The government is seriously considering the implementation of a permanent voter register in time for the next election in an effort to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised given the COVID-19 pandemic, Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said yesterday.
“Certainly, from a registration standpoint, based on some recommendations from the parliamentary commissioner, we’re contemplating seriously going in the direction of a permanent register,” said Dames, who has ministerial oversight of the Parliamentary Registration Department.
“But we understand, too, that you want to consult and make certain that the Bahamian people are fully aware of where we’re going.”
He added, “We have been known as a nation with a high voter turnout. We want to maintain that. And based on the presentation and the consultation by the parliamentary commissioner, I think that this puts us in a very good position to do that.”
Dames said that while the pandemic has served as a catalyst for the move, having already delayed the start of registration, the modernization of the voting process has been needed for some time.
“The thought of having especially our senior citizens and persons with comorbidities standing on these long lines, and we are already behind the curve in terms of registration because we ought to have started the parliamentary registrar [from] I think June,” he said.
“[So], what that means is you will have a shortened period to register close to 200,000 voters. And the health risk is so significant.
“And even without that, that aside, this is where we’re going. We have to modernize our voting process. It’s too archaic.
“We would have done some work already, some research already on some other modernization stuff. But, I mean, obviously, given the periods that we were impacted by Dorian and now we’re impacted by COVID, that has certainly impacted our progress in many respects, but from a voting side, we are looking down that path.”
Dames said if the changes were to be made, only new voters would be required to register. He said this would allow more resources to be allocated to ensuring the integrity of the register.
“Everyone on the register now would be considered registered,” he said.
“Some people say, ‘Well how do you clean it up?’
“What you do is you have more time to look at the voters’ registration list and put more resources in the area of ensuring and maintaining the integrity of the register.
“But right now, the way we currently do it, most of our resources go toward creating these locations and having people stand on these long lines to register.
“And so, what we’re saying is you already have a register for the most part that would have gone through some due diligence.
“[Of] the persons who had registered, close to 90 percent would have registered with a passport and with other official government documents, almost 100 percent.”
Dames noted that The Bahamas isn’t the only country forced to reconsider its voting procedures as a result of COVID. He also noted that the country would join numerous others that already have permanent registers.
“You have countries like Jamaica, Barbados, other countries throughout the region, and the UK, Canada, these countries that have permanent registers,” he said.
“Every country that is facing an election is having to look at its [processes] in light of COVID and to make adjustments to ensure that the voter is not disenfranchised, but if you have this COVID environment and you expect your grandmother and people who have comorbidities to come out and stand on lines for long periods, a lot of them aren’t going to do it.”
Dames said the change should not require any constitutional amendments.
“From our view and all of our research, this doesn’t require any constitutional amendments or anything,” he said.
“It’s just requiring some small amendments to the [Parliamentary Elections] Act.”
In the last general election in 2017, there were 181,543 registered voters. Voter turnout was just over 88 percent, with 160,409 voters casting their ballots.
Leading up to the election, there was controversy over the state of the voter register. Hundreds of discrepancies were found before the register was certified, including the duplication of names and incorrectly recorded birth dates.
Chaos ensued weeks later at the advanced poll, which saw a number of people unable to vote because their names were not on the register.
The saga led to calls for the modernization of the process.
Following its electoral observation mission to The Bahamas, the Organization of American States (OAS) said: “The mission observed that electoral procedures in The Bahamas are currently developed in a largely manual fashion, including the registration process and the issuance of the voter’s card, and recommended The Bahamas consider modernizing its processes to improve efficiency and security and reduce the level of human error.”
Dames said yesterday that consultation is still underway regarding the proposed changes to the registration process, but he said feedback so far has been largely positive.
“The parliamentary commissioner is making the rounds and doing the consultation,” he said.
“We would have already done a significant amount of [consultation] within civil society, political organizations. And most of the feedback that we have been getting has been extremely positive. People are saying, ‘What are you waiting on? Why has it taken so long for us to get to this point?’
“But this is all a part of even a more comprehensive strategy of us modernizing the whole process of voters’ registration, this whole process of voting. We would have already done a lot of due diligence on voting, but of course, given this COVID environment, some things obviously will take a little longer than others.”