Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Edward Seaga | Diaspora voting not possible

Published:Sunday | June 25, 2017 | 6:00 AM

I don't know if there is any country in the world that has referred to its overseas migrants as a diaspora. The word originally applied to the dispersion of the Jewish people beyond Israel, but it has come to be used also in reference to the dispersion of other people beyond their homeland. This is appropriate to the movement of a migrating people such as Jamaicans.

People from Jamaica can be found in many, many countries in the world, mainly in the Americas (North, Central and South), Europe and Africa. It is said that more persons of the diaspora live abroad than the nearly three million who reside at home.

People in the diaspora still love their original homeland and many regret having to seek a better life for themselves and family abroad. Many would return if the country could offer them worthwhile opportunities. Sadly, this is not the case. The country missed the boat of prosperity because the colonial rulers did not find it necessary to develop the country. However, in the 1950s, England accepted a great number of men to keep England clean and to drive buses. Also, female nurses were required largely to replace vacancies of men who were killed in World War II because English women were unable to learn to be nurses since they had to take up factory jobs vacated by the men who fought in the war.

In the 1950s, some 60,000 Jamaicans left to take up these vacancies that became necessities in England at that time. Other large numbers followed to Canada and America. These are the recent members of the diaspora.

This massive group has interest beyond just sending to their families remittance funds, which is the largest pool of foreign exchange flowing into Jamaica annually. They have now expressed the desire to have a vote in Jamaican general elections. This is a subject that has arguments on both sides of the issue.

 

WEAK SYSTEM

 

The most important argument is not yes or no. It is how? This query is full of arguments that expose the weak insides of the voter system of the country: the exploitation of the voting system in Jamaica by various malpractices and devious activities like voting in the name of other persons, multiple voting, and the use of political violence to prevent the turnout of electors in areas where the vote would not support the political cause of the intimidators.

These practices were on both political sides but reached their high point in the 1970s when rampant bogus voting, especially in the state of emergency in 1976, made the electoral system one in which no opposition party could expect to win. The awesome malpractices used then, and in succeeding by-elections, made the electoral system a waste of time. It was at that time that I publicly advised the prime minister, Michael Manley, that the Opposition, which I led, would not participate in any further elections unless drastic reforms were made to clean up the system to provide "one man, one vote".

Manley was then in Washington, seeking financial support to save Jamaica from bankruptcy. With the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund waiting to see how he would react, he promised to take action when he returned. This led to a committee of both sides agreeing to the removal of elections from ministerial control and placing them under an Electoral Advisory Committee selected by both sides.

This was a great improvement that took the new government by the JLP through the elections of the 1980s. But after a change of government in 1989, again to the PNP, it was back to further perversion in the election of 1993 when rogue police were widely used to prevent opposition supporters from voting in critical areas. It circumvented the main safeguards introduced and focused on preventing the electoral system from operating properly by perverting the voters' list, late delays, and no delivery of identification cards to verify voters enabling politically chosen persons to vote. Supplementary voters' lists were delivered late, or not at all. It was the worst election ever held.

The three main media houses of Jamaica issued 66 editorials and articles condemning what was occurring. One returning officer voiced his objection, calling the voters' list the worst he had ever seen. Another returning officer was murdered. This led to a proposed boycott of the election by returning officers, but after a meeting, it was decided to continue and to do their best. The result was a huge win for the PNP, well beyond credibility.

The Opposition then decided that high-technology fingerprinting would prevent any elector from voting if his/her fingerprint did not match the actual print collected at designated electoral offices, or by electoral officials on house-to-house visits across the island. This would provide verification of voters.

It solved the principal problem, and when the new system came into use in the 2002 general election, it worked well in the particularly troubling areas that were selected as a sample.

The electoral system in Jamaica now has much greater credibility because of the use of voter verification, and it must be protected from a return to the previous criminal practices, which was one of the main reasons for the near civil war in Jamaica in the 1970s.

The new system ensures that no one can vote without being listed on the voters' list. The listing is done in the presence of a party agent in each constituency to make sure that the system is not perverted.

So what constituencies in Jamaica would be used to accommodate outside voters not resident in Jamaica? How would they be registered and where? New York, Miami, Atlanta, Toronto, London, and many places not in the legal and constitutionally prescribed system?

Is there any idea how many illegal voters would be listed without verified accounting? I could go on and on, but it's not necessary. The bottom line: it is not possible!

As much as we desire to thank the diaspora for its work, opening the voter system to the incredible malpractices of the past is not the way. I am certain that with proper explanation of how the system works, the diaspora will understand that we want to continue the success that has been made with the 'one man, one vote; same man, same vote'.

Let us continue to move forward with building more and better relationships that will be of greater pride to all Jamaicans.

- Edward Seaga is a former prime minister, the chancellor of the University of Technology, and is a Distinguished Fellow at the University of the West Indies. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.