Almost two years ago, in October 2018, Marvin Dames, minister of national security who holds responsibility for the Parliamentary Registration Department and the conduct of elections, said that some $4 million had been set aside to upgrade the department.
Then last week Tuesday, the minister advised that the government was giving consideration to converting the present register of voters into a permanent voters’ register.
The sound bite of a permanent register is appealing.
As a result of this conversion, he said, “Everyone on the register now would be considered registered.”
This would, he said, prevent for most elderly voters and others with comorbidities from exposing themselves to risk of COVID-19 infection while standing on long lines at voter registration stations if we continued with the present voter registration system.
However, we believe there is a need to examine where we are now; how we got here and where we need to go before we go there.
Firstly, how did we get here?
As the Good Book warned against putting new wine in old wineskins, so too must we be cautioned against using the existing register of voters as a permanent register.
Back in 1987, the register of voters did not close before election day.
We had what was called “same-day registration”. This permitted individuals to register to vote even on election day. So, there was no certainty as to who was eligible to vote.
Fair, honest and credible elections may only be conducted on a credible register of voters. And candidates and political parties must know who are eligible to vote before election day.
On general election day 1987, constituency registers were still being printed by this newspaper as people went to the polls. And candidates for election stood outside our offices waiting to receive copies of their constituency registers so that they could verify whether people voting in their constituencies were in fact qualified to do so.
The process was so chaotic that the opposition FNM sought to have the election results annulled.
Eventually, as is appropriate in a democracy, the two major parties, the PLP and the FNM, agreed upon a way forward for the 1992 general election.
That agreement resulted in the five-year register we have today. This requires the existing register to die at the end of five years and a new register to be prepared.
The registration of voters closes the day before the dissolution of Parliament.
General elections were held under these agreed rules in 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2017 without issue except for in 2007 and 2017.
In 2007, the late decision on the cutting of boundaries created much confusion. And that confusion led to nonsense, including some voters, resident in a single household, being placed not only in different polling divisions but in entirely different constituencies! Then, following the election, the PLP refused to concede defeat in three constituencies — Marco City, Pinewood and Blue Hills.
The voter registration for the last general election was hopelessly flawed by incompetence and ineptitude; a throwback to the 1987 election. So riddled with inaccuracies was the register that in April 2017, Prime Minister Minnis, then leader of the opposition, described it as being in such disarray as to prevent the then PLP government from producing a clean register upon which Bahamians could rely to produce a free and fair election.
Hurricane Dorian in September last year followed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March have further undermined the current register of voters.
Any attempt therefore to now convert the fatally flawed present register of voters into a permanent register would be a fool’s errand.
(To be continued)