got out of control. In this essay, I ended up thinking about election dates, questions of suffrage, constituencies and representation. In no way do I pretend that this short piece can adequately address such a complex mix, but I do hope that I can provide a few ideas as to where we may begin to discuss the future of our democracy.

At a recent panel discussion on the subject, “Parliament: Transforming The Bahamas – Lawmakers for the Peace, Order and Good Governance of the Society”  sponsored by the Eugene Dupuch Law School, representatives from the three major political parties in The Bahamas spent a good amount of time discussing issues related to elections and the constitution. However, it was my distinct impression that all the representatives, legal minds no doubt but not visionaries, discussed the matter within the existing legal framework, which restricts suffrage, rather than envision how the essentially colonial framework might be adapted to meet the needs of a 21st-century Bahamas.

The Parliamentary Elections Act states that “a person shall be entitled to be registered as a voter” if “he is a citizen of The Bahamas of full age” and “is, and has been during the whole of the period of three months immediately preceding that day, ordinarily resident in premises in” the constituency he is registering for.

The discussion focussed mainly on the three-month rule, with some participants seemingly suggesting that this time period not only applies to the question of residency, but also to the matter of citizenship or age, i.e. suggesting that an applicant for registration would have to have been a citizen for at least three months prior to registration, and would have to have been an adult for at least three months. Interestingly, not a single participant of the discussion focussed on the gendered language of the act.

I am fully aware of the fact that immigration is a hot issue in our country, and the persons who raised the question whether newly naturalised citizens should be eligible to register immediately – or whether they should have to wait three months – are clearly accusing the current government of naturalising scores of immigrants who would vote for them out of gratitude. It is campaign season after all, and most politicians’ campaigns right now seem to focus solely on criticising the opponent’s past actions. However, I wish to contend that while we may discuss naturalisation practice at another time, we should stay away from discussing further limitations on suffrage. We have enough second and third class Bahamian citizens, enough levels of discrimination in this country as it is – some of which we chose to reaffirm in the 2002 referendum.

Once a person is naturalised, they are a Bahamian. Period. In my mind, they should then be allowed to vote, provided they are “of age” and “not subject to any legal incapacity” (Parliamentary Elections Act). In fact, I would like to discuss ways to extend the suffrage, rather than limit it.

Election Dates

One way to extend the suffrage would be by fixing election dates, rather than announcing them arbitrarily at a holiday weekend beach party as happened this time around. The current system of registration requires persons to be at least eighteen years of age on the day of registration, not on the day of the election. This means, come election day on 7th May, there will be scores of young adult Bahamian citizens who have effectively been disenfranchised, because they turned eighteen on or after 6th April but before or on 7th May.

The Prime Minister announced that he would announce the election on 9th April, he finally announced it on 10th April. However, that was after a long holiday weekend, during which registration was already impossible. So young adults, whose eighteenth birthdays happened to be between 6th April (Good Friday) and Bell-Ringing Day could not register, but were then scolded for being “last minute.”

A fixed election date would remove that obstacle. As Erin Ferguson, host of “Citizen’s Review” on JCN14, pointed out so eloquently that even the alumni of the University of Wulff Road sitting in our House of Assembly could understand it (http://vimeo.com/40250745), you cannot be accused of being last minute, if you have no way of predicting when that last minute may be.

A fixed election date could also make it possible for everyone to vote who is at least eighteen years of age on election day, rather than on the unknown last day of registration. This would extend the suffrage in a very reasonable and modest manner.

Overseas and Early Voting

Overseas and early voting are other ways in which to extend the suffrage, and I am happy to see that, for the first time in our history, we have implemented them, albeit in a very limited manner. Previously, if you were travelling on election day, you were robbed of your vote, and if you were studying abroad, you had to fly home to cast your vote. The political parties spent large sums of money on paying for (what they thought were) their voters to fly in from abroad, or to fly from one island to another. The more expensive the airline ticket, the more closely would these voters be scrutinised by the party paying for the ticket, to determine whether they were seen as reliably enough PLP or FNM, and the more expensive the ticket became, the more important the question of your constituency. If it was a considered a contested seat, a close race, they would buy you the ticket. If it was seen as a safe seat – or a lost cause – you did not get a free trip back home.

So now, for the first time ever, scores of Bahamian students overseas will be able to cast their votes in Bahamian diplomatic missions. This is good, because it extends the suffrage to allow all those to cast a vote who would previously have been seen as too independent, or who were registered in constituencies where the party generals did not believe that every vote mattered. This is also good because it saves a lot of flying, thus greenhouse gas emissions. This is also good because it saves a lot of money; it would be even better if this money were then spent sensibly instead of on more t-shirts or posters.

However, this can only be a first step in the right direction, as the newly established process proves impractical for students who are too far away from the nearest Bahamian diplomatic mission, and those are few and far between. For some Bahamian students this would still mean a 5,000 mile or more flight to cast a vote.

Early voting can help those of us, who like me tend to plan their travels longer ahead than Hubert Ingraham announces elections. So if I were travelling on election day, I could now vote early – on 2nd May. However, what does that mean for those of us who have made travel plans from 1st May to 8th May? Are they still being disenfranchised? Genuine absentee voting would allow as many eligible Bahamians to participate in the democratic process as possible. Unfortunately, it is surprisingly difficult, I dare say impossible, to find details about the process on the government’s website, http://www.bahamas.gov.bs/.

Similarly, I would like us to think about extending the suffrage to Bahamians, other than just students, abroad. Those who work abroad for a while but may wish to return home eventually, would certainly be very interested in having a say and shaping the future of the land they plan to come back to. In today’s Internet age, one cannot even argue that Bahamians abroad do not know about the issues at home.

The Right to Vote

On that note, it is interesting to point out that voting is not an explicit right in our constitution. There is some talk about the composition of the House of Assembly, and other references to an election process. One could argue that the right to vote is implied, but it is not explicitly stated. The one-adult-Bahamian-citizen-(not-in-conflict-with-the-law)-one-vote principle is not protected by the constitution.

The constitution says that Members of the House of Assembly are “elected in the manner provided by any law in force in The Bahamas.” It also refers to “voters entitled to vote for the purposes of electing every member of the House of Assembly.” However, that “any law” phrase allows Parliament to define what a voter is – and isn’t. This debate was played out when representatives of our political parties at the above mentioned panel discussion hinted at denying newly naturalised citizens the right to vote for to-be-defined periods of time. All this, of course, only in the name of discouraging sitting governments from naturalising applicants on a party-preference basis.

Independent Boundaries Commission

Given our electoral system and the small size of our constituencies, it is understandable that the boundaries of constituencies have to be regularly monitored, because even small population shifts can skew the intention of having similarly sized constituencies. However, past governments – FNM, PLP and UBP – have all abused this system for gerrymandering boundaries to ensure election outcomes favourable to the governing party. In 2012, the redrawn constituency of Elizabeth Estates is unrecognisable compared to the 2010 bye-election as more than half of it is made up of new polling divisions, and the New Providence constituency of Southern Shores looks like a barbell.

Making the commission independent of the political parties’ – both governing and opposition – influence should be a no-brainer. However, I doubt that it will ever be seen as genuinely independent, and the accusations of gerrymandering will continue, for in most cases there will always be one party that feels disadvantaged by redrawn borders.

Proportional Representation

However, a more radical change and shift away from the Westminster system towards proportional representation could render the discussion about boundaries commissions moot. Our current first-past-the-post system of voting pretends to uphold a political ideal that simply is not reflected in Bahamian reality. In our current model, I am asked to vote for a candidate, and I am asked to look at that individual candidate’s unique credentials.

Registered in St. Anne’s, my candidates are Greg Burrows (PLP), Hubert Chipman (FNM) and Prince Smith (DNA). I have met one of these three men, I do not know either. On their respective parties’ websites I find short bios for these three men, not extending beyond banal personal chatter. None of these three have shared their political philosophy, agenda and vision with me. And you know what? I don’t really care. I don’t really care, because I know that, if elected, they will sit in the House of Assembly and tow party line. We are not asked to vote for a candidate, we are asked to vote for – at best – a party, maybe only its leader.

By adopting the principle of proportional representation, we would not only admit to this reality, but we would furthermore avoid parties winning government despite losing the popular vote (as happened in 1962), and we would avoid the opposition being crippled because a close election can still result in a landslide of seats (as happened in 1997). Finally, proportional representation would allow smaller parties to represented in the political process, would allow more voices to be heard.

To avoid total fragmentation, some countries have implemented a minimum percentage requirement – for instance, 3% or 5% of the popular vote – before a party gets to send representatives to parliament. Still, it allows multi-party systems to thrive. One such example is Germany, where – between the federal parliament and the sixteen state parliaments – there are currently nine different parties represented.

Proportional representation will make the politicians’ life harder though, because a House where no one party controls the majority of seats would then be a much more likely outcome of elections. This in turn forces politicians to work across party lines, seeking compromise and forming coalitions. It deepens democracy and no longer confuses it simply with majority rule, which too many of us believe entitles the winners of an election to force their policies upon the country without genuine consultation of, and regard for, the dissenters.

One serious consideration, however, regarding proportional representation that weighs particularly heavy in the Bahamian context is the imbalance between New Providence and the other islands. Currently, while representatives from New Providence’s constituencies already occupy a majority of seats in the House of Assembly, most Family Island constituencies have considerably fewer registered voters than those in New Providence, slightly balancing the unbalanceable. This is the result of the constitutional mandate that the Constituencies Commission take into account “special considerations such as the needs of sparsely populated areas.” However, I feel that these special considerations may have been taken into account, but no satisfactory solution was found.

Senate Reform

The most peculiar manifestation of our late colonial attempts to mimic the Westminster system, is the second chamber of Parliament, the Senate. It is not a House of Lords; it is not elected; it is not a check; it is not a balance. It is little more than a rubber-stamping body for whatever party controls the House of Assembly, because the Governor-General appoints nine Senators, that is the majority of its sixteen members, “in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister,” and an additional three “in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.”

Maybe a revised system that adopts proportional representation in the House of Assembly could be paired with a system that adopts a popularly elected Senate, too. This Senate could, for instance, retain the first-past-the-post principle and be elected by constituencies. It could be elected at a different time, for instance half-way between general elections, to capture the political mood of the electorate at a different time. It could, depending on who defines constituencies how, provide for more influence of Family Island voters. An example for this could be the United States Senate, where a Senator from California, the most populous state, represents 66 times as many people as a Senator from Wyoming, the least populous state. Such a Senate could be a genuinely independent chamber of Parliament.

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