Voter turnout for The Bahamas’ 2021 general election appeared to be the lowest seen in the modern history of the country, with counted votes indicating a decrease of more than 20 percent, compared to the 2017 election.
Bahamians are typically eager to cast their ballots with turnout averages over the past several decades hovering in the 90 percent range.
With 126,495 votes recorded, the figure represents 65 percent of the 194,524 people on the register, according to Parliamentary Registration Department.
However, there has been no indication of how many spoiled ballots there were, so an exact figure on the voter turnout is not available yet.
According to figures posted to carribeanelections.com, which sources its data from the Parliamentary Registration Department, the 2017 general election’s voter turnout was 88.4 percent – at the time, the country’s lowest since 1987.
Turnout was 90.8 percent in 2012, 92.1 percent in 2007, 90.2 percent in 2002, 93.2 percent in 1997, 91.2 percent in 1992, and 87.9 in 1987.
It is unclear how much health concerns factored into the decision of many Bahamians to not make their way to the polls on Thursday.
The last-minute announcement that quarantined voters would be allowed to cast their ballots as normal, and in line with the general public, was unsettling for many.
But it is likely that a number of factors contributed to the low turnout.
The transition to a permanent voters’ register meant that only those who did not register to vote in the 2017 election had to register.
However, people who moved since the last election were required to go to the Parliamentary Registration Department to change their addresses.
With the election not due until May 2022, former Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis’ decision to call a snap election eight months early meant that some people did not update their addresses in time.
Many, however, have speculated that the low turnout indicates a worrying and widespread disinterest in supporting either of the two major parties.
Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG) Executive Director Matt Aubry said the drastic decrease indicates some issues that should not be ignored.
While noting that the COVID pandemic contributed, Aubry said it was likely not the only factor.
“If the voter turnout was in the 60s, that’s almost a 30 percent drop,” he said.
“And that is significant.”
While noting that turnout during pandemic elections fell in countries like Jamaica, Aubry said in other places, like Turks and Caicos, and some nations in Latin America, turnout remained high.
“I think you can’t detach this from the COVID environment,” he said.
“I think that obviously has some level of contribution. At the same time, I think there were other components that made it somewhat of a perfect storm.
“If you look at the snap election, if you look at a new type of registry, if you look at the significant reaction, particularly from young voters and first-time voters, and you look at the tremendous amount of candidates who did nominate, all of these must have some level of contributing factor.”
Aubry said the numbers seem to indicate a move from the typical considerations that have historically motivated Bahamian voters.
“Those that weren’t prepared to have an emotional vote either stepped back or didn’t show up,” he said.
“And so, that tells us, I think, long term, that there are some issues.
“We saw even in the 2017 election lower numbers than we had before; and even though there is kind of a recognition that the Bahamian civic voice is strongest at elections when people come out in tremendous numbers, it may indicate that people are now thinking these things through, and maybe not as connected to the dynamics that have driven Bahamian politics in the past.
“And when given a choice that they don’t like, then staying back or not making a choice is telling us something. And it is indicating that there was a portion, a significant portion, of Bahamians that are looking for something maybe different, or are dissatisfied, or have a distrust in a certain system. And that’s crucial.”
While the advanced poll was hectic, with long lines and waiting times, Election Day was shockingly quiet at many polling stations, with no long lines and no crowds.
In spite of this, after casting his ballot, Minnis said he was confident turnout would be high.
“Generally speaking, Bahamians are very anxious to vote,” he told reporters.
“That’s their constitutional and democratic responsibility and I anticipate at least 90 percent or more individuals would turn out to vote.”
Former Minister of National Security Marvin Dames, who had responsibility for the election, had also previously expressed confidence that Bahamians would turn out in large numbers to vote.
However, that did not happen, and the Progressive Liberal Party, led by Philip Brave Davis, was ushered into government in a race that was not close but also did not see the enthusiastic participation that has become customary during Bahamian elections.