A Case for the Spoiled Ballot, Part III

As noted in Parts I and II, I am not inclined to support any candidate or political party with my vote in the 2017 general election in The Bahamas. As a community organizer, I have committed myself to #OutDaBox242 — a series of sustained citizen-led actions to co-create a political system that works for the people of The Bahamas. Our first action is one of civil disobedience with the general election as the staging ground. We are expected to choose from the preselected options on the ballot, but I find the options and the electoral system inadequate and undeserving of my endorsement, so I will withhold it. I know that others take a similar position for a variety of reasons, and have decided not to participate. I will explore that more fully at another time and focus, for now, on my decision to participate in an unconventional way.

Opting out of the general election exercise is not an option for me. I have the right to vote, and as a woman who continues to fight for the rights of women and girls, I fully intend to exercise that right. As I cast my ballot, I will whisper my thanks to Dame Dr. Doris Johnson, Mary Ingraham, Eugenia Lockhart, Sylvia Laramore-Crawford, and all of the women of the Women’s Suffrage Movement who worked tirelessly for this — not so that people in 2017 could shame others into exercising the right, or exercising it in a prescribed fashion, but so that we may have the right, and do with it what we will, just as we do with the right to work, to worship, and to move through public space.

If I thought I had to either vote for the lesser of the evils or refrain from participating, I would have likely voted for the lesser (in my opinion) of the evils. Fortunately, I know that those are not my only options. I know that I can spoil my ballot. More than that, I know that I can send a strong message with my spoiled ballot, especially if it is in the company of thousands of other spoiled ballots. I acknowledge the urgency many Bahamians feel to vote out the current administration. It is akin to the urgency I feel to cause for the electoral system to be changed in the favor of the Bahamian people, redistributing decision-making power and inspiring citizens to lead the charge. We need to change the way our representation is chosen, demand candidates we can vote for, and not by default. We deserve to be well-aware of their backgrounds, platforms, and visions for The Bahamas before we are called to choose.

“Not as bad as the worst” isn’t good enough. A vote for a candidate that forces me to endorse the candidate’s party leader is not the best version of democracy. Voting in support of a candidate or party whose funding remains a secret — in a country rife with backdoor deals, insta-rich politicians, and Members of Parliament who refuse to comply with the Public Disclosure Act — is unwise at best, and reckless at worst.

I do not support any of the existing political parties. I do not support any of the candidates I had no hand in selecting and have yet to hear from in a public forum on their values or platforms. Public debates and town hall meetings should be a part of the process. Public vetting should be a part of the process. Fifty years after the achievement of majority rule, we should know that it isn’t just about election day. Parties decide who will run where and who will lead the squad, all without our input. Then, they each give us one person to support. From that limited sample, we are expected to choose the one we think best, and be convinced that we, the majority, rule.

Is that really the case?

My spoiled ballot will be a statement. I reject the political parties that have plagued this nation for decades. I reject the new political parties that claim to bring something new, but function in the same old ways. I reject the candidates that have selected themselves to represent us, never asking us if we consider them fit for the job. Aren’t we the employers? Don’t we have to pay them? Why don’t we see the resumes, conduct the interviews, and compare them to the other applicants? I reject the electoral system that forces me to support a party leader when I support a party’s candidate. I reject the party system that locks the majority out of its processes for selecting candidates and leaders.

I believe we can do better as a country. We do not have to continue to perpetuate the dysfunction that this system imposes on us. We can use our power, as citizens of this country, to demand better. Demand more. Demand change. Silence does not build anything but barriers. We have to break it. On election day, we need to leave our homes and places of work to go to our polling stations and join our voices in the call to move this country forward, upward, and onward. Together.

If you support a political party or candidate, by all means, vote for them. If you do not, and cannot bring yourself to vote for one of them, don’t let it keep you from showing up. Register, go to your polling station, and spoil your ballot. Whether it’s an X across the entire sheet, a love note to the leader you deserve, or a line drawing of the Bahamian flag, any way you spoil your ballot is the right way. It is a way for you to register your interest in the development of this nation, dissatisfaction with the existing system, and commitment to being an active participant in our democracy, working toward citizen-led change.

Please do not opt out.

If there is no party or candidate you can enthusiastically support, let it be known. When the numbers are out and we can see how many people showed up, just to say “no” to every offer on the table, people will want to talk. From government leaders and media to political analysts and researchers, there will be questions, spaces to discuss, and five years to plan and stage our next moves. No matter what they tell you today, if 10,000 spoil their ballots on election day, there will be a reaction.

We’ve been playing the short game for far too long. We’ll have five years of whichever government we get in 2017. #OutDaBox242 proposes that the difference between possible administrations is negligible; hence the focus on citizen-led action that is and will be necessary, regardless of the results.

Will you join the movement to hold them accountable? To co-create a system that works for the people? To encourage independent candidates to offer themselves? To reimagine democracy in The Bahamas? To expand the rights of the Bahamian people to participate in our own democracy? We need not wait for a political party to offer or follow through on the changes on we want to see. We are the people. We are the power. When we activate, no party can withstand our strength. We need only push past the age-old idea that switching between political parties will bring us the change we need. No one is coming to save us. We are the heroes we seek.

My ballot will not tell the current administration that it deserves another term. It will not tell any opposition party that its performance over the past five years has engendered trust. It will not endorse lackluster leaders. It will say I am a Bahamian voter who refuses to opt out of this democratic exercise and refuses to be forced into the boxes drawn on it. It will say I am prepared to take an unpopular position. It will say I am going to, for the next five years and beyond, work for the political reform we need, knowing it will not be given by the people who benefit from it. It will come from the people. Who register. Who vote. Who show up. Who ACT.

Many say our vote is our voice. What will yours say?

Join the movement. #OutDaBox242 is on Facebook and Twitter.

A Case for the Spoiled Ballot, Part II

There is a false assumption that voters must choose from the options on the ballot, whether they like them or not.

Most Bahamian voters are not able to participate in the nomination process for candidates or party leaders. A small group of people get together and carry out a closed process, then offer their selections to us. At this point, we are expected to choose between all of the candidates in our constituencies, having no comparative data, little opportunity to engage them in dialogue on pressing national issues, no indication of their capabilities in comparison with those of their opponents, and no means of recall. Votes for candidates ratified by political parties are then proxies for the election of the nation’s Prime Minister. My vote for the Member of Parliament of my choice is taken as endorsement of that candidate’s party leader. I am forced, along with all Bahamian voters, to vote for two people with one X (unless I vote for an independent candidate which strips me of my right to vote for the PM of my choice).

None of the major political parties in The Bahamas have my interest, much less my trust.

The PLP won us over in 2012 with a catchy slogan that made us feel good about ourselves, and kept us from thinking about them. They told us they believed in us, but they were never specific. They didn’t tell us they believed in our silence. Our shortsightedness. Our reluctance to rise against them. We didn’t ask them to go deeper, because we liked what we heard. We were excited about a political party that believed in us. The party gave us that Obama change-you-can-believe-in feel-good affect. The novelty wore off, and we found ourselves discounted, disrespected, and disaffected. It didn’t believe in us. It tried to scapegoat us to stay in the church’s good graces. It asked us a million-dollar question, ignored our answer, and made us foot the bill. That’s not what believing in us looks like. It flushed thousands of jobs down the toilet, left civil society to bring relief to the islands and families most affected by two devastating hurricanes, imposed a tax that severely impacts small businesses and the 12.8% of the population that lives below the poverty line. The party contributed to the failure of the gender equality bills, and refused to answer question after question. VAT money, carnival, tainted water supply, and Baha Mar are still on our minds, but deflection and distraction are always on the PLP menu. I cannot vote for the PLP.

The FNM was given ideal conditions to position itself to win the next general election. It’s unfortunate that they did not care. The performance of the Public Accounts Committee was abysmal. Their record of compliance with the Public Disclosure Act continues to be at ankle-height. The Bahamas spent the past few months watching the FNM completely fall apart, waiting for the announcement of its final bonfire. The party continues to try to convince us that its members are together, strong, and prepared for the job, but without providing any evidence. They haven’t even been able to keep their website up. The FNM fully expects to sit back, relax, and win by default, riding on the premise that we have no other choice. How could I give them my one X?

The DNA has always been a non-option for me. I simply cannot take the party seriously. It started as an inflated temper tantrum by someone who appointed himself leader. He then went on to select a group of the most random, unprepared candidates possible for the 2012 general election. Many hoped the DNA would improve and gain more support by the 2017 election, but the party has given me nothing to go on. McCartney has made a number of statements, but none of them included plans or solutions. I know people who complain, blame, and rebuke far better than McCartney, so even that does not win him any facetious titles like “expert detractor”. Worse, he believes a woman owes her husband sex, in perpetuity, from the time they take marriage vows. The DNA has been in the best possible position for the past five years — able to watch, make substantial public contributions, and build community while expanding its own base. The party has not done this, and even if it had and was comprised of the most stellar candidates, I would never vote for the DNA. I am a woman, and I intend to retain full control of my body, whether or not I take marriage vows. Anyone who can stand behind McCartney stands against me. With that line in the sand, I cannot give the DNA my X.

The number of independent candidates in the next election is encouraging. It is great to see people thinking beyond party. It is unfortunate that so many believe the only way to create change is to become a part of the system, but that is a discussion for another time and space. That aside, I believe we will see more of this in elections to come, and it could lead us to a coalition government. I have not yet met or received any word from an independent candidate in my constituency and, honestly, at this stage, I have no interest in hearing from one. It is a bit too late to look for my support in three short months. That is not a long enough time to demonstrate commitment to the community, beyond political aspirations.

Given our current electoral system, a vote for an independent would deprive me of the opportunity to weigh in on the leadership of the country. In the current political climate, it also has a high chance of splitting the opposition vote, and creating another wide margin between the winning party and the official opposition. That is a sacrifice I would consider in more depth if I had a candidate I could fully support, but having none, this is my position. While I support those who will, I will not be voting for an independent candidate in 2017.

None of the political parties in The Bahamas have made a connection with me. I do not read the statements, view the actions, or hear the rhetoric and feel any sense of conviction or shared vision with any of them. More than that, I struggle to see the difference between them. We have consistently seen one party break off from another, not on the basis of beliefs or guiding principles, but differences in personality and power struggles. This has led us to this place — a number of political parties, one not different from any other.

One would be hard-pressed to order political parties in The Bahamas from least to most conservative. It would be an exercise in futility to make any qualitative distinctions between political parties. In this moment, we have the same party, a few times over, with different names, faces, and colors. They largely operate in the same ways, (fail to) stand for the same things, refuse to change the systems they criticized when those systems begin to serve them, and treat the Bahamian people as afterthoughts. They are committed to serving themselves, keeping each other’s secrets (even across party lines), and retaining power. If there is no difference between parties, what is there to convince me to vote for one over the other(s)?

The politicians are lackluster, yes, but they are not the only problem. We have a failing system. It is this system that allows parties to receive campaign funding from anyone they choose, and without disclosing. It is this system that allows the closed process for party candidates and leaders to continue. This system allows for the drawing of new boundaries, in favor of the current administration.

Are we ready to be introduced to potential candidates and their platforms in town hall meetings? Are we ready for mandatory public debates? Are we ready for an independent electoral commission? Are we ready to cast separate votes for MP and PM?

Are we ready to reject the system that has led us to where we now find ourselves, uninspired by the options put before us? Are we ready to reject the idea that we must support one of the existing options? Are we ready to refuse to vote for anyone, by default, who has done nothing to earn it? Are we ready to kickstart a national conversation about building a system that will serve us? Are we ready to be counted as concerned citizens who will not settle (rather than discounted as apathetic if we do not participate)? Are we ready to march, together, to the polls to reject the status quo and make our demands?

We can do all of the above in two steps.

  1. Register to vote.
  2. Spoil the ballot.

Join the movement. #OutDaBox242 is on Facebook and Twitter.

A Case for the Spoiled Ballot, Part I

I am a Bahamian, and have been since the day of my birth in Nassau, Bahamas. My parents are Bahamians, as are their parents, and their parents’ parents. They have all participated in Bahamian democracy to varying extents, and have all exercised the right to vote. I grew up in the ’90s, at a time when The Bahamas decided it was ready to end one man’s 25-year political reign. Young as I was, I remember the energy during the election seasons of 1992 and 1997, and the palpable excitement born of people drunk on democratic power to make strong statements through the marking of one X. There was optimism.

I remember spreading the newspaper tracking grids for the election on the floor in 1997, carefully filling in numbers as they were announced, giving family members updates on the tally. I knew who they voted for — who they had always voted for — and that it was an important night, for everyone. I looked forward to being a part of the process, and marking my X in support of a candidate and a leader I believed in.

I have been eligible to vote for the past two elections, but have yet to feel that energy again. It is gone. Those may have been the last years that the Bahamian people yearned for change, and truly believed it would come with the election of a different party and that party’s leader. Since then, it’s been an almost-mindless exercise of teaching two parties, in turn, the same lesson over and over again:

Disappoint, and we will vote you out.

For more than two decades, the Bahamian people have been voting against candidates and parties rather than for their alternatives. It’s certainly a way to make a decision, but isn’t a sign of a healthy democracy. In a representative democracy, Members of Parliament are tasked with representing their constituencies and their collective interest, but they generally seem to be more interested in representing party.

When did party become more important than people? When did we give our representatives permission to meet behind closed doors, discuss matters that directly affect us, come to conclusions, and present them to their counterparts, all without consultation with us — their employers?

Perhaps they misinterpreted silence as permission.

They watch as we struggle to get 20 people to stand together in Rawson Square for causes we claim are important to us. They listen as we tear each other down based on minor differences that don’t come close to the multitude of things we have in common. They smell the rotting fruit of fear, surrounding trees they planted long ago, together with their “opponents”.

Is it not time for them to feel the rising power of the people they have ignored for so long?

Is it not time for them to suffer the bitter aftertaste of being swindled out of whatever they had to give?

T-shirts — some with phone cards bundled inside — may have been considered fair trade for Xs before, but not any more. They don’t excite us. No manifestos, charters of governance, or partial slates are good enough to win us over. We are tired. We are unimpressed. We are far too experienced, now, to put our hope in groups of people who decide among themselves that they are good enough to represent us, but never seem to find the words to speak for us. We will no longer accept this dynamic. We are ready to demand better. To refuse to comply. To disobey. Right?

People try to convince us that our vote is our only voice. That is a lie. Democracy does not visit us once every five years, then leave. It is always here, ready to be exercised. We need only decide that it is ours to master, to champion, and to demonstrate. It is a matter of choice.

I choose to be an active participant in democracy, as is my right. I choose to advocate for the rights of women and girls. I choose to sign petitions, join protests, and organize communities to take action. I choose to register to vote. I choose to withhold my vote from parties and candidates that have done nothing to earn it. I choose to publicly discuss my decision to spoil the ballot. I choose to encourage others not inclined to support any existing parties or candidates to take the time to register to vote, stand in line, and spoil their ballots. I choose to illuminate the often-overlooked opportunity to reject the options put to us and the system by which they were selected, on the record. I choose to co-design an innovative, responsive, comprehensive campaign to push 10,000 people #OutDaBox242 in 2017 as a step — one of several — toward a necessary shift in political culture.

Join the movement. #OutDaBox242 is on Facebook and Twitter.