Thursday, June 21, 2012

Let's not restrict voting rights

The ability to vote is a sacred, hard won right; it is not a privilege. Once reserved for the wealthy and well-to-do, the right for all citizens to vote is a cornerstone of strong democracies. Any attempt to withdraw this right should be viewed with grave concern. 

For more than 30 years, when Bermudians had to deal with annual voter registration there would always be a significant number of people who failed to submit their registration form by June 30 and were then denied the right to vote. By amending the law to allow Bermudians to simply register once and remain on the voters’ list for life, this Government has extended voters’ rights significantly. 

There are, however, forces at play to deny Bermudians their right to vote. One approach is the OBA call for voter re-registration every four years. There is 30 years of evidence that shows a significant percentage will not re-register. There is 30 years of evidence that shows working class people will be the largest group that will fail to register. 

A recent New York Times editorial on Florida’s attempt to take people off the voters’ list there is perhaps instructive: “In Florida, where a few hundred votes can determine a presidential election, Republicans have never stopped searching for new ways to keep ballots out of the hands of minorities and poor people, groups that tend to vote Democratic.” 

Delving further into the underbelly of politics there are attempts to take people off the list altogether by claiming they no longer reside in the constituency they are registered in. Anyone who has been canvassing over the past year will know that the recession has wreaked havoc on people’s living situations: many working class people have had to make adjustments because of job losses. I have seen families move in together, sometimes in the apartment next door to reduce costs; some move around to temporary locations with friends. This is a direct result of the economic fragility so many of us are experiencing. Only the wealthy are secure. To argue that these people should be denied the right to vote altogether is morally offensive while undoubtedly politically expedient for a party that does not rely on working people to support it. Can we, in 2012, and in good conscience, deny people the right to vote because their living circumstances are unstable, typically beyond their control?

Extending this further, any Bermudian living in Bermuda (save for those detained under law) should have the right to vote — including the homeless. These men and women should not be denied because their place of dwelling does not have an assessment number; they tend to stay in one area and therefore should be allowed to register in the constituency which covers it. If we extend rights rooted in sound principles those rights should be extended as fully as possible.

As we move inexorably toward general elections let us have a decision rendered by the people based on their assessment of the respective parties and candidates. Let us trust the people to make their decision based on the conclusions they have arrived at. Let us not try to fashion an outcome by restricting the vote and manipulating who gets to participate. Our democracy deserves better.

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