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Culture Clash: Last Call for Voter Registration

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on April 5, 2017

According to reports from the Parliamentary Registration Department, 141,698 people had registered to vote as at March 20 for the 2017 general election .

Voter registration has been remarkably slow, and attention was first drawn to it in the last quarter of 2016.

On November 16, it was reported that only 57,000 people were registered to vote compared to 134,000 at the same point in 2011 before the last election.

Voter registration is expected to increase given the announcement that Parliament will be dissolved on April 10, ending voter registration for the 2017 general election. More than 30,000 people would need to register to vote before Tuesday to meet the 2012 voter registration count of 172,128.

For many years, we have boasted about high voter participation in general elections in the Bahamas. In the 2012 general election, 91.2 per cent of registered voters participated. In the general elections of 2007 and 2002, we saw 92.08 per cent and 90.18 per cent of registered voters cast ballots. While 90 per cent is quite high, it is important to note that these numbers are based on the number of people registered to vote; not the number of people eligible to vote.

It is unfortunate that our system puts the onus on the citizen to opt-in to the exercise, forcing Bahamians to gather documents, stand in long lines, complete forms, and sometimes return multiple times, all to ensure that they are able to vote in this country. The voter registration process is a barrier to participation. Perhaps it is a part of the reason for low voter registration, especially when so many people remain unconvinced by any political party or candidate.

When the numbers were revealed in November, showing that less than 50 per cent of those that registered by November in 2011 registered by 2016, we all knew it was a cause for concern. Everyone asked the same question. Why?

We see ourselves as enthusiastic participants in general elections. We show up en masse for rallies. We dress in party colours. We assume party affiliation based on the colours other people wear. We argue passionately about our political persuasions. Many of us are longtime swing voters, unattached to any party. No matter what, we are generally excited to vote. After five years or – worse – ten years of a particular administration, we are ready to make the switch. We have a long list of grievances with the current administration, and we know they need to be taught a lesson.

For that reason, we vote them out. We rarely vote a new administration in. More often than not, we vote an administration – a political party – out.

This time, people are a combination of angry, disappointed, dissatisfied and confused. Not to be mistaken for apathy, what Bahamians seem to be feeling now is a sense of hopelessness. We see no saviours. No political party even appears to have it all together, able to present a plan it is prepared to act on. From leadership feuds to overall track records, no political party has been able to gain the trust of the people. In 2017, most of us have no one to vote for. Even so, many Bahamian are committed to voting the current administration out, whatever it takes.

This is not exciting. This is not positive. This is not the kind of election season we know and love. It does not make us want to stand in long lines to register to vote. Still, it is what we need to do. We need to seriously consider the options, based on candidate, party leadership, plans of action, track records, and voting history in Parliament on issues of interest to us.

In February, Out Da Box launched what has been deemed the “spoil-the-ballot” campaign – part of a larger movement to build people power through increased civic engagement. I have worked with Dr Nicolette Bethel and Dr Ian Strachan for months to build this movement, now primarily focused on encouraging Bahamians to participate in the general election exercise. We do not want our fellow Bahamians to believe they must choose the lesser of the evils or sit it out.

Our commitment to building people power and creating a space for greater civic engagement is not temporary, nor is it limited to the upcoming election. We see this campaign as a step toward a stronger spirit of activism and the beginning of a sustained conversation about electoral reform.

The short term goal of Out Da Box is get eligible Bahamian citizens to register to vote, then go to the polls to cast ballots. We present the option to spoil the ballot as an alternative to staying home or voting against one’s conscience. This campaign is building democracy and expanding the options of the Bahamian people through a national conversation about something that has always existed and never been publicly discussed – the ability to choose none.

Every Bahamian deserves the right to choose, whether that choice is one or none. Unfortunately, anyone who does not register to vote gives up the right choose on election day. After Parliament has dissolved, the option to vote will no longer be available to those who have not registered. It is important to give yourself the option by registering to vote before Tuesday, April 11. The lines are likely to be long and the process probably won’t be the most pleasant experience of the day, but your right as a citizen of this country is worth the time and effort.

Remember this: even if you do not support a political party or candidate, you can show up on election day. You can spoil your ballot. Some people are thinking about opting out in protest, as a sign of dissatisfaction, but that cannot be quantified. Spoiled ballots will be counted, and we will all be able to see how many Bahamians did not endorse a party or candidate.

If you support a party or candidate in your constituency, let your ballot reflect that. If you are committed to voting against a particular party, let your ballot reflect that. If you refuse to choose from the options put before you, let your ballot reflect that. Be clear about your position. Let it be counted. Let there be no mistake, no assumption and no confusion. Let your voice be heard. Bahamian democracy needs you.

Voter registration stations remain open up to and including Monday at 9pm. For those already registered, voter’s cards are now available at several locations including Thomas A Robinson National Stadium, Remnant Tabernacle Church and St. George’s Anglican Church. Call the Parliamentary Registration Department at 397-2000 to find out where you need to go to collect yours before all cards are relocated to the Department on Farrington Road.

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Culture Clash: On People Power and Functions of Democracy

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on March 22, 2017

As the general election of 2017 – date still unknown – draws near, conversations about democracy are being ignited, but largely limited to one of its functions.

The low rate of voter registration has led the Bahamian people to frame the act of voting as the only form of participation in democracy available to citizens.

While it is a direct action and right afforded to us through democracy, voting is not the only benefit of democracy. Additionally, the creation and maintenance of the political system is not the only function of democracy.

Democracy is a concept, system, and practice that we, as citizens of The Bahamas, need to understand. Many believe it to be limited to elections and voting, but it reaches far beyond such events.

Democracy has four main functions, three of which are often ignored while it is reduced to the first. While it is important to understand the theory of democracy, it is at least as critical to recognise all of its functions and put it into practice more fully and intentionally.

  • Political system

A democratic political system allows people to choose their leaders in regular, free elections.

Free, fair elections require a neutral administrating body to ensure fair treatment of all parties and candidates, allowance for individuals to monitor voting and the counting of votes and independent tribunals to hear disputes.

Beyond that, it allows the people to hold representatives accountable for their actions and inaction while in office. Democracy recognises the sovereignty of the people as government authority is subject to the people’s consent. Political power is only temporary while the power of the people is lasting and flows to their representatives at their will.

For this reason, those elected are to consult with their constituents to ascertain their needs and opinions to enable accurate representation. Through the democratic system, voters have the right to observe the conduct of government business, criticise elected representatives, launch and support campaigns, vote secretly and be free of intimidation as they participate.

  • Active participation

Like its benefits, the democratic burden does not fall solely on governments and political leaders to maintain, strengthen, and exercise it.

The onus is on citizens to be informed of national issues, observe the behaviour of elected and appointed officials, voice their concerns and challenge decisions imposed upon and ideas put to them.

While voting is an important exercise and a right afforded to citizens by the democratic political system, citizens are called to participate in public discussions. The voice of the people must be heard, and serve as a guide for political representatives who are to act in the interest of their constituents.

Participation is not synonymous with spectatorship. To fully participate in public life, citizens must be informed – and this often requires personal effort. Politically-driven narratives seldom give a full picture, and the media is not always capable, for many reasons, of delivering balanced reports. It is necessary to look at multiple news sources, ask questions and engage in conversations with people of varied persuasions. Democracy enables the people to actively participate through:

  1. Questions. Accept nothing as fact without evidence. Investigate claims and try to find multiple sources.
  2. Discussion. Share your thoughts and ideas with other people. Engage with people who do not look like you, have the same background as you, or think the same way as you. The purpose is not to win, or be on the side of popular opinion. Enter conversations with gaining new perspective as your goal.
  3. Challenges. Do not settle for less than you deserve. Make demands of your representatives. Hold them accountable for their actions, demand transparency and insist upon regular reporting to and consultation with the people.
  4. Mobilisation. Be prepared to work together, as citizens, to find common ground, make a plan and take action. Your power is strengthened with activated along with that of your fellow Bahamians.

Participation includes joining political campaigns, protesting, petitioning, organising within communities and running for political office. Involvement in civil society organisations is another way to be an active citizen, and can allow for informal education and mobilisation around specific interests and causes.

  • Human rights protection

Human rights are inherent to all people, regardless of gender, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, language or any other identity marker.

They are interdependent, indivisible and interrelated. Human rights are promoted and protected by international law, and the standard has been set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the UDHR protects against discrimination, slavery, torture, and unfair detainment, and affirms the right to life, freedom of movement, equality before the law, right to trial, right to privacy and right to nationality.

International law grants every citizen human rights that cannot be denied. Citizens are free to speak, practice their religions, associate with people and organisations, assemble, travel and engage in a number of other acts. In a democracy, citizens have these basic rights that cannot be denied.

  • Rule of Law

Democracy is subject to a set of laws. These laws exist for the protection of citizens’ rights, to maintain order in the country and to limit the power of the people’s representatives.

This function exists to ensure that rule is not subject to the whims of an individual or group of individuals. Because of the rule of law, all citizens are equal, none being above the law, regardless of position. It allows for fair and impartial decision-making by independent courts, separate from the government, which is meant to limit the power of representatives.

The people of The Bahamas can only benefit when democracy functions properly, being exercised by the citizens to whom it extends specific rights.

One right afforded to us through democracy is the casting of a ballot in the next general election. To exercise that right, we must take proof of Bahamian citizenship to register to vote. This is an important exercise that enables us to choose our constituency representatives and, by extension, the leadership of the country. It is not, however, the only way to participate in our democracy, and to suggest such is both dishonest and disempowering to the Bahamian people.

Let us encourage one another to exercise the right to vote, but include the other functions of democracy and methods of participation in our conversations for balance, comprehensiveness and strengthening of people power.

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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.

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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.

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#TooSexyToVote: Female Voter Suppression in The Bahamas

Published at LadyClever.com on January 27, 2017

On the heels of the U.S. Presidential Election, The Bahamas is preparing for its general election expected to be held n May 2017. The Bahamas has successfully maintained a voter turnout of over 90% for general elections— one of the highest in the world. A November 2016 report, however, showed that approximately 57,000 people had registered to vote compared to 134,000 at the same point in 2011, ahead of the 2012 general election. Since then, there has been a significant increase in politicians and civic society, through social media posts, radio talk shows, and daily newspapers, urging Bahamians to register to vote. Given this, it was shocking to learn that Bahamian women were being turned away by Parliamentary Registration Department staff, denied the right to register to vote, by reason of dress.

No Cleavage Allowed

On December 30, 2016, The Tribune’s cover story featured a woman who had been turned away from voter registration three times. Deputy Chief Reporter Krishna Virgil asked Parliamentary Commission Sherlyn Hall about voter registration policy, as the Parliamentary Elections Act does not mention a dress code.

Mr. Hall said, “Because you have to take photographs, so if someone comes with half their breasts out and cleavage showing, this isn’t permitted.”

In the same interview, he shared that 75,000 people had registered to vote — less than 50% of registration numbers at the same point in 2011.

While this story was a surprise to some, others had stories of their own to share. Women took to social media to talk about what they were wearing when they were turned away from registering to vote. They ranged from tank tops to sleeveless dresses. Generally, it seemed any woman with their shoulders, upper arms, or breasts visible was denied their right to register.

#TooSexyToVote

Ava Turnquest, Chief Reporter at The Tribune, sprung into action on the day the story was printed. Within hours of her Facebook post and the creation of a secret group, dozens of Bahamian women were in conversation about the suppression of women’s voter rights.While some researched laws and policies regarding dress code, others brainstormed national actions. #TooSexyToVote to vote was born, and the Sexy Voter Registration event was set for January 4, 2017.

Bahamian women were invited to a lunchtime power hour at the Parliamentary Registration Department to register to vote in the attire of their choice. The decision was made not to leave until everyone successfully registered to vote, no matter what they were wearing. The participants included a woman in a crochet top and short, a women in jeggings and a crop top, a women in a fitted dress exposing her cleavage, and a woman in a men’s three-piece suit. All participants were able to register without a problem, though the woman in the crop top was asked to remove some of her earrings. She refused, the photographer consulted a supervisor, and it was decided that her picture could be taken and her registration process completed.

The Fight Continues

The next day, more reports were made on social media of Bahamian women being turned away from voter registration station. It became clear that most of the issues were occurring at two locations. The #TooSexyToVote crew then began plans to respond. While two female Parliament members and the Minister of National Security — who has responsibility for the Parliamentary Registration Department — referenced the issue and Hall’s comments, there were no reports of directives being issued for the Department’s staff to cease its discriminatory practices and register all eligible Bahamians to vote. Hollaback! Bahamas then published an open letter to the Parliamentary Commission, calling on him to do his job in accordance with the Parliamentary Elections Act, or vacate the post.

“It is an affront to Bahamian suffragettes and all Bahamian women that in 2017 — the year we will celebrate 55 years since the first time Bahamian women voted — eligible voters are being turned away because of personal opinions. Hollaback! Bahamas denounces the refusal to view Bahamian women as full citizens, the policing of women’s bodies, and the subsequent perpetuation of violence against women.”

A directive has since been issued, and Hollaback! Bahamas continues to collect #TooSexyToVote stories through its online report form. All data collected through the form will be reported to the media, holding all parties involved accountable.

Next Steps

#TooSexyToVote organizers are closely monitoring social media reports on experiences in registering to vote. It has expanded its scope to include other barriers to registration, like stations not being open during published times. The group is set to launch an interactive flowchart providing Bahamian citizens with comprehensive information on voter registration requirements and procedures to ensure they are prepared when they visit a station. There are also plans to train voter advocates to visit registration stations and assist people who encounter issues with the staff. #TooSexyToVote is committed to encouraging people to register to vote, especially women, who comprise more than 50% of voters.