MPs debate granting Bermudians abroad the right to vote in Parliamentary elections
In a heated discussion of whether the Parliamentary Election Amendment Act, 2012 went far enough, Opposition MPs clashed with their Government counterparts over the need for Bermudians overseas to cast their votes.
Kim Swan, who was elected as an MP under the United Bermuda Party, likened absentee ballots to internet banking, which he said many locals avoid out of concerns for fraud.
Noting that a person can live overseas and maintain residence in Bermuda, he said: “However, those persons, or persons travelling away on business, might not find it possible to vote, especially with the small window created by advanced polling.”
Absentee ballots will not be available for this election, he added.
“One would hope that in the spirit of good governance, in future years it will be taken on board,” Mr Swan said.
Adding that votes were crucial in marginal constituencies, Mr Swan said he had spotted an incarcerated person’s name on the list of eligible voters in the last election, in his constituency of St George’s West.
Mr Swan implored for an Electoral Commission to be set up to examine the benefits of a unicameral system, and “look at the size of Cabinet from time to time”.
“There are more amendments necessary, and I am sorry we don’t have those before us,” Mr Swan concluded.
Deputy Premier Derrick Burgess remarked: “It’s a bit ironic that the Opposition would call for so many changes right now when they had to opportunity to make the changes necessary many years ago.”
He added: “Under gerrymandering, many things occurred. You could get 45 percent of the vote and win the election. That’s how it was in Bermuda. That could happen under the system that was in place before the Progressive Labour Party Government.”
Now, he said: “Even the homeless, whether living in a derelict building or in the trees, are entitled to vote in the parish that they stay in. Not having a house does not take the right away from them.”
PLP MP for Sandys North Michael Scott commended the Parliamentary Election Amendment Act as “a Bermudian solution to a peculiarly Bermudian set of problems”.
He said he couldn’t imagine how tedious it must have been to be in the House of Assembly when legislation restricting enfranchisement was passed.
But Mr Scott said a postal ballot was not the right choice for Bermuda, and citing the “sacrosanctity of the secret ballot”.
For jurisdictions such as the US, with large consular and armed forces populations overseas, such a system made sense.
“We don’t have that kind of issue here in Bermuda,” he said.
He praised the Bill for tightening the definition of “ordinarily resident”, and said it provided the Parliamentary Registrar with qualifying dates to check on whether a voter meet that standard.
OBA MP for Paget East Grant Gibbons voiced Opposition support for the amendments, but said: “As much as Government would like to wrap itself in the mantle of one man, one vote, if you have constituents who don’t live in a constituency voting in that constituency, you don’t have one man, one vote.”
Dr Gibbons said the PLP Government under former Premier Alex Scott had commissioned a report on absentee voting, but that following that, nothing more had been said.
Absentee voting would benefit college students who stood to be off the Island for a good part of the year, he added.
“The PLP does not feel it’s in their political advantage to have the absentee ballot,” he charged.
Dr Gibbons questioned Mr Scott’s concern over the secret ballot when, he said, “in the last election there were a number of reports that people were taking cell phones with cameras into the polling booths” in order to “show somebody that they had voted in a certain way”.
And he said that in his constituency, ten percent of his flyers had come back as undeliverable because the occupants had moved.
Shadow Transport Minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin reported a similar experience, and recounted meeting a voter while canvassing who has told her his vote was worth more in Smith’s, where he was registered, than in Paget East, where he lived.
Conceding that she may have lost a vote, Ms Gordon-Pamplin said she had informed the Registrar of the deception.
She challenged Government to move ahead on fixed election dates and absentee ballots.
Government backbencher Walter Roban said Opposition members who had formerly been in the UBP made efforts to “claim certain glories” from the past.
“Then, when the guts spill out, no one wants it,” Mr Roban said.
He added that Opposition support for requiring citizens to re-register every four years had the potential to disenfranchise voters, at which Dr Gibbons rose on a point of order to accuse Mr Roban of misleading the House.
Moving on, Mr Roban said of the Bill: “The real meat of this is clause three, which is empowering the Registrar to obtain information from any persons of 18 or older who are occupying a premises.”
Most changes to the Parliamentary Registration system had been made by the PLP, he said, “because of our inherent belief in the enfranchisement of voters”.
He challenged the Opposition to present their plans for improvement directly to the Registrar.
Mr Roban also stressed that changes to the voting system must take place incrementally because lawmakers have a responsibility to make sure they maintain the integrity of the process.
Government Whip Lovitta Foggo responded to the common Opposition claim that the first past the post system leaves it under-represented in Parliament.
Ms Foggo argued that for many years when it was in power, the United Bermuda Party had a disproportionately high number of seats compared with the votes it collected. That party’s backers didn’t claim the system was unfair at that time, she said.
She said proportional representation, used in much of Europe, has some advantages, but that Bermuda’s system places greater importance on local matters because it encourages people to vote for the candidate who will represent their constituency’s interests.
Ms Foggo said the new legislation would help the Parliamentary Registrar make certain people are registered correctly, but cautioned against anything that would disenfranchise voters.
PLP MP Walter Lister gave a brief history lesson of the PLP’s struggles to get equal voting rights, earning tired jeers from the One Bermuda Alliance but plaudits from Health Minister Zane DeSilva.
Culture Minister Dale Butler said Bermuda is making progress modernising its electoral system, and questioned whether some of the Opposition’s suggestions were adopted anywhere in the Commonwealth.
Ms Cox concluded the debate by saying the bill is pushing boundaries and removing barriers in a bid to create a system that won’t allow rampant corruption and fraud.