Free, fair and regular elections are fundamental features of democracy. In addition to being free and fair, elections must be seen to be free and fair by Bahamians and by the rest of the world. Elections are the county’s constitutional and legal system of validating public choices in leadership; and they are also very often the only opportunity that the citizens have of participating in the electoral and political process.
The evolution of electoral reform has been painfully slow in the Bahamas. Consider that it was only in 1949 that all Bahamians voted in secret; only in 1959 that property qualifications were dropped from the electoral system for men, and, of course, women voted for the first time in 1962. 1962 was also the first time that the entire Bahamas voted on the same day.
Open voting as practised in The Bahamas was intimidating and corrupt. The voter upon entering the polling place had to openly announce the name of the candidate he intended to vote for. Many Bahamians were intimidated to vote for candidates other than those they planned to vote for. Many who braved intimidation were victimised for their vote. There can be little doubt that this was a corrupt and abusive form of expressing one’s right to vote.
Attempts to introduce a secret form of voting had been made in the House of Assembly on several occasions, but the ruling elite had always opposed its implementation. They saw any attempt to reform the electoral system as a threat to their entrenched positions.
Governor Sir Charles Dundas had consistently demanded that the House members take the necessary legislative action to end the archaic open system of voting, explaining that it had no place in a twentieth century Bahamas. In his Speech opening the 1939 session of the General Assembly the Governor made the following remarks:
Measures for institution of the secret ballot will, I trust, be carried to conclusion during this session. My views thereon have undergone no change, nor have I been made aware of any valid objection to this reform. My sole object is to ensure the utmost purity in the conduct of elections by abolition of a system which is admittedly open to abuse, and I cannot think that the rightness of this aim is challengeable, or that its achievement should be subject to conditions.
The House of Assembly eventually and reluctantly passed the Ballot Act on 5th June 1939. The Act provided for:
• The abolition of multiple and open voting and the introduction of the secret ballot
• The compilation of a register of voters
• The appointment of an attorney as Revising Barrister
• The appointment of the Provost Marshall as Returning Officer and
• The creation of polling divisions.
The Bay Street Boys who dominated the political and economic life in the Bahamas for over one hundred years were no democrats and at best were reluctant participants in any reform to the political process. Intransigent in their commitment to maintain the status quo, they grudgingly agreed to the enactment of the Ballot Act, and even then, restricted the provisions of the Act to New Providence and limited the effective duration of those provisions to a few years, thus ensuring that voting in the islands remained open and ripe for manipulation and corruption.
In 1934, Sir Harry Oakes relocated to The Bahamas. He was a multi-millionaire who fled Canada obviously to evade excessive Canadian taxes. On the 4th July 1938 at the urging of, and with the assistance of his friend, Harold G. Christie, he ran for and won the Western District seat vacated by A F Adderley. Sir Harry Oakes’ tenure in the House of Assembly was brief and rather undistinguished. He resigned the seat in 1939 after only a year in the House and accepted a “call up” to the Legislative Council.
The by-election to replace Sir Harry Oakes in the Western District was historic as it was the first ever election to be contested under the provisions of the Ballot Act. Milo B. Butler who won that by-election, thus became the first member of the House of Assembly to be elected by secret ballot.
On the 23rd May 1949 the following amendment was made to The General Assembly Act:
The returning Officer shall not allow any person or persons so selected and the candidates or their respective agents, any person or persons appointed in writing by the Provost Marshal for the purpose of assisting the Returning Officer, and the registered voter then about to vote in the polling place.
The amendment had the effect of preventing other persons from witnessing or coercing the voter in the polling place and the practice of open voting finally ended in the Bahamas in 1949. Governor William Murphy expressed his satisfaction at the enactment of the provisions of secret voting in this way:
The General Assembly Elections Act 1946, by extending to the Out Islands the voting by secret ballot in Parliamentary Elections, introduced for New Providence alone a few years previously, has finally removed at least one obsolete feature from the Constitution and, by reducing the possibility of undue influence at Elections, marks an important advance in democracy as known in these islands.
The Governor was quite right. The removal of the system of open voting was but one hurdle achieved in the process of electoral reform. There were many more reforms to be made to the electoral process before free and fair elections were realised. The enactment of the secret ballot was merely the first of the necessary reforms.
28 March 2023.