Editorial — 09 February 2019
When will GoB announce new date for ICJ referendum?

Party self-interest has so gripped the 2017 UDP that they have found a financial excuse to delay re-registration until after next year’s national municipal elections, even though re-registration is an urgent necessity in order for Belize to prepare for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) national referendum. Legally, re-registration should be held every ten years, so a third re-registration should have been held from the year 2007. It is ten years delayed, and counting… Amandala editorial, July 1, 2017

One of the hosts at the government’s radio and television station, Wave, made special effort on Monday to explain why a delay in the delivery of new voter registration cards will have no effect on the referendum set for April 10. The host, Mr. Joe Bradley, pointed out that it is standard practice for voters to turn up at the voting booths without their voter registration cards, and that nobody gets turned back if their names are on the registration list.

Mr. Bradley’s point that nobody gets turned back if their “papers” are in order is absolutely true. We don’t recall if it was mandatory to produce your voter registration card in the 1998 general election, which was held shortly after a re-registration of citizens was completed that same year. It is quite likely that it was, but maybe it wasn’t enforced.

Section (2C) of Representation of the People Act Chapter 9 (THE SUBSTANTIVE LAWS OF BELIZE REVISED EDITION 2000) states that no person may, at any election, “vote without first producing the original identification card that had been issued to him or proving to the satisfaction of the presiding officer that although he has been registered he has not been issued with an identification card or that the identification card issued to him has been lost or destroyed and that his identity can be established from the duplicate identification card if kept by the presiding officer: Provided that the presiding officer shall-(i)state to the candidates or their agents then present in the polling station his reasons for permitting an elector to vote without first providing his original identification card;(ii)record his reasons and sign the record so made;(iii)maintain a list of the names and registration numbers of voters voting without producing their original identification cards showing the number of the ballot paper issued to each of them.”

Indeed, it being that no sane person wants to hold up the voting process, only the rare person would have shown up to vote without their voter’s card in 1998, their having received a new one just a few months previously. It is in the laws of Belize that every ten years the voters list should be “cleaned” up. Over time some persons lose, misplace their cards, so the presiding officer would be obligated to be tolerant, that is, not press voters if they showed up without it.

But immediately after a re-registration exercise, voters turning up without their voter’s card would be the exception.

We have not done any research to find out how presiding officers handled the matter of voters ID Cards in 1998, because that, important as it is, is a non-issue compared to another that plagues the process: Belizeans are being disenfranchised during the present exercise and it will take some time for the matter to be properly straightened out.

In 1998 there were similar difficulties with the re-registration process. Mr. Urban Reyes, the Chief Elections Officer in 1998, stated in a paper, “Voting For Democracy”, published online by aceproject.org, that “one of the major difficulties experienced during the re-registration exercise was that some applicants were unable to provide satisfactory proof of their citizenship and age, as required by the Constitution…The re-registration exercise brought out the fact that the civil registry has not kept up with the times…For those whose births were not registered, late registration of birth became a tedious process.”

Mr. Reyes explained that his department had to “revive an old policy” to “facilitate the registration process.”

The present government, being in charge of the last re-registration process (conducted by a UDP government 1993-1998), should have known that it was not an “overnight” job. But, as the Amandala said in its editorial on July 1, 2017, there was a narrow political objective injected into the mix, and this was the business of the 2018 Municipal Elections.

The UDP knew what it was about in respect to the 2018 Municipals. Staying with the old voters’ list gave the advantage to the incumbent. The UDP cared more about winning local elections than getting it right for the referendum. Municipal elections were held in Belize on March 7, 2018, and the Elections and Boundaries Department embarked on a 3-month crash job between July and September 2018, with the hope of getting the re-registration of voters close to complete by December 2018.

We arrive now in February, roughly two months before the most important decision in our lifetimes, and there are too many things to be sorted out in the re-registration process. The voters’ list will not be ready for April 10, 2019.

This is not about the local 3 and 5-year election cycles; this is for future generations, and therefore the worth of every vote increases, exponentially. It is fifty percent plus ONE; every vote counts. One vote could decide the outcome of the referendum. The government has no choice but to make the decision to delay.

A delay will give three-fold benefits to Belize. It will give us time to ensure that all Belizeans who qualify under the present registration system are processed and in possession of a new voters’ card. It will give us time to study the special agreement more. And it will give our leaders the chance to right a great wrong that has been done to Belizeans living abroad.

A six-month delay will give our leaders sufficient time to put a system in place for Belizeans abroad who want to participate in the referendum. Those Belizeans who don’t agree with Belizeans abroad getting a chance to vote in this referendum can’t have given sufficient thought to this matter. A Belizean not being here right now doesn’t mean their hearts are dead to home. As long as you are a Belizean national, born on this soil and interested in your birth home, you should have the right to vote in this referendum.

There can’t be a need for a referendum to decide if Belizeans abroad have that right. And there can’t be any excuse that it will be a complicated matter to allow them to participate. This is not a local election to decide on representatives. They don’t need to register in a district for this. All they have to be is Born Belizean, Baan Ya.

A cut-off point, for practicality, could easily be set. Belizeans living abroad who have visited home at least once in the last five years, made some financial contribution (cash, box of clothes, business investment), or contributed to the discourse in the nation, should have the right to register and vote. It is possible that many Belizeans abroad will decide to leave the decision to Belizeans at home. But they should have that right.

Admitting that their judgment on the selection of the date for the referendum was wrong might prove a little embarrassing for the party in power. We could find fun in the irony that the UDP’s desperation to win the Municipal Elections in 2018 has us unprepared, not ready for the critical April 10 referendum. But this is about us, Belize, not the face or fortunes of a political party. Belize will be better for the delay. We get a chance to perfect the voters’ list. We get more time to discuss the special agreement, and we get a chance to right a wrong we did to our brothers and sisters who are presently living abroad.

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Deshawn Swasey

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