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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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#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.