NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Parliamentarians yesterday passed a bill, which will make the voter’s register from the last general election in The Bahamas a continuous or permanent register.
Leading off debate, Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said the ongoing global pandemic forced the inevitable: change.
“This change will eliminate the need for long lines and reduce the costs of registering the same persons every five years,” he said during the morning sitting.
“Shorter lines mean better adherence to social distancing, as recommended by the World Health Organization and other leading scientists, and a decrease in the spread of COVID-19.
“Less expense means more funds to achieve other national goals for our people, which has never been so important.”
Dames, who has ministerial responsibility for elections, made clear that the continuous register acknowledges the rights of all eligible people to “fully and freely” exercise their choice in democracy and will require the same diligence and vigilance.
He assured that the bill, drafted in consultation with legal and civic society stakeholders, will “provide every opportunity for voters to register and/or make the necessary changes to ensure their vote is counted”.
According to the Parliamentary Election (Amendment) Bill, 2020, a registered voter would not be required to re-register by reconstitution of the boundaries, however, the commissioner may from time to time call upon registered voters to alter or correct their counterfoils of the voters’ cards.
A registered voter or person entitled to vote, aged 65 and older, would be considered a special voter and be allowed to vote in the advanced poll.
The bill authorizes the parliamentary commissioner to access all registers and other records of births and deaths that are required to be kept under the Births and Deaths Registration Act.
As part of the maintenance of the register, undertakers, morticians and directors of funeral homes, the director of national insurance and the commissioner of corrections would be required to provide relevant information on deaths at legislated periods.
During debate, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine said the proposed legislation is “a good thing”, but he was not “absolutely certain at this time it is the right thing”.
According to McAlpine, a permanent voter register with the level of displacement of Grand Bahamians and Abaconians following Hurricane Dorian last September could result in “confusion and chaos” ahead of the next general election.
The MP also underscored numerous Free National Movement (FNM) campaign promises that remain unfulfilled.
He pointed to the FNM’s promise to introduce term limits for prime ministers, fixed election dates and a recall system for non-performing MPs.
“Bahamians do not forget what you say, and especially what you promise,” he said.
According to the MP, the government has not introduced an MP recall system because “had we done so, the entire government would’ve probably fallen by now”.
Central and South Eleuthera MP Hank Johnson said the government should be concerned about Bahamians, who live abroad, returning home to vote.
He said this includes those who are registered as students, but are gainfully employed abroad.
“We have to make a decision on whether we allow them to be a part of our election process or not,” said Johnson, while claiming that “fraud” has plagued the Bahamian election system in the past.
Meanwhile, Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Deputy Leader Chester Cooper recommended the government to go a step further with the legislation, labeling it a “start”.
He underscored the need to “strengthen and deepen democracy” in The Bahamas and called on the government to look seriously at campaign finance reform in particular.
The Exumas and Ragged Island MP said successive administrations “always pay lip service” to such amendments while in opposition, but fail to act in a meaningful way after attaining office.
The Minnis administration and the last Christie administration promised to address this issue, but the PLP’s last term ended without movement on campaign finance legislation.
While Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis has said the government is working on legislation, he has repeatedly told the media he has the remainder of this term and a second term to bring campaign finance legislation.
The amendments to the Parliamentary Elections Act would also introduce a biometric voter’s card, replacing the traditional paper card.
All voters’ cards and corresponding counterfoils from the current register shall continue to be valid as if prepared in connection with the continuous register.
More than 16 commonwealth countries have transitioned from quinquennial registers, which expire every five years, to continuous registers, including Jamaica and Barbados.