Thursday, October 18, 2012

A right, not a privilege

The right to vote is the most powerful expression of democracy for a country. It is sacrosanct, inviolable and should never be fettered in its expression. We have come a long way from the dark and oppressive pre-1968 era and while we still have a way to go, Bermuda’s strength as a vibrant democracy rests on the bed of democracy we have made over the decades. 

It was not until 1963 that all adults were granted the right to vote; this only after a successful public campaign by the Committee for Universal Suffrage forced the hand of a recalcitrant Parliament. But the old oligarchy restrained the full expression of democracy by, along with granting the vote to all adults, increased the voting age to 25; gave an extra vote to property owners; and gave the vote to all British subjects after three years’ residence. 

The plus vote was soon dropped; the voting age pushed back to 21; and British subjects coming to Bermuda after 1978 were no longer entitled to the vote. After years of effort by a pro-youth lobby, the vote was finally extended to 18 year olds in 1990. Even then, however, Bermuda had not yet become a proper democracy as the electoral system had two fundamental flaws: 

(1) electoral districts were structured to achieve a particular racial outcome and thereby embedded race into the political structure; and

(2) the constituency sizes varied widely, with the effect being that not only did voters in some constituencies have greater voting strength, the strength was also weighted toward white voters.

When the requirement to register to vote annually was eliminated and single seat constituencies were introduced in 2003, along with a constitutional requirement that constituencies be of, more or less, equal size, Bermuda finally had a democratic shell that matched the democratic ideals so many Bermudians seek.

The vote that we all share equally is not a privilege, rather a right. The vote provides you with the power to shape policies that affect you by determining who gets to run the country. It is not surprising to note that some Bermudians will vote in knee jerk fashion for ‘their’ party. That too is democracy. Many others will use their vote to reflect on the parties’ policies, their proposals, and the people who present themselves for elected office and render a decision about which party and which candidate can best advance their interests. That power is something you have without restraint.

As free and as protected as this right to vote is in Bermuda, there are those who will choose not to participate for any number of reasons. That too is a democratic right. My view is that those who do not participate lose legitimacy in speaking out on the social, political and economic issues that governments get to shape. How serious are you about the issues if, when given the right to shape outcomes, you step back from the simple yet very powerful responsibility to vote?

Alongside this unfettered right to vote, all of us should be concerned about attempts to suppress the vote. Efforts to take people off the voters’ list should be resisted strongly — it raises bad memories of the bad olĂ© days pre-1968. 

Democracy is the cornerstone of a mature and progressive country and the vote is its most public expression. Every Bermudian has the ability to shape the outcome of our society by using what was won over the decades in a hard fought fight. While we may all be privileged to live here, exercising the vote is one of our fundamental rights.

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