Editorial: Disenfranchisement?

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Nathaniel “Paddy” James, Chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda Electoral Commission, wrote to Prime Minister Gaston Browne earlier this year to inform him that the “Antigua and Barbuda Electoral Commission (ABEC), at a meeting on the 24th [January] instant has decided pursuant to Section 35 of the Representation of the People Amendment Act #17 of 2001 to cause the poll to be conducted for the Constituency of Barbuda in a Constituency on Mainland Antigua.”
The chairman was informing the PM in his role as the minister responsible to Parliament for the subject of elections in our bit of paradise.  According to James, it is the Commission’s view that the relocation of the polling booth(s) for Barbuda is “best suited for the convenience of the Electors of Barbuda who reside prior to the next General Elections in Mainland Antigua and in the presence of Barbuda.”
We have sought clarification and we have been told that 100 percent of the Barbuda voting will take place in Antigua.  Some thought that there would still be voting in Barbuda for those who have returned, but the Commission says no (not if the election is within the next two months, and we basically know it will be.
The announcement has caused people to label it as gerrymandering, but that would not be correct.  Gerrymandering refers to the manipulation of constituency boundaries so as to give a political party (or individual) an advantage.  Essentially, the boundaries are moved to include the most supporters of the party in power and exclude as many opposition supporters as possible.  It is a major problem in the United States, where data mining has allowed boundaries to be drawn with scientific precision, carving out boundaries to include or exclude individual houses on specific streets.  
In this case, if you are inclined to criticise the decision, it could be better labelled as an attempt at disenfranchisement.  Let’s look at some recent history to understand why the claim of disenfranchisement.   There were 1,017 registered voters in Barbuda for the 2014 elections.  972 voted, and the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) representative won the seat by one vote. In the 2009 election, the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM) representative took the seat by, you guessed it, one vote.  In 2004, the vote was actually a tie.  Each candidate took 400 votes and the final result was determined by going back to the polls in a special run-off election.  
Add to that, Barbuda typically has the highest voter turnout percentage in the country.  In 2004, it was a whopping 95.27 percent!  In 2009, it went a bit higher with a 95.58 percent before taking a dip to 87.82 percent in 2014, but still retaining the number one voter turnout percentage.
The point that cannot be lost on anyone is that Barbudans take their politics seriously, and splitting the population and creating barriers to voting will not be truly reflective of the Barbudans’ voice regarding their choice for representation – even if it is only one vote.   It is why there must be an accommodation for the residents of Barbuda to vote on Barbuda.  It cannot be that they are forced to suffer the inconveniences of finding transportation and accommodation in order to exercise their right to vote.  Remember, it is not a handful of people who have returned, it is literally hundreds. 
Many are saying that the decision taken is deliberate and seeks to disenfranchise all the “true” Barbudans that “love” Barbuda more than anything else.  Their basic argument is that most that have returned to Barbuda are critical of the government, and most that have stayed in Antigua are supporters of the ABLP.  We do not know how that conclusion is reached but what we can say is that the Barbudans that are registered in Barbuda and are living in Barbuda, should be given the opportunity to vote in Barbuda on election day.
We understand the logistical concerns but it cannot be that hard to facilitate.  It would certainly be easier to send a small election team, with observers and security to Barbuda than to have the Barbudans suffer the inconvenience of relocating to Antigua in order to cast their vote.  
The Electoral Commissioner stated in his letter, “It is the intention of the Electoral Commission to afford every Elector registered in the Constituency of Barbuda the opportunity to cast his or her vote at an election which is constitutionally due in 2019.”  Let us hope that plan can be changed to include the ability for Barbudans to vote in Barbuda, otherwise there will be a question mark on whether the results are truly reflective of the majority of all registered Barbudan voters, no matter which way it goes.

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