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Columns : Letters to The Editor Last Updated: Feb 13, 2017 - 1:45:37 AM

A Case for Spoiling the Ballot
By Ian Strachan, Co-Founder, Out Da Box
Feb 5, 2017 - 10:43:09 PM

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Ian Strachan, Co-Founder, Out Da Box

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, 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” or “occupy Wall Street” or the “Green Movement” come to mind.

US democracy is still not perfect. For instance, it is clear that unless the 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 enshrined in the Constitution.

Most recently the Electoral College robbed the majority of voting Americans of their of President majority: 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 of these things have to do with our fledgling nation, The Bahamas? Today the country faces a 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 with respect to who is destined to be Prime Minister. 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.”

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 was 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.

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 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 their ability to generate ideas and leaders that can improve governance in the country. Successive election cycles and successive PLP and FNM administrations have seen the people promised everything under the sun and receive high cost of living, high crime and low quality of life. They see the political parties themselves as broken, as full of dirty tricks, as bringing out the worst in the people; and they see the parties as capable mostly of cronyism, corruption, mismanagement and black crab antics. The parties do not attract quality leaders and do not give quality leaders a genuine path to the top; such people are merely exploited for their good name and are gobbled up in a corrupt machine dominated by mediocrity and shady behavior. The majority of non-registered voters may not feel this but a good many do. They’ve had it. The want political renewal and they never that desire being fulfilled.

In The Bahamas today we need heroes. We need people who are willing to put nation above self. We need to return moral credibility to public affairs. 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 nearly 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 have elected 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. But I would offer that a clearer any more positive action would be to register and to spoil your ballot. No one can mistake your protest for something else, like laziness or apathy or irresponsibility or poor citizenship if you spoil your ballot. 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 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 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 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 are 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, that is your right. This message is 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. NOTHING we are calling for 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!

#OutDaBox242 is working to increase voter registration and participation through the promotion of the option to spoil the ballot. This allows eligible Bahamians to vote without endorsing a candidate, party, or the existing political system. Our ideal target of participants in our campaign is 10,000 potential voters.

In addition to giving voters an alternative to endorsing any of the candidates or political parties on offer, spoiling the ballot is:

1. Rejection of a closed process of selecting party leaders and candidates which is limited only to select party members and is neither transparent nor participatory.
2. Rejection of prospective candidates, ratified candidates and party leaders who have not come before the public to participate in public debates and town meetings.
3. Demand for campaign finance reform to prohibit foreign contributions and require political parties to reveal contributors
4. Demand for regulation of election campaigns and party elections by an independent Electoral Commission

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