One of the core elements of a democracy is the right to vote—the right of the people to freely decide which politicians and which parties have earned their support and deserve their vote. A dark chapter in Bermuda’s quest for a more democratic society was the legal requirement for annual voters’ registration: if one failed to register by a fixed date annually they would be unable to vote in any election called within the next twelve months. Because lower income people, based on global research, are less likely to register to vote than their wealthier counterparts there was always an inherent bias in such a system. The PLP government changed this and made the vote sacrosanct by abolishing annual registration: register once and you will remain on the voting register.
In their submission to the British government, the OBA seek to change this and require that citizens re-register every four year or so. Anyone failing to register would be prevented from voting in a subsequent election. The rationale advanced for this vote restraining proposal is that up to 10% of voters are registered in constituencies they no longer live in and their participation could well affect the outcome of marginal areas. If there was no mechanism already in place to address this, their proposal may have some merit. As it stands it seems a not very subtle attempt to take away the vote of working class people.
Under the current system candidate teams for political parties, canvassing a meagre 1,100 voters, can and do identify people living in areas who are not registered in that constituency and can and do get them to fill out the appropriate form to transfer their residency on the voters’ list. All parties have this right. There is a further safe guard in that the scrutineers on election can be (and have been) provided with a list of registered voters who are to be challenged on their right to vote in that constituencies on the grounds there is evidence they no longer live there. This system works; all it requires is a bit of effort by candidates and their teams.
Alongside the OBA call for voter re-registration is the call for absentee voting. They provide few specifics but given that they want to see Bermuda adopt what so many other countries have it can only mean the OBA want to see Bermudians living abroad being granted the vote. This makes sense for students as they are overseas for the purpose of education and, along with the Bermuda Census criteria, they are deemed to still be living in Bermuda. The challenge here is to ensure we have a suitable definition of “student.”
For those Bermudians who have taken up residence overseas I cannot see a justifiable reason why they should be allowed to vote. Moreover, what constituency would they be registered to vote in? This cannot work under our current political system. In fact, adopting this would add to precisely the problems the OBA say they want to eradicate. Most counties with absentee voting either have direct voting for a leader (which we do not) or the proportion of overseas voters to the total population is negligible in terms of voting impact.
These OBA proposals represent a slight modification from the proposals advanced by the UBP in their 2007 election platform and it demonstrates the challenge this new party is having in shaking itself from its old association. To call on the UK to force their proposed changes on Bermuda and other Overseas Territories is an odd thing to do rather than argue for it on the campaign trail and actually hope to win a mandate to make these changes. No doubt we will hear more of this in the months to come.