Yesterday, the Bahamian electorate was asked two questions. A) Do you support the regulation and taxation of Web Shop gaming? B) Do you support the establishment of a National Lottery?
However, no details were shared by the government explaining what this regulation or taxation would look like, or what the national lottery would look like; they wanted a blank cheque. Instead, the opposition’s draft legislation had been leaked – not in an effort to demonstrate what legislation could look like, but in an effort to discredit the opposition’s position that Bahamians should vote no on 28th January, “Look, they were going to do it, too!”
A colleague of mine described the process leading up to today’s vote “the most confusing, bungled and badly managed public process in [his] lifetime.” For the record, this lifetime includes the entire span of our nation’s sovereignty, and then some.
Yesterday, while going to the polls, we knew very little about the process, and had very little information on which we could base our individual decisions. The information disseminated by the Vote Yes campaign was about as reliable as my prediction for the next numbers to be drawn would be. Those same numbers, however, were repeated by the Prime Minister in Parliament, when he claimed that the numbers industry employs 4,000 Bahamians and has an annual payroll of $15 million. Unfortunately, nobody did the math – not the Prime Minister, not the media, and probably not the voters either. $15 million divided by 52 weeks of the year, divided by 4,000 employees would mean that webshop workers earn a weekly salary of $72.12.
The Vote No campaign, on the other hand, also did not contribute to the voters’ understanding of the issue. The organised opponents of webshop gaming and a national lottery were dominated by certain sectors of the religious community, who insist that their interpretation of the Bible mandates them to use what they perceive as Christian values to limit all Bahamians’ freedom of choice, regardless of the fact that the Constitution’s preamble suggest that the “abiding respect for Christian values” should guarantee the preservation of our freedom. The second pillar of Vote No campaign was equally bizarre, for it addressed the various social ills caused by gambling, but it did so in a manner that suggested that gambling was not already a reality in the Bahamas, and that these social ills would then be new. It also ignored that illegal gambling, which currently exists, arguably increases some of the negative effects associated with gambling, when legalisation and regularisation would allow the society and government to address them to a certain extent.
Insisting that he did not have a horse in the race, the Prime Minister feigned neutrality, but either directly lashed out against political opponents who encouraged Bahamians to vote no, or had his colleagues actively campaign for a yes vote. Early on in the process, the government’s language, which referred to yesterday’s vote as an “opinion poll” and “non-binding,” discouraged voters from taking the process seriously. When, during the advanced poll, it became clear that voter turnout would be at an historic low, the Prime Minister began preparing the ground for disregarding the outcome of yesterday’s vote, if it turned out to be a “minority vote.”
Today, the day after, we know very little about the results, and even less about how to interpret them. We do know that a majority of the people voting yesterday voted both against the regulation and taxation of webshop gaming, as well as against the establishment of a national lottery.
We do not know how many people voted. According to ZNS’s Twitter feed, 70,614 valid ballots were cast for the webshop question. According to the Tribune’s Twitter feed, it was only 52,431, and according to today’s printed Tribune, it was only 40,877. (And as I am about to post this, I see another number, by Dwight Strachan from Guardian Talk Radio: 79,131.)
Yesterday, all the results indicated that more votes were cast for the webshop question, being the first question on the ballot, than for the question of a national lottery, which came second on the ballot. However, today’s Tribune counts 41,028 valid votes for the second question; 151 more than for the first one.
When I observed the trend yesterday that question one seems to have gotten more responses than question two, I suspected that it may have had something to do with the instruction posted at the polling station. At least in my polling division there was a poster at the door instructing voters to only mark a single “X” on the ballot; I can only assume that the same poster was displayed elsewhere, too. When I pointed out the the presiding officer that the instructions were incorrect, my misgivings were ignored; after all, when voters were handed the ballots, they were given verbal instructions, and at least while I was there, these verbal instructions were correct.
Regardless of which numbers we go by, voter turnout was low. For lack of more up-to-date data, we will use the number of registered voters during the May 2012 general elections: 171,932. This suggests a voter turnout between 23.9% and 41.1%; if compared to the voting age population of 231,903, these numbers are even lower, between 17.7% and 30.4%.
The implications of this low turnout are serious. Contrary to what commentators on television insisted on yesterday when looking at the reported results, Bahamians did not not defeat anything by a “landslide” or a “tsunami.” Yes, of the votes cast, approximately 60% votes against the regulation and taxation of webshops and the establishment of a national lottery.*
However, if we adjust these numbers for the low voter turnout, only about 14.5% of registered voters, and only about 10.8% of the voting age-population voted against the two proposed options of gaming. 9.3% of registered voters, or 6.9% of the voting-age population voted yes. This leaves us with about 80% of Bahamian voters, whose opinions we can only speculate about.
Chances are, however, that a genuine, professionally conducted opinion poll would have yielded a more representative result than yesterday’s exercise, as elections with low voter turnout generally overrepresent some groups and underrepresent others. The numbers of ballots cast yesterday is lower than the number of customers frequenting webshops every day, so we cannot assume that the non-voters have no interest in the question, even though they chose not to make their voice heard.
In an effort to defend the botched process, Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson declared that this exercise was about more than just gambling, that it was about deepening our democracy. What we saw yesterday, deepened our democracy in the same way that strip mining deepens the landscape; indeed, it highlighted how dysfunctional we have become.
Our democratic institutions have failed to communicate the importance of voter participation to the electorate. For years, our parties have believed that they could rely on a sizeable base for the general elections. This reliance has made them, and their representatives in Parliament, become oblivious to their constituents’ needs, certainly between campaigns, but arguably during campaigns, too. In fact, one cannot help but feel that MPs act more as representatives of their respective parties than as representatives of their constituencies and constituents. Yesterday, the base stayed at home, proving as illusive as a unicorn.
Our economic model, too, has failed us – for a long time. But Bahamians are now beginning to see it. Whether it is the plantations of the Loyalist era, or the plantation of Stafford Sands’ model of mass tourism, or the exploitation of gamblers and employees by the number bosses, voters yesterday were not willing to come out and support an industry that provides a large number of poorly paid menial jobs.
Our church leaders have failed us, again, too. They failed to compromise within and formulate a coherent position, resorting to personal attacks of dissenting representatives. To too many, it would appear, the “abiding respect for Christian values” remains limited to pushing an agenda based on their interpretation of these vague values. As a result of this display of self-interest and lack of concern for the people as a whole, they then failed to mobilise the people whom they have taken for granted for so long, in any significant numbers. The people no longer act reliably as sheeple.
Also, our media has failed us, as usual. Since it became clear last night that the majority of the votes cast were against webshops and gambling, commentators have failed to truly analyse what just happened. Yes, they have identified the botched process and lack of information as part of the problem. However, in a modern society, is it not the media that disseminates the information, and is it not the journalists that provide analysis of the process? This has been sorely lacking over the past few months.
In the Bahamas, we have many reporters, but we have very few journalists. The media discussion of the gambling “referendum” was for the most part limited to regurgitating the information provided by the politicians and the campaigns, i.e. the “Christian Council” and the number bosses, whose bold statements and sweeping generalisations were hardly, if ever, questioned. Town hall meetings or podium discussions were, more often than not, poorly disguised campaign events with very biased panels.
This unwillingness to think critically became evident last night in the way that Cable 12 chose to report the results. Instead of simply reporting the “yes” or “no” votes, the logos of the Vote Yes and Vote No campaigns were used. I for one was highly offended by this, and I know I was not the only one, because the way I voted had precious little to do with the arguments that either side presented us with.
It is clear that a large number of Bahamians wants to gamble. It is also clear that a large number of Bahamians who do not want to gamble still believes that those who do should be allowed to. Yesterday’s referendum should have been won the day it was announced. It required a botched process and an arrogant campaign to lose it.
As my colleague Joey Gaskins observes: “Many of the people who voted no did so not because of the church but because they are frustrated, and even offended, by the way the government brought this issue to the people. The sad part is that … the anger of the Bahamian people is being lost in a discourse about the influence of the church. Stop that! In my opinion, people wanted to vote yes – to ownership opportunities for all Bahamians, for a regulated gaming industry and for a national lottery. What they didn’t want to vote for was a referendum that did not address legal discrimination against Bahamians. They didn’t want to vote yes for ‘web-shops’ when no one could define what exactly web-shop is. And they didn’t want to vote for a national lottery without any information on how it would operate, who would be in charge of its operation and if these people could be trusted to take on this task. … One thing is clear – the frustration of the Bahamian people is palpable. Let’s talk about that!”
Yet, we do not. Representatives of the FNM, still licking their wounds, were quick to capitalise on the opportunity to claim victory, or at least declare a defeat of the PLP. Duane Sands even concluded that they PLP had failed to retain the massive mandate they won last May. As Sands speaks for the opposition, it is surprising that he cannot remember that last May, the PLP only got 48% of the popular vote, and thus minority vote.
The flaws in the system are not addressed. Neither politicians, nor clergy, nor business leaders have come to the conclusion yet that the Bahamian people want to be taken seriously, that the Bahamian people deserve better. They are not offering us better alternatives, rather they continue in the same old modus operandi that scores them a short-lived victory when their opponents make even worse mistakes than they make themselves.
This demeanour has damaged our democracy for decades. If we as a society allow vested interests to continue down this path, we may cause irreversible damage. In a democracy, the sovereignty lies with the people. The people have sent a clear message: they are tired of playing games. It is time that We, the people, take back what is ours: this Bahamaland, and its democracy.
* Results according to different media outlets:
ZNS on Twitter
Question 1: 38.6% Yes, 61.4% No / Question 2: 41.3% Yes, 58.7% No
Voter turnout: 41.1% of registered voters, 30.5% of voting-age population
Tribune on Twitter
Question 1: 38.8% Yes, 61.2% No / Question 2: 41.7% Yes, 58.3% No
Voter turnout: 30.5% of registered voters, 22.6% of voting-age population
Question 1: 39.2% Yes, 60.8% No / Question 2: 38.8% Yes, 61.2% No
Voter turnout: 23.9% of registered voters, 17.7% of voting-age population