Will WE ALLOW corruption, incompetence,
& ACCEPTANCE OF THE STATUS QUO TO prevail?
With each election, evidence of the continual decay of our voter registration process mounts. It has reached the point where few, if any, can trust the resulting electoral rolls. Almost daily since the announcement of the Elizabeth by-election, there has been a barrage of criticisms, concerns, and critiques voiced in the media over the authenticity of the voter registration list in that constituency.
One cannot help but question why the development of an accurate voter register appears to be such a monumental task in a country with less than three hundred and fifty thousand (350,000) citizens. The deficiencies are well known, so why can they not be acknowledged and corrected so the process can be improved? Why are the individuals who are charged with this very important part of our democratic process, but who seem to lack the will and/or ability to effect much needed change still employed and entrusted with this critical responsibility?
Why has our Prime Minister suggested that, win or lose in the upcoming February 16, 2010 by-elections in the Elizabeth constituency, his party would not be going to election court? It cannot be because of a lack of awareness of these problems. There are numerous accounts in the press where the leaders of all political parties who are contesting the election—including the two major parties—have articulated their concerns and attested to the potential for fraudulent votes being cast.
Surely the Prime Minister is not implying that he has become so disenchanted with our antiquated electoral system that, even if they suspect, or there is undeniable proof they were denied victory due to a contaminated register, they would not exercise their right to challenge the results, thereby allowing corruption, incompetence, and acceptance of the status quo to blatantly prevail—even when that ‘status quo’ undermines our right to fair and just elections and a strong democracy.
We all know how easy it is to complain, criticize, and lay blame while leaving the real work to others. We also know that an empty barrel makes the most noise. To counter this, I wish to offer the following suggestions in an attempt to alleviate the certainty that the travesties—virtually all of which are avoidable—associated with the current by-election in the future are not repeated in the future.
Our voter registration processes in the Bahamas lag far behind other countries primarily because, contrary to what happens in other major democracies, we put the onus of voter registration on the individual citizen. The problem is compounded by the fact that our system is based principally on paper and forms. Every time a voter moves s/he must fill out new forms which must then be deciphered, processed, and entered into a database. The forms typically arrive en masse—generally right before an election. By its very nature, this system is a recipe for confusion, error, duplication, and waste.
During my research on best practices aimed at maintaining the integrity of electoral processes, including the voter registration process, I was surprised to discover that, from among all the democracies in world, only the United States, The Bahamas, Belize, Burundi, and Mexico place the burden of responsibility for voter registration on individual citizens. Other democracies use a variety of methods to register voters, but the most common method—and one that can easily be adopted in The Bahamas—is the practice which involves compiling lists of unregistered eligible citizens from other government databases and other lists (e.g., educational institutions).
Canada continuously updates its voter registers. It automatically adds every 18-year-old and other eligible citizen to its voter rolls as well as deletes ineligible persons from the lists using information from other government agencies. The result is accurate and current voter rolls, despite the fact that Canada’s population is more than 100 times the size of ours. This practice is followed in several other countries as well. Ironically, in The Bahamas, names are only removed from the register once a death certificate is issued.
Adopting such a common sense approach would not only ensure our voter registers are more accurate and less susceptible to fraud and manipulation, it would also save taxpayers money. Both Canada and Australia substantially reduced their election costs when they modernized their voter rolls—and they recouped their low transition costs almost immediately.
Can this be achieved in The Bahamas? Absolutely! Can this be done before the next general elections? Yes, it can. However, there is a caveat.
I do not believe such transformation can be realized using the personnel who are presently at the helm of the Parliamentary Commission. They have had years, even decades to enact reform, but for some reason have chosen not to, despite the well-publicized inadequacies of the existing system.
Nor do I believe that meaningful change will be effected if we simply reinstate retirees, many of whom are still entrenched in the old days and the old ways and, depending on their age, were themselves involved in the original construction of our present system which has proven to be unfair to the masses.
I am also of the opinion that if, and when, a new parliamentary commissioner is appointed, party affiliation should not be the predominant criterion for consideration. Whether s/he is associated with the FNM, PLP, BDM, NDP, or WP should not even be considered, as long as it can be substantiated beyond any doubt that the individual has a documented history as a non-partisan solider for democracy and election reform, as well as having shown the courage and integrity to publicly offer solutions to mitigate the ills associated with our present electoral processes.
Our country needs to move ahead in all things. We need not throw the baby out with the bath water. There is much within our electoral system that can be retained and that would function even more effectively and efficiently if we would only agree that, as proud Bahamians, we will not allow corruption, incompetence, and acceptance of a harmful status quo to prevail and contravene our desire for a strong and just democracy.