The right to vote is fundamental for a citizen, and it is the cornerstone of our democracy.
The essential right that separates Bahamians from non-Bahamians in The Bahamas, is the right to cast one’s ballot on election day.
Whenever one eligible Bahamian voter is disenfranchised, the democracy is weakened and the extent to which you show indifference to the violation of a Bahamian’s right to vote today, determines how easy it might be for your right to be violated tomorrow.
The body that determines the parameters of eligibility to cast one’s ballot in The Bahamas is the Parliament.
There ought never be a circumstance in The Bahamas where instead of the Parliament, one man’s edict determines whether a Bahamian ought to be able to cast his or her ballot on election day.
But with respect to Bahamians under quarantine or isolation orders of the competent authority, this is precisely the circumstance we have before us.
Such a situation is a good example of why holding an election under a state of emergency is incompatible with democracy, since a state of emergency involves both the suspension of constitutional rights, and the issuance of emergency laws that impose restrictions on the population which do not first require the approval of Parliament.
The Bahamas’ COVID-19 response has already resulted in the constitutional rights of freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, and freedom of protection from arbitrary arrest or detention being suspended or threatened.
Having been under this untenable state for a year and a half, many Bahamians have become desensitized to losses of freedom, and in turn, have accepted the state of affairs as a necessary new normal.
But if arguments can be made that such curtailment of constitutional rights is necessary to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, there is certainly no justifiable argument in our democracy that can be made that giving up one’s right to vote combats the spread of the COVID virus.
In a 2020 briefing paper on managing elections in the context of COVID-19, the Commonwealth of which The Bahamas is a member state, said, “Now more than ever, EMBs (election management bodies) need to take measures to facilitate the participation of vulnerable groups.
“While it is true that ‘COVID-19 does not discriminate’ in terms of who it infects, certain groups are at greater risk of poor outcomes and are, therefore, taking extra precautions that may affect their ability to participate.
“At the same time, those who are self-isolating or in quarantine because of possible exposure, or who are infected and at home or in hospital, also have the right to vote and should be able to exercise it.”
The Ministry of Health has not provided the public with contact tracing data in the third wave, which would give insight into the average number of close contacts those who are COVID-positive have been found to have.
The current number of people in isolation for COVID infection or in quarantine for COVID exposure has also not been disclosed by the ministry, but as of August 27, the country had 2,883 active cases.
If, for example, each of these cases had a minimum of three close contacts – and assuming that contact tracing and quarantine protocols are being effectively enforced – there could be around 8,649 under quarantine orders.
From this example, it is easy to see how there could be thousands of people under COVID containment orders, and a general election for isolated and quarantined eligible voters would be neither free nor fair, if provisions are not made to enable them to safely cast their ballot.
Stripping these Bahamians of their ability to vote could also impact the outcome of contests in various seats, since a candidate need only secure a simple majority of votes to be declared the winner.
COVID-19 DOES NOT NEGATE ELIGIBIITY
As per Section 10 of the Parliamentary Elections Act, the only factors that disqualify a Bahamian from voting in a general election are “while he is serving a sentence of imprisonment (by whatever name called) imposed by any court in The Bahamas, or is under sentence of death imposed by any such court, or is suffering imprisonment in lieu of the execution of such sentence; or while he is deemed to be a lunatic or of unsound mind by virtue of any finding or declaration under any act.”
SARS-CoV-2 infection or established exposure to the virus falls under neither of those categories.
There are some who argue that letting quarantined Bahamians vote will threaten the safety of other voters, but this is a position based on fear rather than reason.
If COVID-19 infection is to be the criterion for which Bahamians should not be permitted to cast their ballot next month, then all voters would need to be tested before being permitted to enter the polling place on election day, and whoever comes up positive must be turned away from the polling station by the authorities, and immediately quarantined.
The average Bahamian would no doubt protest such a move as being unjust and an attempt to silence the voice of Bahamians at the polls, yet this is precisely the fate that would be suffered by potentially thousands in isolation or quarantine if provisions are not made to protect their right to vote.
Given the high rate of SARS-CoV-2 transmission throughout the country, there are likely to be many COVID-positive Bahamians at polling stations nationwide, just as there can be COVID-positive poll workers, party agents and law enforcement officers assigned to the polling places.
This is the reality when an election is held in the height of an infectious disease outbreak.
Most who contract SARS-CoV-2 will be either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and with heavily attended campaign activities ramping up, the chance of infected voters presenting themselves on poll day could be even greater than what existed prior to the start of the election period.
A person under quarantine might not in fact be COVID-positive.
Even if COVID infection exists, those in isolation or quarantine pose no more of a risk to the public on election day by reason of their containment, than would regular voters who are COVID-positive and either they or the authorities do not know it.
All democratic countries in the region have made provisions for quarantined and COVID-positive voters to cast their ballots in elections held during the pandemic, and established relevant safety protocols to accomplish the same.
The Parliamentary Elections Act envisioned that there would be Bahamians who might be confined to a healthcare or residential facility, or who might be suffering from illness and infirmity on election day, and both affirms their right to vote, and makes provisions for casting one’s ballot as a special voter.
Section 49C of the act outlines categories of special voters who may vote in the advanced poll.
One such category designated in subsection (a) of the paragraph is where “the person is, or is likely to be, on the appointed day for taking the poll, a patient in any hospital, nursing home, home for the aged or other institution for the treatment of any chronic illness or disability.”
Subsection (b) makes provision for “a person by reason of illness, infirmity, pregnancy or recent childbirth, unable to vote in the constituency in which he or she is registered on the appointed day for the taking of the poll.”
Based on the response by minister responsible for elections Marvin Dames when questioned by reporters about the ability of quarantined voters to cast their ballot, it appears the subject had not previously arisen at the Cabinet level.
This is frankly unsurprising, since proper planning and attention to detail have not been characteristic of governance by the Minnis administration.
Neither has due care and attention to how various groups are affected by emergency orders, been characteristic of the competent authority’s style of one-man emergency rule over the last 17 months.
In routine fashion of making statements that are diametrically opposed to logic or correctness, Health Minister Renward Wells in an interview with The Nassau Guardian on this issue, compared the right to vote of those in COVID quarantine, to those disqualified from voting due to a prison sentence following conviction for a criminal offense.
That the two would be even remotely equated by the country’s health minister, is yet another example of why the country’s COVID response is not in the best of hands.
Application for voting in the advanced poll closes at 11:59 p.m. on September 4 for special voters, according to the Parliamentary Registration Department.
Of course, if an eligible registered voter does not vote in the advanced poll, he or she can still vote in the general election slated for September 16.
But the prime minister as competent authority, must uphold and advance the lawful eligibility of COVID-positive voters and their quarantined contacts, and adjust his emergency orders to allow for isolated and quarantined voters, subject to relevant safety protocols, to be free to exercise their right to vote.
The Bahamas has multiple examples across the globe of how democratic countries have handled this issue, and in no instance has the participation of isolated or quarantined voters been reported by relevant countries as a cause of increased incidences of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the population.
Therefore, there is no excuse to be had by government that this is an unprecedented situation to effectively manage.
Details have not yet been provided to the public on how government will ensure that the advanced poll and general election are safe for voters and poll workers.
But since the SARS-CoV-2 status of all voters and poll workers will not be known ahead of time, the safety protocols must be structured to minimize risk for all concerned.
Principally, those protocols would still include proper mask wearing, adequate social distancing and hand sanitizing.
At the end of the day, there is no circumstance – including a pandemic – that justifies the disenfranchisement of eligible voters.
The right to vote is most sacred, and if by our silence we give consent to emergency rule upending that right, we are opening the door for future states of emergency rule to strip from us even more than we have already been forced to surrender.