Op-Ed

Lessons from the advanced poll

“Our ability to participate in government, to elect our leaders and to improve our lives is contingent upon our ability to access the ballot. We know in our heart of hearts that voting is a sacred right the fount from which all other rights flow.” Stacey Abrams

We are three days away from what many consider the most important general election in the past 50 years since the election that decided whether we should seek independence from Great Britain.

On Thursday, the advanced poll was held throughout The Bahamas and abroad. The poll is usually held one week before the general election to accommodate registered voters who would ordinarily be involved in the general election process on Election Day. Traditionally, it also allows members of the uniformed services and poll workers to vote because they would be busy with other responsibilities on Election Day.

The best word to describe the advanced poll on September 9? Chaotic.

Therefore, this week, we would like to consider this — what lessons can we learn from the advanced poll?

Good ideas poorly executed

This year, senior citizens were included among those eligible to vote in the advanced poll. This is a good idea because fewer people vote in the advanced poll. Approximately 19,000 registered voters were included on the voter register for this advanced poll, a small percentage compared to the 195,000 registered to vote on September 16.

Given the numbers involved, the advanced poll should have been a less chaotic, more orderly exercise, facilitating the process for senior citizens. Some of them required attentive assistance because of various health challenges.

It was also a good idea to conduct the advanced poll in different locations. In years past, the advanced poll was held only at Kendal G. L. Isaacs Gymnasium on New Providence. This year, however, New Providence voters voted at 10 different venues. This also should have facilitated the voting process by relieving the overcrowding of a single venue.

Unfortunately, both these ideas, though good in theory, were poorly executed.

First, in at least one venue, many senior citizens had to traverse rugged terrain, including steep inclines, which complicated their ability to access the voting stations.

This writer observed many senior citizens at Gambier Primary School, the voting venue for the Killarney constituency, who were in wheelchairs or aided by walkers and canes to help them access the polling stations. Others, who did not use such aids, but had difficulty walking, were assisted by friends and family members.

After struggling to arrive at the top of the hill, there were no chairs for them to sit in nor was there shade from the sun. They were enormously fortunate that it did not rain.

These deficiencies caused many to wonder: where is the compassion for those senior citizens who had great difficulty maneuvering such rough terrain? Where was the consideration for them as they sat in the blistering sun while waiting to vote?

The acting parliamentary commissioner should have anticipated these things, but he did not.

Secondly, while it was good to conduct the advanced poll at different venues, greater care and consideration should have been given to select more suitable venues that would facilitate this exercise.

There are ample private and public schools on New Providence to ensure that these challenges were better managed. Greater care and attention should have been given to use only those disability-friendly venues, but that was not done. Perhaps conditions will be improved for the main event on September 16.

COVID protocols

The prime minister, who called this snap general election, despite his promise to establish a fixed election date, should have provided better resources for the acting parliamentary commissioner to implement better protocols considering the pandemic. Enhanced protocols are critical to address the potential for preventing a superspreader event at the advanced and regular polls and to take proactive preventative measures.

While most voters wore masks, there was little attention paid to enforcing social distancing, although the health authorities have repeatedly warned persons in public gatherings to do so. This, too, is an improvement that can be implemented for the general election.

Absence of signage

The acting parliamentary commissioner also failed to provide adequate signage for voters to know where they should go once they enter the voting stations.

At Doris Johnson High School, there was a single line for the three constituencies of Elizabeth, St. Annes, and Yamacraw. Voters had to stand on one line for those three constituencies for the early hours of voting before being directed to three different lines for those constituencies. This also demonstrated gross incompetence by the organizers of those voting venues.

Securing ballot boxes

It was reported that, at the end of voting on September 9, a ballot box containing several polling divisions from the Pinewood constituency was not sealed by the election officers.

When some election observers brought this to the presiding officer’s attention, he reportedly responded that he was instructed not to seal the ballot box. The question is: who instructed him to breach a long-standing, established protocol to protect the integrity of the ballots cast by hundreds of voters? Was this an attempt to corrupt those ballots or to change the results of the election?

This is very concerning because the procedure established by an act of Parliament is to seal and lock all ballot boxes to ensure that the voting results are not contaminated or compromised.

The most important thing about a general election is that the electorate must be confident that it was conducted fairly. If not, it casts a long shadow on the legitimacy of the winner.

Quarantined voters

One of the most egregious developments during this election is the government’s attempt to suppress quarantined persons from voting, many of whom would likely go to the polls anyway.

One of the government’s many missteps in its mismanagement of the pandemic includes ineffective contact tracing. So, in many cases, the government, uninfected voters and poll workers will not know whether a quarantined citizen shows up to vote on Election Day.

As noted, in an earlier column, as not all quarantined persons have been identified or accounted for, some will undoubtedly slip through the cracks and go to their polling station to exercise their constitutional right.

The unintended consequence of that is that this election could become a superspreader event.

The prime minister could not have considered this eventuality, even though he called the election at the height of a spike in infected persons from the more virulent delta strain of the virus.

The prime minister did not even consider the rights of quarantined persons when he announced the dissolution of Parliament and set the date for the general election. He did not say a single word about the protocols that would apply to such persons.

This government initially appeared to take the easy road by simply depriving quarantined persons of their right to vote. Recently, the minister of health affirmed that quarantined persons will be allowed to vote but did not explain what protocols will be implemented to minimize the spread of the virus in case such persons are positive.

We also noted earlier that the government probably anticipates that many quarantined voters are disgusted with the government’s mismanagement of the COVID crisis and will likely vote against them.

We do not know how many quarantined persons voted in the advanced poll or how many will show up on Election Day.

Voter suppression

At the advanced poll, the Rt. Hon. Hubert Ingraham was not initially allowed to vote when he and Mrs. Ingraham presented themselves in the Killarney constituency.

They were denied because they were told that their names were not on the register of voters. The confusion was later resolved, and they were allowed to vote. This begs the question: how many other persons, not so highly placed as the former prime minister, endured a similar experience, and therefore will not be allowed to vote?

This is a catastrophic mistake by the acting parliamentary commissioner’s office. It must be corrected to ensure that voters do not become innocent victims of voter suppression on Election Day.

The mistakes were not confined to the advanced poll in The Bahamas. Reportedly, there were similar mistakes seen here at home that were replicated for those who tried to vote at several Bahamian missions in other countries. The scenes there were equally chaotic, with frustrated and angry voters being denied their right to vote for one reason or another.

Incompetence and lack of compassion

Many mistakes were made in the advanced poll that resulted in voter frustration and disappointment. Those missteps must be corrected in time for the regular election on September 16. If they are not, voters could be unduly deprived of their constitutional right to vote.

Acting parliamentary commissioner should be replaced

Too many irregularities and mistakes were made by the acting parliamentary commissioner in the advanced poll. He had sufficient time to prepare for the election and has failed to live up to his responsibility of ensuring free, fair, and safe elections. The buck stops with him. He must take responsibility for the utter confusion and chaos that fall squarely at his feet.

The electoral process requires complete accountability and transparency. The acting parliamentary commissioner should immediately be replaced with someone more qualified and experienced because he has proven that he is not up to the task.

Mr. Errol Bethel, a former parliamentary commissioner, was assigned as a consultant to that office, has overseen many elections and referenda, and will do a much better job.

Conclusion

The 2021 general election is the most significant in 50 years. It is a battle for the soul of the nation. It will determine whether we take more positive steps to arrest the pandemic that has needlessly claimed too many lives. It will also determine how quickly we restore our economy.

This general election will also determine whether the country is placed on a trajectory to restoration and recovery or whether we will continue to flounder from pillar to post with a government that has long lost the confidence of the people to progressively and adequately address the pressing issues that we now face.

If they are not competently and successfully resolved, these issues could negatively impact all of us for many generations to come.

Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to pgalanis@gmail.com.

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