With the referendum for constitutional reform, commonly referred to as the “Gender Equality Referendum”, looming in the foreseeable future, some of the usual characters are already out to play.
“The Fanatics” are crawling out of the woodworks spewing 2,000 year old ideas about gender-roles, curiously using very modern contraptions like radio and computers to do it. You can probably find “The Patriarch” at your local bar, shouting about not trusting Bahamian women who marry foreign men, women are too easily manipulated they say, and they’re speaking from their own experience. There is also “The Conspiracy Theorist”, afraid that the now infamous Question 4 is a part of the global machinations of a Illuminati-like gay agenda. These people, in particular, don’t worry me. As a general rule, I think people who busy themselves with excluding one set of people have no business informing a conversation about the inclusion of another set of people.
What does worry me, however, are the voices from the opposition already predicting the doom of this very important vote. Inclusion is, in fact, what this is about- ensuring that Bahamian women and their children are fully able to enjoy the rights and responsibilities of Bahamian citizenship. This is something all of us should be working toward, and it is the responsibility of the political leadership to do just that: lead.
Of course, some of us remember what happened in 2002. There are those who are still bitter about this, perhaps rightly so. However, if the opposition doesn’t see that this is as much an opportunity for them as it is for the government, then I would have to question if there’s any thinking going on over there, you know, between the cannon fire and bouts of political cannibalism. It is time for the parties to stop playing petty patty-cake politics and engage in real strategic thinking for the benefit of the Bahamian people.
We can start with a few facts. First, we have to pass the referendum this time around. If the last time we tried is any indication, we may have to wait almost a decade and a half to try again. That, quite frankly, would be disgraceful.
Second, if the referendum doesn’t pass it won’t be because a majority of Bahamians disagree with these reforms, it will be because we didn’t get people who do support the vote out in the numbers we needed. This is no different than the gaming referendum. We know now that this defeat at the polls was less about Bahamians not supporting the move to regularize gaming houses and more about how much better those who opposed regularization were at mobilizing their voters.
The 71,000 voters who turned out for the gaming referendum represented only 41% of registered voters and 30% of voting age Bahamians. The truth is only 27% of registered voters opposed the regularizing of web-shops and smaller still, only 23% of registered voters opposed the establishment of a national lottery. We don’t know what would’ve happened if the other 59% of registered voters made the effort, but I imagine we would have seen very different results.
Third, and finally, a very specific group of voters will win the referendum and that will be young voters. I believe it is safe to assume that the younger you are the more likely you will be to support the the referendum. Voters like those who “supported the puff” will carry the vote and it just so happens that in 2017, if the Department of Statistics is correct, 113,000 people under the age of 35 will be eligible to vote by next election.
These facts may seem disparate but taken together they form part of the equation for winning the next election. If indeed we have to secure a “yes” vote or risk another decade and a half of inequality, it will mean mobilizing voters, and young voters in particular. This means that instead of worrying that the referendum will fail because of the PLP government’s unpopularity, both parties should focus on winning this for the Bahamian people.
Whichever party (or candidate) is seen leading on this- energizing the youth-vote and getting them to the polls- should be able to leverage this support again for the elections. While we are early in the political game, locking in that huge number of eligible young voters, who are less likely to be affiliated with a political party and also less likely to vote, will be essential.
Whatever organizing effort is employed, deep engagement and the ability to sustain the connection with voters will prove invaluable. Collecting voter information, opening avenues for consistent communication and providing opportunities for the conversation to continue beyond the referendum will be key.
There are calls for this process to be non-political, but there is a difference between “nonpolitical” and “nonpartisan”. There is also an opportunity in the challenges that this referendum presents. If the goal is to win the next election, now is not the time to passively look on. Using this moment to stitch together a new coalition of young voters around an issue they support is smart politics. Failing to do so at such an important juncture will not only mean missing that opportunity- it will be a blow to our democracy.
Joey Gaskins is a native of
Grand Bahama and a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in
Politics. He studied at the London School of Economics and Political
Science (LSE) where he attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and
Post-Colonial Studies and begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology. Joey
lives in Nassau and is a former part-time lecturer at College of the
Bahamas, restaurant owner and is a communications and policy strategy
consultant. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.