It’s time to overhaul the Parliamentary Election Act

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It is practically an annual ritual, Mr Acting Editor, wishing and wondering what will be in the Throne Speech. Guesses and hopes make for interesting copy, but let’s also be realistic about what we can reasonably expect. This is after all a new Government, under new leadership, that has had to hit the ground running.

While few of the One Bermuda Alliance MPs (only two in fact) have had any experience sitting around the Cabinet table, they should nonetheless be quite capable of setting out their legislative plans for the ensuing parliamentary year (that’s what these speeches are meant to be about) and for a number of good reasons: aside from having the help of swivel servants to now call upon (no changes there), they should be drawing from their past replies to the Progressive Labour Party throne speeches as well as their 2012 election platform.

We might expect too, that the speech will be long on vision (that’s been the trend in recent years) even though the coming parliamentary year will be a relatively short one. We have already lost out on three months of that year (election interruptus) and very shortly the newbies on the Hill have still to face their biggest challenge, the 2013/2014 Budget, which has to be presented — and approved — well before April 1, the start of the financial year for Government.

I don’t propose to list the possible grab bag of goodies we might expect to see in the speech, but instead focus on one item: absentee balloting.

The call for absentee balloting was renewed early in the election campaign. It came from the young this time, students mostly, not long after the date had been set, when they soon realised that they couldn’t and wouldn’t be here to vote.

The PLP explained that they still had absentee balloting under review and that they were moving cautiously on this — this after first introducing draft legislation as far back as six or seven years ago.

Not good enough, you might think, for a party with a strong history of enfranchising people. It was a position that stood in stark contrast to that of the OBA and two of their younger candidates who took up cause publicly and promised absentee balloting. It was, I thought, one of those turning points in the election campaign — with young people.

Absentee balloting isn’t just an idea whose time has come, it is a reality in most other mature parliamentary democracies. We won’t be ploughing new ground here. We can cobble from the best of what is employed elsewhere. It is a relatively easy drafting can-do. But know what? Absentee balloting is just the tip of much-needed electoral reform in Bermuda. The OBA also promised us:

n Greater opportunity to vote by way of the advance poll when abroad on election day;

n Fixed term elections; and

n The right to recall your MP and to initiate a referendum.

However, there are some more fundamental and significant much-needed changes that should not be overlooked or swept under the carpet now that the election is over. The Parliamentary Election Act needs to be overhauled to ensure that we have the most accurate register of voters as is possible, certainly more accurate than the one we have now. People should be voting in constituencies where they live and not in districts where they used to live but remain registered.

How bad is the problem? Bad enough.

n No one has an exact handle on numbers but past estimates have it that maybe as many as ten percent of all registered voters are registered incorrectly ie living in one constituency but registered to vote in another.

n In one constituency where I worked in the last election, and where the candidate worked the area hard and successfully, he knew on polling day that as many as 110 voters were no longer living in the district but were on the register and eligible to vote, and 23 of them did.

n In another area, worked successfully by another hard-working candidate, there were about 50 such voters on his register, about ten of whom actually voted.

n The Parliamentary Registrar (PR) published last August a list of 800 names of people whom he believed were incorrectly registered and he told me that he was only able to re-register half of them and place them in their correct constituencies before election day.

This isn’t good enough in a community of our size and sophistication where candidates win and literally lose by a handful of votes. Here’s why: the temptation to remain incorrectly registered is particularly acute for party partisans in the marginal constituencies where Governments are won or lost. It happens and the PR must be given the mandatory power and the tools to curb the practice.

Whatever we have now is not working. For example, under the Act, the PR is meant to be assisted by volunteer scrutineers, two for each constituency, one appointed by Government and the other by the Opposition.

There have been no scrutineers appointed for going on three years now. Mind you, it is not certain that volunteers were ever the answer in any event. What is clear, Mr Acting Editor, is that what we have needs review and it needs fixing.

* Got a view? E-mail jbarritt@ibl.bm

* John Barritt will answering questions today live on www.royalgazette.com from 12.30pm to 2pm about the Throne Speech

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Published Feb 8, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 7, 2013 at 7:38 pm)

It’s time to overhaul the Parliamentary Election Act

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