MY suggestion last week that we begin to reconsider overseas voting has ignited some debate and much vitriol. It should be noted that I am not the first commentator to raise this matter—former Speaker of the National Assembly and Attorney, Ralph Ramkarran, did so about two years ago. I have been called everything from a madman to a PNC lackey to the bearer of some secret plan to rig the next election.
It’s yet another reflection of the state of our public discourse, which is generally bereft of reason and a willingness to confront difficult and complex ideas. And where there is some debate, it is often driven by age-old political fears and grudges. We tie ourselves up in political knots and then debate and discuss ideas from that imprisoned state.
With all due respect to the views expressed, there are many arguments that can be made against overseas voting. But the three that seem to be popular are about the weakest. Here is a fact – 93 countries currently have overseas voting. There must be some benefits if so many countries continue to go that route. Another fact– many Guyanese are already eligible to vote in our elections if they travel home and register.
Most of the opposition to the suggestion is grounded in the fear that overseas voting would be a source of electoral fraud. This is a legitimate fear, given the fact that it was part of the electoral-rigging machinery during the period of rigged elections. But Guyana and the world have moved on since that time. One can never guarantee a completely fair election anywhere in the world—there will always be suspicions and charges of fraud. But, to allow that fear of fraud to dictate who should or should not vote is unacceptable.
If we follow the logic that fear of fraud should prevent us from considering overseas voting, we might as well abolish elections in Guyana and many countries around the world. Can someone demonstrate to me how there is the possibility of more fraud in overseas voting than at home? At the height of rigged elections, there was far more rigging at home than overseas.
In Guyana, while there are still instances of electoral malpractice, these have not amounted to an overall, corrupt system– we have returned to a system where our elections are generally free and fair. All our elections since 1992 have been certified as fair by the local and international monitoring agencies. There have, of course, been charges of malpractice by the losing contestants. This is to be expected in a country where the politics are extremely charged.
Where there have been big attempts at fraud, as occurred in 2011 and 2015, these were detected and exposed. The key here is vigilance — both at the polling places and at the centre where the votes are tallied. I am making the point here that an electoral machinery geared to detect fraud is central to fair elections, whether people are voting in Guyana or at some overseas centre. So, the big fear of fraud we hear about should there be overseas voting is grounded less in reason.
The other objection to overseas voting is the fear that it would be marred by ethnic voting. Well, we have ethnic voting at home—should we then abolish elections at home? This is another area of our politics from which we must move on. We must stop complaining and crying about ethnic voting—it’s stale. People vote interests, not issues. If people vote their ethnic interests, they are merely seeing issues through ethnic lenses. If people don’t vote along ethnic lines, they will choose some other interest—maybe gender or class or region or generation. What makes these other interests less destructive than ethnic interests?
If we return to overseas voting, we would be granting rights to Guyanese living abroad.
Since when fear of fraud and ethnic voting are disqualifications from voting at elections? If the colonials had said that they were withholding the franchise from Guyanese because of fear that we would have ethnic voting, or that there would be fraud, where would we be today as a country?
The other complaint about denying overseas voting is the other stale retort that if people don’t pay taxes in a country they shouldn’t vote in that country. Guyanese overseas remittances amount to over US400 million dollars — approximately 20 percent of our GDP. If that’s not akin to taxation, I don’t know what is. In fact, that amounts to much more than if they were paying taxes in Guyana. And let’s not forget that there are many Guyanese living in Guyana that don’t pay income tax, simply because they don’t earn an income. So, should we deny them the right to vote?
I agree that when we have to confront big issues such as overseas voting, there must be extensive discussions and our collective fears must be taken into consideration. I am also conscious that the political parties would not touch this issue unless they are convinced that it would bring electoral advantage to them. But, we must begin to grow up politically and in the process, muster the courage to look at old initiatives in new ways.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org