What was promised as an organized and safe advanced poll amounted to the opposite yesterday, with scores of eligible voters being denied the opportunity to cast their ballot, and chaotic overcrowding occurring at polling stations in New Providence.
With widespread reports of issues occurring for just a fraction of the total number of registered voters eligible to cast their ballot next week, it is paramount that the Parliamentary Registration Department fixes relevant discrepancies to avoid voter disenfranchisement, and confusion which can injure confidence in the September 16 election result.
Among those who encountered challenges were former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham and his wife, who left their polling station in Killarney after being told in error that their names were not on the advanced poll register.
Ingraham was subsequently advised that his and his wife’s names were in fact on the register, and they later returned to cast their ballot.
The former prime minister explained of the process, “It was very important to come back and vote today because if your name is on the list for today and you don’t vote today, they are going to have to take your counterfoil and put it back in the box for next week, and put your name back on the register.
“There [are] lots of opportunities for errors to be made if that happens.”
One Free National Movement candidate in east New Providence said his poll workers were denied the opportunity to vote yesterday, with parliamentary registration officials advising him that their names were not on the department’s register, despite their names being on the copy of the register the department issued to the candidate’s team.
Meanwhile, voters at the C.I. Gibson High School polling station complained of being told by a Royal Bahamas Police Force officer that voting would not be permitted unless voters presented a negative COVID PCR test.
Then there were the crowds of voters — many elderly and hence at higher risk of severe COVID illness — who were gathered without social distancing guidelines being enforced, and with an apparent lack of a defined plan to organize and enforce such guidelines.
This is Acting Parliamentary Commissioner Lavado Duncanson’s first general election, and among his tasks are the management of an election during the country’s record COVID surge, and with a bad register from 2017 made permanent by the Minnis administration.
Preparation for the 2017 advanced poll was among matters highlighted by the Organization of American States (OAS), in its electoral observer mission report for the general election that year.
The OAS, which will observe the September 16 general election, said in its report that it received expressions of concern in a number of categories pertaining to the 2017 advanced poll, noting, “The Mission was happy to note that, despite these reported issues, all persons who presented themselves to vote at the advanced poll in New Providence were able to cast their ballots.”
Regrettably, the same was not the case for yesterday’s poll.
Some Bahamians yesterday expressed hesitation about casting their ballots after seeing crowds of voters huddled together at polling stations, with others stating that they plan to stay home on Election Day, so as to avoid what they fear will be a worse state of affairs, due to higher voter turnout on September 16.
Personal safety has heretofore not been a primary concern of voters in The Bahamas where peaceful, free and fair elections take place, but the pandemic has created a threat to voter confidence that the parliamentary commissioner must publicly address ahead of the general election.
Government must also make it clear that quarantined eligible voters will not be barred from casting their ballot next week, given Health Minister Renward Wells’ latest statement that The Bahamas will follow the model undertaken in the United States, which allowed in-person voting in its presidential election regardless of COVID or quarantine status.
A far better job must be done in organizing voters at the polls, to ensure that adequate social distancing is maintained.
Voter confidence has likely taken a blow in some quarters, due to yesterday’s incidents, and it is therefore incumbent upon the Parliamentary Registration Department to address the nation on those challenges, and to remediate deficiencies.
We must have a process on September 16 that voters trust.