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VOTERS RIGHTS IN OUR BAHAMAS

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Everyone generally agrees that we all have the right to vote.  We know that in our country that right was denied women until they cast votes for the first time in 1962.  Women’s right to vote was won through protest.  Educating the people, agitating things and animating those who stood on the sidelines.

What if I said that today, 2017, the issue of Voter’s Rights is every bit as crucial as it was 50 years ago?  In the US the Voting Rights Act was passed to ensure African Americans in the South were not denied their right as citizens to vote for the representatives of their choice. It is still relevant in the US today where tactics are used to minimize the participation of Blacks in elections across that nation.

Here in The Bahamas many fundamental rights of voters are flouted and successive governments face no consequences for this abuse.  For instance:

  • Do you have a right to select the candidates who will offer themselves in your constituency? That right is DENIED.
  • Do you have a right to know who is funding the candidates and political parties you support or that ask for your support? That right is DENIED.
  • Do you have a right to choose the leader of your political party?  That right is DENIED.
  • Do you have a right to know the financial status of your candidates and representatives (their assets, liabilities and expenditure?) That right is DENIED.
  • Do you have the right to vote in secrecy? That right is DENIED.
  • Do you have the right to know when elections will be held in your country?  That right is DENIED
  • Do you have the right to get to know the candidates who are asking for your vote by hearing them debate and speak in national media about their plans etc?  That right is DENIED.
  • Do you have a right to know, in a timely fashion, which candidates are running for your constituency so  you can have sufficient time to get to know them and make an informed decision?  That right is DENIED.

How will you get these rights restored to you? I see no other way than protest. The political class benefits from your lack of these basic rights.

We must educate, agitate and animate.  We must perform acts of civil disobedience to draw attention to the evils of the system.  We must apply pressure to those who benefit from the system as it is and make it politically unattractive to continue in this way.  And we must become citizen activists fighting for the kind of democracy we want our children to enjoy.

Join me.Think Out Da Box. Sperl it.

TO THE 70,000 

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Greetings fellow Bahamians.  The total number of registered voters in the 2012 General Elections was 172,000.  The 2017 General Elections are fast approaching. By November of 2016 there were about 75,000 registered voters for the next election as opposed to 134,000 five years ago at the same time.  What’s the deal?  Here’s what I think.

Some of you do plan to register. Some of you aren’t registering because you don’t want to be called for jury duty.  But most of you aren’t going to register at all.

Indeed a record number of you are not going to register.  For the first time in the history of the Bahamian state, the register of voters will shrink not grow.  It’s possible that as many as 70,000 fewer people will register than did for the 2012 election. Why is this happening?

I believe those of you who fall in the third category refuse to register because you see voting as a waste of time. As we like to say, “Peter ain’t no better than Paul.” First of all, I agree with you. In every way that matters to me, Peter ain’t no better than Paul. And where this adage does not apply, it is safe to say that James, John, Matthew and the others just don’t inspire your confidence.  The SIX (or more?) opposition parties don’t want to hear this, But they haven’t convinced you otherwise and they’re running out time.

They haven’t convinced you, not because your head hard and you dumb but because you’re not fools.  You’ve watched them over the last 5 years; some of them you’ve watched for longer and you’ve concluded that who isn’t uninspiring is clueless and who isn’t clueless is doomed to fail before they even start, so you’re staying away from the polls. You simply don’t care who wins.

Neither do I.

Let’s look at the two multi-million dollar clubs who are the political front runners: where the FNM and PLP are concerned, both have been soft on drug dealers, both have been soft on gun traffickers, both accept money from foreign sources, both refuse to disclose, both have refused to work under a Freedom of Information Act, both engage in election bribery, both use government offices to enrich themselves, both hire incompetent cronies, both refuse to introduce campaign finance reform, both refuse a system of debates, both do not involve the voters when picking candidates, both have rigged party elections, and both have propped up leaders the public doesn’t really care for.

We want better but how do we get it?

Voting for these guys only means you approve of what they’re doing. Not voting means you may not be able to stop one of the political parties from taking power but at least you don’t endorse that party with your X. You’re doing what must feel like the most sensible thing, you are having nothing to do with this dog and pony show called an election. 

I’ve done what you’re doing in the past; I’ve refused to register or vote.  But I’ve been persuaded that there’s another way to show my objection that might be more impactful in the long run.

I invite you to join the Out Da Box movement. Like our page at www.facebook.com/OutDaBox242/  Be a part of a community of people actively seeking to improve our electoral processes and pressure our politicians into doing better. It requires a small sacrifice on your part. We’d like you to register and then show up on Election Day and spoil your ballot.

Why go through the trouble? By doing so you become a protester, someone actively defying convention and the popular “wisdom” of some.  You stand up and get counted for change in a way that cannot be mistaken.   Spoiled ballots are counted.  And we are working on other strategies that will publicize our protest on Election Day. You become someone who is no longer privately sitting in the shadows annoyed at the way things are and instead become an activist standing in the light to say “I want a better system.”

Spoiling takes independent thought, determination and courage. We will need all three to stand up to the powers that be and change things.

Once the election is over we invite you to stay engaged with Out Da Box participate in the second Future of Democracy Conference in July. And beyond the conference, we ask you to participate with us as we begin to protest and agitate for the specific reforms we want the government to introduce.  None of what we want will simply be handed to us; we will have to bravely demand it. That process of preparing ourselves begins now with this election, which will be the most undemocratic election since 1962.

Let’s make this election something to remember.  Let’s make it memorable because a new citizens movement was started, not because a corrupt party won power. That will happen no matter what.

What we want is:

  • An electoral Commission to regulate political parties
  • Mandatory debates and town meetings for all seats being contested
  • A system of primaries
  • Limits on campaign funding and transparency regarding who is giving
  • Equal access to media for political parties/candidates
  • A more independent Public Disclosure Commission and a tougher Disclosure Act
  • Real Freedom of Information
  • A tougher and more enforceable Prevention of Bribery Act

Many countries do this; these are not overly idealistic or revolutionary demands.  Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is benefitting from the corruption or hoping to benefit.

Be the change you want to see. There is no saviour coming to rescue The Bahamas. Citizens must unite and stand for fairness, openness and justice.

February 17, 2017 

A CASE FOR ELECTION PROTEST

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Over the course of its tumultuous history, the United States of America, which touts itself as the greatest democracy on earth, has had many seasons of reckoning when the citizens of that great nation challenged the political powers of the day to bring the governance of the nation further in line with its founding democratic ideals.  What does that mean?  Well, democracy means government for, of and by the people. And America declared to the world in 1776 that “all men are created equal” with “an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In the main, the course chosen by citizens to change the status quo was public pressure, exerted through demonstrations, petitions, marches, boycotts, speeches, letters, essays, songs, soliciting international support, and court cases.

In the main, the fight was for human and civil rights: the right of women to vote, the right of blacks to freedom, to assimilation, and to the vote, the right of women to control their reproductive abilities, the rights of homosexuals to rights and privileges other responsible, law-abiding adults enjoy.

It has never been the assumption of the best Americans through the centuries that the laws of their country were perfect or that its systems were beyond improvement or that its constitution was infallible.  Even today citizens take to the streets nonviolently in America to signal their disapproval or defiance of the prevailing order which in some way offends their sense of fairness, justice and equality.  “Black Lives Matter” and “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Green Movement” come to mind.

US democracy is still not perfect. For instance, it is clear that unless citizens mount a 60s-style attack on the gun industry, the madness of gun violence in America will continue, all in the name (ironically) of a “right” to bear to arms.

Most recently the Electoral College robbed the majority of voting Americans of their choice for President: Hillary Clinton.  It remains to be seen if US citizens will demand once and for all the elimination of the College.

There are times in the history of a nation when the promises and best intentions of politicians are insufficient.  There are times when the laws and systems of a nation are insufficient and woefully so. In these times, when political leaders lack the will or the moral capacity to break new ground for democracy’s sake, it falls to the citizens to rise to the occasion.

The truth is, it always was, and always will be, the duty of a nation’s citizens to be the guardians and defenders of their democracy.

Thomas Jefferson once famously wrote: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Now, what do all these things have to do with our fledgling nation, The Bahamas?  Today the country faces an unmistakable crisis of representation. What do I mean by this?  I mean that the citizens of this nation, by the tens of thousands, have lost faith in the electoral process and have determined that there is no appreciable difference between the main political parties in the country, so much so that they (the eligible) will not even register to vote.  I believe that they are right; that on almost any major issue in the country the philosophy and policy differences between the PLP and FNM and DNA are negligible and the “differences” boil down to talent-level and style. What is worse, not one leader has persuaded the people that he has the capacity, will and vision to turn the country away from the social and economic decline it is experiencing.

This general election will be the first in our nation’s history in which the register of voters shrinks rather than grows.

I believe there is no way to avoid the conclusion that most who refuse to register are unhappy with the choices before them. They do not want Christie, they do not want Minnis, they do not want McCartney, or anyone else who has emerged thus far and “applied for the job” of Prime Minister.

I contend that the failure of the political parties to replace Ingraham and Christie with leaders who enjoy the respect and support of the population has resulted in widespread disenchantment and resignation. I have absolutely no doubt that if the processes by which leaders are selected by the political parties were more fair, open, participatory and transparent, instead of rigged, opaque and corrupt, the population would have choices they can believe in running for Prime Minister and voter registration levels would not be so incredibly low.

I believe there is no way to avoid the conclusion that most of those who refuse to register believe most politicians are corrupt. What does that mean? That means that they believe most politicians are routinely using public office to “self deal” as one PLP cabinet minister put it—to enrich themselves and their cliques at the people’s expense.  A simple bit of evidence is the fact that our politicians refuse to obey the law (The Public Disclosure Act of 1976) and reveal their assets and liabilities.  They face no consequences for repeatedly breaking this law.

Lastly but no less importantly, some people are refusing to register and vote because they have lost faith in the parties all together.  They have lost faith in the parties’ ability to generate ideas and leaders that can improve governance in the country.  They see the political parties themselves as broken, as full of dirty tricks, as bringing out the worst in the people.  The parties do not attract quality leaders and do not give quality leaders a genuine path to the top. The majority of non-registered voters may not feel this but a good many do.  They’ve had it. They want political renewal and they don’t see it happening.

In The Bahamas today we need heroes.  We need people who are willing to put nation above self. We need to return credibility to public affairs. The good news is we as ordinary citizens have the power to do that; and we must.

As is the case in the United States, many of the rights we hold dear today would simply not exist if it were left up to the men in power at the time. One man one vote would not exist in The Bahamas without citizen action and protest; it did not happen simply because those who sat in Parliament thought it was time.  Women’s right to vote would not exist without citizen action and protest; they had been denied that right for over two hundred years of parliamentary democracy and would have continued to be denied it without citizen engagement.  Majority Rule would not have been achieved without strikes, demonstrations and blatant defiance of the law on the part of citizen activists and politicians alike. By extension therefore, the very right to exist as citizens of the Bahamian state born in 1973 would be unimaginable without civil disobedience, disobedience carried out bravely by ordinary men and women of this country who sought no office but who believed in democracy.

This is why I encourage all those who choose not to register and not to vote to join me in registering and spoiling the ballot.

Now, one could argue that all those who plan not to register and subsequently not vote are already protesting. I don’t disagree.  I have to respect your right to not participate in this mess. But I believe an equally clear and possibly more impactful action would be to register and to spoil your ballot.  It’s harder to mistake your protest for something else, if you spoil your ballot.  Join the line with the people who believe they are doing what’s right for the country.  You too believe you are doing what’s right.  Don’t be left out.  Enter the ballot box and be counted.  Ruin your ballot, leaving no doubt you intended to do so.

What does this accomplish?  First, you jump start your activism.  You make a sacrifice for your country’s future: you could be sitting at home watching tv or sitting in your air-conditioned office but you decided to stand in line, in the hot sun and object to the choices that are being rammed down our throats.  You make a first step in a new movement, a movement you’ve started!

What movement?  The grassroots movement to bring about electoral reform.  Now what does that mean?

The way I see it spoiling the ballot is about getting three things:

  • We want to allow ordinary citizens to be meaningfully involved in choosing their MP candidates and the leader of the parties, not just delegates and councilors. This can be accomplished through a system like the American primaries.
  • We want to have all political parties regulated by law and come under the supervision of an independent Electoral Commission which requires that parties reveal their funding sources, requires that all candidates and prospective candidates participate in public debates, and requires that elections within those parties follow fair and transparent procedures.
  • We want the Public Disclosure Act and the Prevention of Bribery Act to be strengthened and for civil society to be empowered through these laws to bring politicians and their agents who are engaging in corrupt practices to justice.

Spoiling the ballot sends the nation and the watching world a clear, unmistakable message that a sizable portion of the country demands better representation and will not settle.

Critics will say we are being reckless; that we will cause a bad leader to be elected instead of their less-bad leader.  They will say the stakes are high in the country and every vote is needed to fix what’s wrong.  The stakes are high. And that is why we must rid ourselves of illusions and strike at the root.

If you are convinced that you need to cast a vote for an independent candidate or even for one of the political parties’ candidates, that is your right.  This message is simply not for you.

I am talking to people who have already made up their minds that voting is a waste of time.  They have already concluded that nothing of significance will change through this exercise of musical chairs we call a General Election.  If you believe that, as I do, then join me in spoiling the ballot.

Once the election has passed and the smoke has cleared, then it will be time to plan, organize and agitate forcefully and methodically for the electoral changes we want to see. WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE.

Don’t for a second believe that you are wrong about the system being broken.  You are NOT wrong. The OAS observed our elections in 2012 and concluded we need reform to clean up our elections and make them more fair and participatory, and to prevent people from buying and hijacking our elections. NOTHING we are calling for is RADICAL. These are best practices in countries around the world.

You can be the change you want to see with this one small step, this one small act, this one small sacrifice. Register. And spoil the ballot with me.  Future generations will know you didn’t go along with the kangaroo election we’re about to have. Exercise the muscle you have.  Choose civil disobedience.  Let’s grow together!


January 31, 2017