This is an exceptionally emotive issue. It was infamously abused in elections of 1968 and 1973, restricted in 1980 and finally abolished for the 1985 elections. It was a major device for the rigging of elections with the objective of establishing one party, authoritarian rule. It helped to destroy Guyana’s economy and its good name. We sank into international shame and disrepute.
But the fact is that Guyanese residing abroad have a right to vote under the Constitution. This right is not unique. The Constitution of the United States of America provides for the right of US citizens to vote and various subsequent amendments provide that the right cannot be abridged for a variety of reasons. This right is accorded to citizens serving in the armed forces overseas, citizens temporarily working or studying overseas, citizens on vacation, this right is also extended to US citizens living abroad permanently, even if they never lived in the US providing they are born of US parents who registered the birth. During recent US elections the overseas vote, though not decisive, was significant enough for candidates to pay attention to it.
The Asian Age in its edition of January 9, 2010, reported Indian Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, speaking at the bi-annual gathering of overseas Indians called the Parvasi Bharatiya Divas, as saying in connection with this issue that “he recognized the ‘legitimate desire’ of Indians living abroad to exercise their franchise and have a say in who governs the country, and indicated that they might get voting rights as early as the next general elections in 2014.” He is further reported to have said: “I sincerely hope they will get a chance to vote by the time of the next general election.”
In Guyana the issue is not one between the Government and Opposition. It is not one for the Parliament. It is not one for discussion or debate. It was the intention of the drafters of the Independence Constitution, and the legislature that passed it, that Guyanese wherever they may be, should have the right to vote. It was the intention of the drafters of the Burnham Constitution and the legislature that passed it, albeit fraudulently elected, that the right should remain. The Constitution Reform Commission of 2000 made no recommendation to change this provision. In fact the issue was never raised. It is correct to assume therefore that all stakeholders have consistently supported the right of overseas Guyanese to vote.
Certainly there was a powerful struggle led by the PPP from 1968 onwards to ‘abolish’ the overseas vote. However, no call was made for its constitutional abolition. The argument centred on the rigging of the overseas vote and the dismantlement of the entire structure. During this period the constitutional right was never raised or challenged.
While the rigging of the overseas vote, exposed in two British TV films, “The Trail of the Vanishing Voter” and “Mr. Burnham Has Done It Again,” was thoroughly unlawful, depriving Guyanese resident overseas of the right to vote is equally unlawful.
I argue below that Guyanese resident overseas are being deliberately denied the right to vote, a right to which they are entitled under the Constitution of Guyana. I do not attribute wrongdoing to any person or body. In fact I uphold their integrity. But the failure to observe the requirements of our supreme law, the Constitution, has resulted in this situation.
The Guyana Constitution provides that every Guyanese over the age of 18 has a right to vote. It provides for no residency requirement. Thus, whether a Guyanese resides in the USA, UK, Canada, Surinam, French Guiana, Barbados, Antigua, or elsewhere, he or she is entitled to vote. The Elections Commission which has the constitutional responsibility of ensuring that elections are lawfully conducted, has a duty and responsibility to ensure that the constitutional provisions are observed by providing Guyanese, wherever they may be, of the opportunity to vote at elections.
While elections can be held at anytime, they are constitutionally due before the beginning of December, 2011. The Elections Commission, therefore, has ample time and opportunity to set in place the procedures to register the names of Guyanese desirous of exercising their right to vote and of providing a system of enabling them to access ballot papers and casting their ballots.
The first requirement in enabling Guyanese not residing in Guyana to vote is to facilitate their registration as voters. Currently, there is no form of independent and separate electoral registration for Guyanese resident in Guyana, much less overseas. There never was, since Independence.
The National Registration Act was passed in 1967 or thereabouts to provide for the national registration of Guyanese, resident in Guyana, and for the issuing of Identification Cards. It had nothing to do with elections the electoral roll for which was the responsibility of the Elections Commission. It never discharged this role during the era of election rigging. Near to election time a law was passed authorizing the extraction of the electoral roll from the national register. This was then deemed the preliminary voters list which was put up for claims and objections. Overseas Guyanese could not register under national registration and had no opportunity of registering during claims and objections unless they were in Guyana and had a Guyana address. Moreover they would have to return to Guyana on election day to vote.
The Elections Commission has now taken over responsibility for registration under the National registration Act and the same flawed constitutional procedure as above applies for the creation of the electoral roll which deprives overseas Guyanese of the right to vote.
The actual process of establishing the mechanism to vote can be addressed when the constitutional obligations of the Elections Commission are fulfilled by establishing registration procedures for overseas Guyanese to register to vote in the coming elections.