The Overseas Voter Issue

Charles Wilkin, QC

The issue of the “overseas vote” is a difficult one with arguments on both sides. If we really want to improve democracy in St. Kitts and Nevis this would be the ideal issue to put to a referendum with all political parties agreeing up front a) to respect the decision b) to implement it and c) not to bring voters in by charter. Let those overseas voters who are on the current voters list and who really cherish the right to vote pay their way. Such referendum would be democracy in action but given the narrow mindedness of our politics it is wishful thinking.

My personal view is that voting should be tied to residence not citizenship or domicile. The latter gives the right to vote to too many people who have no real ties to the country like the woman who voted in a Nevis election and when she came back to St. Kitts and was asked how it went said she did not know Nevis was so nice. In our tiny constituencies the overseas vote could swing an election leaving the residents to take the consequences while the overseas voters return to the USA or Canada or England, or Dubai for that matter.

Also, the overseas vote is not consistent with a representative system based on constituencies. It is extremely difficult to establish a fair formula for registration of voters who have never lived in St. Kitts. Some who have participated in the corruption of the current system by registering where they like often use the argument that why shouldn’t they register where they like if overseas voters can register where they like.

I hear the argument that many in the diaspora take a great interest in the country and some have property and invest here. That number is however miniscule compared with the tens of thousands (no-one can ever know the exact number) who qualify to register and vote under the current system, a large proportion of whom have never put foot on the islands. Maybe those who make that argument might pursue it to its logical conclusion and suggest investment criteria for overseas voters to qualify.

If we had proportional representation there would be a better argument for the overseas vote. There is another suggestion from the late Justice Lloyd Williams that there be one seat in the National Assembly for a representative elected by all overseas voters. Even that would be fairer than the current system. Those suggestions would however require changes to the constitution which ain’t about to happen.

Those who support the continuation of the overseas vote should say whether they are satisfied with the current corrupted system of voter registration and if not what system should replace it to accommodate resident and overseas and Commonwealth voters in a fair manner.

The thing which is to me most abhorrent about the overseas vote is the charter of aircraft to bring in the overseas voters which is illegal but done by all sides.

Charters require large campaign contributions. Large campaign contributors do not give money out of the goodness of their hearts. They do so because they expect a heavy return; and who pays for the return- the taxpayer not the politicians. Secretive, uncontrolled campaign finance is the biggest threat to our democracy. The overseas vote relies on it and is therefore part of the threat. Our elections should not be available for purchase and sale as are our passports.

Integrity in Public Life legislation would provide each politician the chance on an annual basis, by making a declaration of his financial affairs, to allay suspicion which results naturally from the huge campaign monies floating around. A Code of Conduct such as that contained in the 2013 Integrity in Public Life Act would also help.

We also need proper procurement legislation to govern the award of government contracts which many suspect are given in return for campaign finance contributions and other favours. The lack of a transparent process fuels that suspicion.

So while we discuss the overseas vote let us also discuss the connected missing parts of democracy to which I have referred- the referendum, campaign finance, integrity in public life and government procurement legislation. And let’s have an open and frank discussion without concern for party or fear of offending anyone. The politicians of St. Kitts and Nevis have been playing around with our democracy for party political benefit for too long.