Op-Ed

Voter suppression and the FNM      

“Voting is the most precious right of every citizen, and we have a moral obligation to ensure the integrity of our voting process.”  Hillary Clinton

As the campaign heats up, the 2021 general election is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested and consequential in recent history.

The Free National Movement (FNM) ads have sunk to new lows. In contrast, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) has opted to stay on the high road, speaking to the issues, plans, and programs without disparaging personalities in the FNM.

The PLP’s issues-oriented campaign approach is refreshingly novel in our political culture. It demonstrates the party’s commitment to usher in a “new day” in The Bahamas. Which approach will ultimately appeal to the electorate and win the day remains to be seen.

One of the new variables that has entered our politics this season for the first time is the claim of voter suppression by the FNM.

Therefore, this week, I would like to consider this — is the FNM guilty of voter suppression in the 2021 general election campaign?

Voter suppression defined

To suppress means “to end or stop by force”.

Voter suppression is the use of methods and techniques to impact the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting.

Voter suppression in 2021

That voter suppression has entered our politics should not surprise anyone who attentively listened to the prime minister.

Last year, the prime minister stated that he intended for the electorate to vote in the same constituencies as the last general election in 2017.

The prime minister telegraphed that he never intended to permit the boundaries to be redrawn based on population shifts resulting from natural attrition or two devastating hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic. Those population changes were significant.

The prime minister achieved his pernicious intent to have us vote on the 2017 constituency boundaries by unabashedly ignoring the considerable work of the Constituencies Commission, which is constitutionally mandated to recommend changes to existing boundaries based on population movements among the 39 constituencies.

The constitutional intent was that constituencies should be approximately the same size with, as far as practicable, an evenly divided number of voters in each constituency. In some instances, particularly among the smaller, more sparsely populated Family Islands, this is more difficult to achieve, but not so for our archipelago’s larger, more populated islands.

Because the Constituencies Commission Report was not tabled and debated in Parliament, the number of voters in previously constituted constituencies could have dramatically changed during the last four years. The public will not know until after the election.

Consequently, because of the movement of persons from one constituency to another, as in the case of Hurricane Dorian and the pandemic, we may end up with a constituency with 6,000 voters electing a representative, with an adjacent constituency having only 4,000 voters.

If the Constituencies Commission Report was debated and accepted, those two constituencies may well have been adjusted to comprise 5,000 voters each.

The founding fathers of our country intended to divide constituencies, so that they were comparable in size, where this was practicable, to provide equal representation for all.

The FNM government has completely ignored this principle, either because they did not know any better or, perhaps more accurately, they simply do not care about doing better.

A more plausible explanation is that the prime minister arrived at the naïve conclusion that he won the 2017 election based on the constituencies that were drawn at that time and therefore decided to use the same 2017 construct in 2021 because it was successful for him four years ago.

However, many Bahamians believe that, in the end, the prime minister and the FNM will be in for a rude awakening on September 16, 2021.

Apparently, they have forgotten that the FNM did not win the last election. What really happened is that the people completely rejected the PLP and voted them out of office by voting for someone else; in this case, the FNM candidates.

The decision to ignore the work of the Constituencies Commission is dangerous for two reasons: first, it violates the intention of our constitution; and second, it skews the voting results for disproportionately configured constituencies.

The second devious intent at voter suppression is rooted in how the prime minister called the general election before everyone who wanted to vote had an opportunity to register. This had the insidious effect of disenfranchising many, possibly thousands, from exercising their right and duty to vote in the September 16 election.

This is an overt act of voter suppression, especially because former prime ministers always sounded a last warning about the calling of elections to allow persons who were not registered to vote a final window of time to do so.

The third insidious example of voter suppression was conducting an election at the height of the COVID pandemic.

The month of August was the worst month for positive COVID-19 cases; more than 3,000.

Because many people will feel they could contract the virus, vaccinated or not, by standing on the lines to vote or in the polling stations or in the tiny voting booth itself, they may be afraid to exercise their right to vote on September 16. That form of voter suppression was created by the prime minister’s decision to hold an election on that date.

The government appears to be moving in the direction of preventing quarantined individuals from exercising their right to vote, with two government ministers last week strongly suggesting this will be the case.

If no provision is indeed made for quarantined individuals to vote, this would amount to a sinister attempt at voter suppression, which would be unconstitutional.

The Parliamentary Elections Act specifically delineates the categories of persons who are ineligible to vote: a citizen who is not of sound mind or one who is imprisoned. Persons who are quarantined fall in neither of those two categories and, therefore, should not be unilaterally and unconstitutionally deprived of their right to vote.

The government has not thought this through.

If they try to suppress quarantined persons from voting, many of them would 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, neither the government nor uninfected voters nor poll workers will know whether a quarantined citizen shows up on Election Day to vote.

Because 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 very likely become a super spreader event.

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 will apply to such persons. 

Many countries allow quarantined persons to vote, either by mail-in ballots, drop-off ballots, or other means. This government appears to want to take the easy road by simply depriving quarantined persons of their right to vote. But there is another possible reason for this.

The government probably also anticipates that many quarantined voters are disgusted with the government’s mismanagement of the COVID crisis and will likely vote against the government. One way to prevent such a resounding rejection of the government for mismanaging this crisis from this voting bloc is to prevent quarantined persons from voting.


Voter suppression as a new normal

Voter suppression seems to be in the air, not only here in The Bahamas, but also in other countries as well.

It has become a new normal, especially for desperate politicians who believe that the only way to win an election is if they manipulate or suppress the voting process. Some of our politicians have adopted this ethos and have decided to win at any cost, even at the expense of increasing illness and untimely deaths.


Conclusion

The right to vote is precious. Therefore, it is incumbent on the government and all citizens to ensure that every opportunity is provided for all eligible persons to vote.

Voter suppression distorts the will of the electorate and results in the election of unscrupulous representatives who make depraved decisions that could disrupt and derail our prospects for success for generations to come.

We must, therefore, jealously guard and protect our precious right to vote.

We must reject those who seek to subvert the process by suppressing our right to vote for their personal gain and egotistical aggrandizement. To do otherwise, would condemn our democracy to an untimely demise and forfeit our rights as free citizens. Period.

• 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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